The State of the Global Plant-based Protein Market

Demand for plant protein products is growing. To help you build winning products, our experts pinpoint exactly what consumers want

KerryDigest Fast Facts:

The plant protein market is rapidly expanding around the world, appealing to a growing segment of consumers through an almost limitless range of applications. This overview analyses:

  • The size and scope of the global plant-based protein market
  • Challenges in the plant-based protein market
  • Market segmentation for plant-based proteins
  • Global motivations behind a plant-based diet
  • Preferences for plant protein types and applications
  • Plant proteins by venue (home or foodservice)
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KerryDigest Full Scoop:

Plant proteins are experiencing their time in the limelight, with brands launching plant-based protein products in retail and foodservice chains launching plant-protein menu innovations. Consumers—including meat eaters and dairy lovers worldwide—are reciprocating with appeal and engagement, snapping up new releases such as meat-like plant protein burgers, plant protein lattes and plant-based protein meal kits.

This newfound interest in plant-based foods makes for plenty of opportunity in the global plant protein market, from dairy alternative beverages and veggie bites to meat alterative products that mimic the look, feel and taste of red meat or chicken. Manufacturers’ enthusiastic response to the trend is a double win for consumers: barriers such as availability and cost are diminishing as more plant-based protein products are launched in specialty, conventional grocery and foodservice channels.

But plant proteins come with their own unique set of challenges. For manufacturers, barriers surrounding the taste, texture and mouthfeel of plant proteins still exist. And, as consumers become more comfortable with plant proteins, they are questioning the sustainability, health, clean label and taste credentials of such products as well as the nutritional value.

To weigh in on the global state of the plant protein market we tapped the following Kerry experts:

  • Rebecca Fitzgerald, Plant Protein Marketing Manager, Europe and Russia
  • Christina Furlong, Market and Consumer Insight Specialist, Europe and Russia
  • Thomas Chai, Executive Chef, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa
  • Sui Lan Lim, Marketing Consumer Insights Analyst, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa
  • Soumya Nair, Marketing Insights Director, North America
  • Cian Leahy, Director of Culinary, North America
  • Marissa Mecalco, Marketing Analyst, Latin America—Mexico
  • Pedro Dell Agli Tatoni, Marketing Manager, Latin America—Brazil and South Cone
  • Mauricio Arrieta, Marketing Manager Meat, Latin America
  • Mindy Leveille, Marketing Manager Dairy and Plant Proteins, Global
The Size and Scope of the Global Plant-based Protein Market

While plant proteins had a humble beginning, appealing mostly to vegans and vegetarians, they have grown in audience size and scope, gaining acceptance amongst both flexitarians and traditional meat eaters.

Consider Europe, where only 1% of consumers claim to be vegan and only 3% are vegetarian, according to recent GlobalData research. Yet the plant protein market is trending heavily in Europe, extending from healthy snacks and beverages to plant-based indulgencecs such as loaded burgers made from meat alternatives.

In North America, Gallup polls reveal that the number of consumers identifying as strictly vegetarian or vegan remains steady. Since 1999, between 5% and 6% of the population identifies as vegetarian while those identifying as vegan has grown from 2% to 3% since 2012, the first year consumers were polled on the topic. While meat consumption remains mostly unchanged, interest in at least occasional meat- and dairy-free eating is growing, as evidenced by trends such as “Meatless Mondays” and a boom in plant protein launches.

Although Latin America has a strong culinary heritage in meat dishes, a relatively large number of people are turning to vegetable and plant-based dishes for reasons including variety, health and budget. (For example, in Brazil, following a recent governmental crackdown called “Operation Weak Meat”, which targeted some of the country’s major manufacturers, 23% of consumers now agree with the statement, "I’m eating less meat because of recent meat recalls.") Nielsen data from 2016 found that 10% of Latin Americans consider themselves flexitarian, 8% identify as vegetarian and 4% follow a vegan diet, numbers supported by the growth in recent plant protein products launched in Latin America.

In Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, there are also several motivators for meat- and dairy-free eating. Prevailing religious beliefs in some communities point local consumers toward a meat-free lifestyle. But even meat eaters are reconsidering their position: In 2018 in China, consumers ate an average of 41.8 kg per person of processed meat, according to Mintel. Yet 39% of consumers polled in one survey said they aim to reduce their meat intake for health reasons and at the recommendation of new governmental regulations that encourage protein alternatives including plants.

Predictions about what this amounts to financially vary by source. Some estimates of the rise of plant-based foods predict a CAGR of around 5% over the next several years while others, such as that from Acumen Research and Consulting, suggests a much larger growth of just over 9%. Regardless, these numbers reflect a growing consumer interest that extends far beyond those who completely eschew meat, corroborating the regional evidence that plant proteins are becoming mainstream.

plant-protein-quotes-estimatesplant-protein-quotes-estimates-img

One source that paints a fairly middle-of-the-road picture of the future of plant proteins is Food Trending. The company has collected past data on tonnes of plant protein products produced and revenue on such items while also making future predictions. The below chart shows past data and predicted for categories including ready meals (chilled and frozen); canned and ambient meals; meat-free products; breakfast cereals and bars; baby foods; and non-dairy cheese, yoghurts and milks.

Thousands of Tonnes of Plant Protein Products Produced

2013 2018 2023 forecast 2013-2018 CAGR 2018-2023 CAGR forceast
Europe and Russia 1622.3 2097.1 2550.8 5.27% 3.99%
North America and Mexico 1312.2 1937.1 2550.2 8.10% 5.65%
Latin America 341.8 480.2 608.0 7.04% 4.83%
Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa 3175.6 4027 4846.3 4.87% 3.77%
Global 6452 8541.2 10555 5.77% 4.32%
Plant Protein Product Sales in € Millions

2013 2018 2023 forecast 2013-2018 CAGR 2018-2023 CAGR forceast
Europe and Russia 8451.9 11589 14489 6.52% 4.57%
North America and Mexico 4859.8 9304.6 9304.6 7.73% 5.70%
Latin America 1056 2504.2 2504.2 12.30% 5.83%
Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa 7505.2 15452.8 15452.8 10.45% 4.61%
Global 19647.9 41786.3 41786.3 10.83% 4.93%

With growing demand, comes increasing supply: between March 2013 and February 2018 the global marketplace welcomed numerous new products that featured at least one plant protein ingredient. Meals led the way with 25% of new products fitting the plant-based protein definition, according to Mintel.

So far, many of the big winners in plant protein have been agile start-up type companies, which lit the market on fire just as the vegan trend was gaining mainstream acceptance. But there is still plenty of room for brands large and small to compete with the introduction of appetising products, especially those that are novel, appeal to existing customers and have stories that showcase sustainability.

Challenges in the Plant-Based Protein Market

In the past, because of a lack of plant-based food options, vegans and vegetarians were often less picky about products, accepting bland taste, so-so texture and longer ingredient lists. But as flexitarian consumers experiment with plant-based eating, expectations are changing. These eaters are used to high-quality food choices, and as a result plant-based products are being held to higher standards. Processors must not only build the protein base, but they also must format and flavour it.

For some manufacturers, this demand for top-notch plant-based proteins is outpacing the development of plant-based food technologies designed to combat the unique challenges associated with such products. In order to fix these, plant proteins must be part of an integrated plant-based food solution that address the below problems: designed to combat the unique challenges associated with such products. In order to fix these, plant proteins must be part of an integrated plant-based food solution that address the below problems:

  • Taste: Plant proteins often bring bitterness and green off-notes to a product, making taste modulators an often necessary addition.
  • Nutrition: Consumers are beginning to focus on healthier and higher quality protein sources, cleaner labels, recognisable ingredients and products that are easy to digest.
  • Function and Texture: Plant proteins can be gritty or crumbly, creating a need for ingredients that create smoother and more cohesive formulations.
  • Clean Label: Plant protein products may include ingredients that are easy for the consumers to recognise and understand, which is increasingly impacting appeal.
  • Sustainability: Having an authentic brand story rooted in the well-being of the planet and its people is important to consumers shopping in the plant-protein category.

There's one additional factor can complicate production, and must be taken into consideration during product ideation: there are two main types of flexitarian, each with unique and at times divergent needs when it comes to plant-based protein preferences.

plant-protein-quotes-2tyopes-imgplant-protein-quotes-mindy

Reluctant reducers are consumers of all ages who don’t necessarily want to move to plant-based foods—they are generally life-long meat and dairy consumers—but they feel they “should” because of advice from a health professional or encouragement from environmental activists. These consumers generally want plant food products that look, taste, smell and feel like meat, such as products that harken goods from the butcher shop.

Millennial and Centennial/Gen Z flexitarians (i.e., younger consumers) typically embrace plant-based foods for reasons including ethical concerns and Instagrammability. These younger, often idealistic consumers are part of the “Greta Thunberg Effect”, which denotes a movement toward plant-based products for sustainability reasons and because of the cool factor associated with having a purpose-driven life. The fact that plant-based foods can be novel and generate social media likes only heightens appeal. This market segment wants plant food products that don’t pretend to be something they’re not; instead of meat-like substitutes, they often want veggie-based products with a garden vegetable taste.

Market Segmentation for Plant-based Proteins

The above section details general characteristics of the flexitarians that buy plant-based proteins and foods: those who want meat-like products and those who want more vegetable-forward offerings. But who, specifically, is buying plant-based products?

In the UK, the early adopters of the plant protein trend tended to be younger consumers with more disposable income. This both fuelled and was fuelled by the online popularity of the vegan lifestyle on social media platforms such as Instagram. Although the trend is moving into a more diverse metrosexual space, plant-based diets are still more common amongst female consumers and consumers with higher incomes. As in much of the rest of the world, Millennials and Centennial/Gen Z consumers are driving plant protein forward. Because of their inherent scepticism, brands selling in Europe must deliver an authentic, trusted and real story via products with minimal ingredients, most of which are recognisable and good quality.

In North America as well, women, especially Millennials and younger, tend to be the core consumers of plant-based food and beverages. This is largely a group of health-focussed, affluent and college-educated Americans. However, here too, plant-based proteins are increasingly resonating with men who seek healthy products. There continue to be health- and sustainability-halos around plant-based foods, despite media reports that such products may be on par with animal meat, making plant proteins especially appealing to health-conscious consumers.

Not surprisingly, our research shows that a similar demographic is attracted to plant-based foods in Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. In these locations, younger consumers—especially well-educated professionals in their early 30s—are adopting a plant-rich diet in part to align with choices being made by their peers. Amongst older consumers, those who self-identify as “health-conscious” tend to be attracted to the perceived benefits of plant-based proteins.

In Latin America, Millennial consumers are the most enthusiastic—in part for ethical reasons—followed by Gen Xers who are interested in perceived health benefits. As elsewhere, this is especially true for consumers in these demographics that have money to spare. The "Silent Generation", born between 1925-1945, are the most reluctant, but 34% would still consider eating plant proteins if it benefited their health.

In a nutshell, around the globe, young consumers—especially well-heeled ones—are leading the plant protein trend, with wellness seekers also contributing to the category’s growth. Preferences among these consumer groups can be further mined during product innovation.

Global Motivations Behind a Plant-Based Diet

We know who wants plant-based foods and what they expect from these eating occasions. The consumer values that are leading the wants and trends around plant-based diets, meals and snacks include:

  • The Rise in Food Tribes and Selective Eating:
Some plant protein consumers are forced into this way of eating through restrictions such as allergies to lactose. Others are following self-imposed dietary rules, such as “vegan keto” diets, or simply want to be a part of a food tribe or community: #vegan has 83 million mentions on Instagram.
  • Growing Awareness of Ethical and Environmental Issues:
Many plant-based protein products have a strong sustainability story and claim lower carbon footprint than traditional protein sources. Health and sustainability are big drivers, due to a perception that plant protein products are more gentle on the environment.
  • Mounting Concerns Over Health: 
Plant-based products give the perception of providing consumers with a healthier alternative to traditional food and beverages. Over half of protein users want natural ingredients in their protein product, reflecting growing consumer demand for recognisable, simple ingredients.

Beyond these primary motivations, consumers are also attracted to plant-based protein for the following reasons:

  • Novelty: The biggest cohort in the plant-based meat alternative market are flexitarians who are interested in trying new things which are novel or innovative, such as through exciting flavours and formats.
  • Diet: In many regions, plant-proteins have a better-for-you halo and are perceived to be a healthy way to add vegetables and grains and potentially help with weight maintenance or loss.
  • Cultural Tradition: Some cultural and religious traditions lean toward a vegetarian diet. For example, some Chinese consumers eat vegetarian foods on specific days of the lunar calendar.
  • Trend and Influence: As consumers in developing nations see the rise of plant-based foods in more prosperous countries, the trend is gaining traction.
  • Food Safety: Some consumers—especially those in Asia—perceive plant proteins as being more safe than animal proteins.

Creating products with attributes, claims, messaging and more that speak to these values and interests will help elevate manufacturers in the plant protein space.

Preferences for Plant Protein Types and Applications

Consumers around the world are increasingly curious about the makeup of their foods and beverages. However, knowledge about the types and quality of plant proteins remains low. Vegans are an exception: this cohort tends to be the most informed because of their restricted diets and their interest in sustainability.

plant-protein-quotes-knowledge-imgplant-protein-quotes-mauricio

Like it or not, social media is one of the primary mediums fuelling the discussion about plant proteins and educating consumers. This gives brands a venue to tout the benefits of their specific plant-based protein sources and products.

In the UK, soya currently dominates the plant protein meat alternative category followed by mycoprotein. Those derived from wheat, pea and rice are also gaining market share. In the plant protien beverage and bar categories, the most common ingredients are soya, pea and rice protein. The dairy alternative market includes nut “milks” such as almond and pistachio and soya remains a big contributor along with coconut; oat milks are also starting to push through.

Historically, North American plant-based meat alternatives contained beans, lentils and legumes, while newer entrants are soya- and pea-based. Soya is also a common ingredient in plant-based dairy, with nut- and grain-based milks also taking a share of the market. Lab grown meats have created buzz across the market, highlighting another potential source.

In Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, mycoprotein is largely the plant protein of choice in retail and low-end restaurant. More expensive products such as the Impossible Burger—which had its first retail launch outside of North America in Hong Kong—are mostly served in high-end restaurants and bars. A Mintel survey of consumers in China found there’s a growing interest in less traditional protein ingredients. For example, many consumers would like to try protein drinks made from oat, red bean and black bean. 


During one recent 6 month period, Mintel found that 12% of adults in Brazil had eaten a vegetable-based burger and 9% had consumed a soy-based meat substitute. Of those surveyed, 40% said they preferred plant-based products that still delivered a meaty taste, and almost as many said they looked for organic ingredients in their plant-based food products. Amongst the preferred ingredients in LATAM are soy and chickpea as well as emerging protein sources such as pumpkin.

In the coming years, as the collective knowledge grows, some plant protein sources will naturally rise to the top of consumer preferences. Growing avoidance of common plant protein sources such as soya and wheat may tip the balance, as well as the types of claims that manufacturers are able to make related to each product.

For example, right now, claims tend to focus on protein source, amount of protein and fibre or the lack of additives, preservatives or gluten. However, there’s a continued emergence of callouts related to levels of Vitamin B12 and Iron, which appeal to the vegan market due to nutritional deficiencies. In addition, as technologies improve the taste, nutrition and overall performance of plant proteins, and as more plant varieties are tapped for their inherent protein value, the market will continue to change.

Plant Proteins by Venue (Home or Foodservice)

The consumer interest in cooking is influencing the plant protein market. For example, as Americans return to cooking at home, the market for retail plant protein products is reaching a stage of relative maturity. There are now multiple brands and product categories available including burgers, shreds, nuggets and meal kits. The same is true in the UK, where the majority of plant proteins are being prepared at home. Consumers may like this DIY approach due to cost concerns: Home prepared meals are a safe entry point for plant protein, as there’s relatively little financial risk compared to an expensive restaurant meal.

Plant protein beverages go against this at-home trend: beverages such as protein shakes and waters are generally purchased in retail stores, while dairy-based hot beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos are increasingly served up by baristas skilled at using dairy alternatives.

Of course, plenty of consumers are experimenting with plant proteins while dining out. Worldwide, a growing number of restaurants are dedicated to vegetarian or vegan cuisine, and many foodservice locations have at least one or two plant protein menu items available. In the U.S., chain restaurants including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Qdoba, Carls Jr. and White Castle, among others, have launched plant protein signature menu items. Datassential recently reported a 328% menu penetration growth for plant proteins, with the highest penetration visible in national chains and fast casual restaurants, especially in burgers, desserts and blended drinks. This trend can also be seen in Asia and beyond—around the world the number of restaurants offering meatless, organic and environmentally friendly meals is increasing.

Radicle by Kerry plant-based food solutions are designed to help brands create meat alterative and dairy alternative products that deliver on taste, nutrition, function and sustainability. To learn more about how our team of food scientists, chefs and nutritionists can partner with you to make winning plant-based products, contact us.

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