Consumers are seeking plant-based dairy alternatives, with a majority of Americans reporting an uptick in consumption over the last 18 months, according to new research fielded by Cargill.

As part of the study, Cargill sought to gain a deeper understanding of the plant-based dairy shopper, from their plant-based dairy consumption trends to their perceptions of how current product offerings compare to their animal-based counterparts. The survey was fielded in two waves, with baseline research was completed in February 2021. Then in July 2022, Cargill repeated the survey to pinpoint changes in consumer attitudes. 

The results suggest flexitarian consumers are playing an even larger role in the plant-based dairy marketplace. In the most recent survey, fewer consumers reported following vegan or vegetarian diets (9% in 2022 vs. 14% in 2021). The research noted an even larger dip in the number of consumers actively avoiding animal-based dairy products. In 2021, four in 10 consumers were dairy avoiders; in the July 2022 survey, that number had dropped to less than three in 10.

“Clearly, there’s a growing swath of plant-based dairy consumers who are open to both categories. Look in their refrigerator, and they may have conventional milk and a plant-based alternative sitting side-by-side,” explained Mark Fahlin, business development manager for Cargill. “It’s further evidence of just how mainstream the plant-based dairy movement has become.”

The company’s proprietary research also notes consumers’ increasing appetite for plant-based dairy products, with six in 10 respondents reporting a jump in consumption over the last few years. Plant-based milk remains the category driver; eight in 10 shoppers expect to purchase a plant-based milk in the future. However, consumers also showed heightened interest for other products in the plant-based dairy family. Half of shoppers said plant-based ice cream was a likely future purchase, while a third indicated plant-based cheese might soon be on their shopping list.

“More so than other plant-based sub-categories, we’ve seen purchases of one plant-based dairy product open the door for shoppers to trial another segment,” Fahlin said. “Plant-based milk is a common starting point, and often serves as a gateway to plant-based ice creams, creamers and more.”

While the research found strong interest for plant-based dairy products overall, it did highlight a few areas where consumers perceive traditional dairy products still hold an advantage. Nutritionally, more consumers rated animal-based dairy as a better source of protein, calcium and vitamin D. The survey also revealed opportunities remain to close the perceived texture gap between plant-based and animal based products. Four in 10 (37%) consumers said they prefer the texture of animal-based products, while less than one in three (26%) favored that of plant-based offerings. 

 Aligning with Cargill’s consumer research findings, Fahlin noted protein fortification is a priority for many of the company’s plant-based dairy customers. In response, Cargill and joint venture partner PURIS recently introduced PURIS 2.0, a pea protein solution that represents a noticeable advance in both protein solubility and flavor. As a result, PURIS 2.0 can be used at higher concentrations without diminishing product quality, enabling brands to address consumer demand for plant-based dairy alternative formulations with significantly higher protein levels, while also offering improved texture and flavor.