ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Research to be presented at the Natural Product Expo West trade show on March 10 identifies taste, texture and quality as unmet needs in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. The research, conducted by 84.51°, a part of The Kroger Co., in partnership with the Plant Based Foods Association, also identified plant-based cheese as a category with particular issues.

“Through this research, the primary pain points for consumers of plant-based foods are poor taste, texture and quality,” said Shannon Weis, lead insights consultant for 84.51, Cincinnati.

The research focused on the top 50% of spenders in plant-based meat, milk and cheese.

“We used that data set to behaviorally validate and recruit those consumers,” Ms. Weis said.

Eighty-one total participants behaviorally defined as plant-based meat, milk and cheese buyers in the past six months participated in 60-minute online conversations to discuss unmet needs in the categories. Participants were between 25 and 64 years old and 78% of them were female, identified as more likely to be plant-based consumers and the primary grocery shoppers in their homes.

“Regarding taste, the research came out pretty strongly that it’s an opportunity area and that people want to see the health benefits in these options,” Ms. Weis said. “A primary theme we saw was taste and health going together with people wanting less sodium and healthier options. But it needs to taste good.”

Adding to the challenges product developers may face is different age groups may expect different taste experiences.

“Within the data you do see that younger consumers do not want their plant-based foods to mimic animal-based products, while more mature consumers prefer products that are similar to the animal-based versions in both taste and usage occasion.”

Clean label also was identified as an unmet need by the research.

“The research told us people are interested in fewer, healthier, more nutritious ingredients,” Ms. Weis said. “As far as health, the more mature groups talked about wanting less processed food.”

The types of ingredients called out in the conversations included “fillers” and “artificial ingredients,” said Ms. Weis.

“Consumers are wanting plant-based foods to be cleaner to help them live a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “That was one of the three major pain points we saw with this study.”

Specifically, 54% of the research participants agreed with the statement, “I dislike that even though plant-based options are healthier … there are still hidden unhealthy ingredients that people are not aware of.”

Plant-based cheese was identified as a specific category with notable unmet needs. Seventy-three percent of the people participating in the research agreed with the statement, “I wish there was a better plant-based cheese alternative that tasted like regular cheese, melted well and didn’t have a grainy texture.”

Regarding how companies should use this research, Ms. Weis said it’s an opportunity to identify areas of improvement.

“A company needs to start with what is in their wheelhouse,” she said. “My advice is take a deep dive into the category you play in and seek to understand consumers through more in-depth questions and allow for open-ended responses.

“What do they like? What do they dislike? What are they looking for in plant-based foods in your categories? How can you solve those pain points? What are the options you can start working on? Take a deeper dive into those focus areas and prioritize the attributes important to plant based consumers.”

As an example, Ms. Weis noted convenience also was identified as an unmet need.

“What about better on-the-go options?” she said. “What about easier to prepare options? Bring forward solutions for consumers while also offering inspiration.”