Just How Many People Are ‘Flexitarian?'

Plant-based meat alternatives may be all the rage, but plenty of people still eat regular meat, too.

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.

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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.

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