In recent years, there has been a lot of expansion and innovation surrounding plant-based dairy and meat alternatives in the United States, even with dairy and animal-protein manufacturers finding ways to enter the space, but the market’s potential is still being determined. According to The NPD Group, Chicago, the market for plant-based alternatives is still evolving, as consumers begin to leverage these items due to food allergies or the search for more healthful options.

A logical conclusion to the plant-based alternatives buzz is that more people are living vegan (avoids all animal products), vegetarian (avoids meat products) or flexible vegetarian (mainly vegetarian with some exceptions) lifestyles. However, NPD Group’s ongoing tracking of eating attitudes and behaviors states that very few consumers follow the most restrictive vegan/ vegetarian diets. Only 1% of the population claims to be vegan or vegetarian, and 8% say they are flexible vegetarians, which means about 27 million shoppers actually claim to follow a plant-based diet such as vegan, vegetarian or flexible vegetarian.

The 27 million consumers claiming to follow a plant-based diet aren’t necessarily consuming plant-based dairy and meat alternatives, however since approximately 25 million actually consume plant-based dairy or meat alternatives. Annual eatings per capita of dairy alternatives have grown from 19 in 2013 to 21 in 2016, or 6.8 billion eatings, and the consumption of plant-based meat alternatives has declined from 5 in 2013 to 3, or 972 million eatings, in 2016.

Shoppers who purchase plant-based alternatives still pales in comparison to dairy and meat consumption. For example, compared to the 3 annual eatings per capita of plant-based meat alternatives, the average person consumes center-of-plate meat 73 times annually, or what amounts to a total 23.3 billion eatings. Annual eatings per capita of milk is 117, or 37.9 billion eatings, compared to the 21 annual eatings per capita of plant-based dairy alternatives.

“Plant-based dairy and meat alternatives may not appeal to everyone, but today's consumers are taking a personal approach in their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, and plant based alternatives are among the many choices at their disposal,” says David Portalatin, vice president, industry analyst for food and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Expanding consumer choice and empowering them to craft their own path may provide growth opportunities for manufacturers and retailers in this space.”