Diet trends can sometimes feel as indicative of an era as popular songs or who won the Super Bowl. Shrek 2 topped the box office, and your parents were on the South Beach Diet: The year was 2004. Right now, thanks to the explosion in plant-based meat, one of the most popular diet trends is being a “flexitarian” — people who eat meat, but also eat vegetarian and vegan alternatives, too. But just how popular is this trend? New data is beginning to reveal the answer.
A new report from the data gurus at Nielsen found that 98 percent of people who purchased plant-based meat also bought regular meat. Furthermore, only 27 percent of that same group purchased plant-based meat more than four times in the past year. Those numbers imply that a large majority of the people buying fake meat are regular meat eaters that only occasionally dabble with buying plant-based alternatives. And importantly, Nielsen also found that only 21.6 percent of U.S. households bought meat alternatives in the past year, period. As a result, it would seem that only about one in five people fit the definition of a “flexitarian” when it comes to meat — and depending on who you would consider to be a “hardcore” flexitarian, the number would be even lower than that.
And yet, Nielsen also found that 43 percent of respondents said they would be willing to swap plant-based meat for real meat. So what’s the discrepancy? Convenience and availability may be a big issue: Meat alternative sales were only about 1 percent the size of actual meat sales, in part because there’s just a lot more meat to buy. And cost itself could be a prohibitive factor: Nielsen pegged the price of meat alternatives at 10 cents per gram compared to 4 cents per gram for beef and 2 cents for chicken, pork, and turkey.
Still, as Dairy Reporter recently explained, if you open up the idea of a flexitarian to include plant-based dairy products as well as plant-based meat, the term may reach a tipping point. Research from the Hartman Group found that 51 percent of the people they surveyed had purchased either dairy or meat plant-based alternatives in the past three months. Based on this, their researchers concluded that being flexitarian is “no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.”
In the end, the idea of a flexitarian is a bit of an enigma because, unlike other diets, it’s not restrictive; it’s inclusive and “flexible.” But looking at the term in its broadest sense, as plant-based alternatives become more mainstream, it would seem that diets fitting the flexitarian mold will continue to become more mainstream as well — whether you choose to define yourself by that term or not.