NPD researchers say the demand for meat-free meals has spiked among U.S. consumers, and fast-casual chains would be smart to expand their non-meat products, the Web site fastcasual.com reported.
While the number of strict vegetarians in the U.S. has hardly fluctuated since 1990, the demand for meat-free meals has grown. An estimated 1.5% of the U.S. population is vegetarian, said Harry Balzer, vice president of consumer and retail market research group NPD.
That percentage does not account for the vast number of people who often choose to forgo meat for the day. Less than a third of American meals and snacks include meat, fish or poultry, according to NPD.
"The issue is not whether they won’t eat meat, fish or poultry, but if you need to eat it every single day," Balzer said at fastcasual.com. "The real change here now is that that people are asking for vegetarian items. It’s become a part of all Americans’ diets for the day, or the meal, just not for their entire life."
Other researchers say the rise in the number of consumers with occasional aversions to meat is a result of greater awareness about the nation’s food supply and production, in tandem with negative headlines about beef recalls and the treatment of animals.
But consumers are also becoming increasingly health-conscious on the whole. A February 2008 IRI report focusing on trends in consumer packaged goods showed that consumers are even weighing health implications when purchasing packaged food and beverages.
Consumers are looking for more “functional” food and beverages, essentially items that contain specific ingredients to deliver specific health benefits, such as digestive-health items, antioxidants and immunity-boosting products. This trend is evinced in the exceptional growth rate in food categories like energy drinks, soy milk, tea and enhanced water, the IRI report said.
The IRI report revealed eight critical trends affecting retailer and manufacturer growth this year, ranging from the evolving role of food and beverages as “health solutions” to consumers’ focus on multi-tasking, time-saving and “do-it-all” products.
The report found new energy delivery systems–everything from caffeine-infused snack products to natural herb-formulated foods and beverages like Diet Pepsi Max – will be the hallmark of new product growth across numerous categories.