Marketing Matters

‘Plant-Based’ — Should Produce Claim It or Not?

The food label is increasingly widespread, but the fruit and vegetable industry should instead focus on its products’ natural simplicity.

By Lisa Cork

I recently attended the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, CA. Picture the IFPA Global Produce Show… only bigger. When walking the floor, it was hard to not be overwhelmed by the key words and claims the ‘natural products’ industry is using to promote their food. 

Here are a few examples I came across:

Trunola Granola: No added sugar, gluten-free, vegan, organic, kosher, low sodium, good source of Vitamin D, supports immune function, rich in antioxidants. Their tagline: “Trust in what’s Tru.”

Cure Plant-Based Electrolyte Drink Mixes: Vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, no added sugar, plant-based, science-backed.

Mighty Yums: ‘Plant-based Fun for Kids.’ This Kraft Lunchables-like product is a plant-based alternative, boasting their Turkey & Cheese or Pepperoni Pizza is 100% plant-based, nut-free and non-GMO.

Oatsome Organic’s tagline was, “Better Body Foods” and made claims of being whole grain, gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, no added sugar and “deliciously drinkable.”

Ceres Gluten Free Desserts boasted they were soy-free, gluten-free, low-carb, allergen-free and plant-based, with their slogan, “Healthy never tasted so good.”

There were very few non-plant-based food marketers at the show, and I found myself walking up to the real-meat sausage or real-dairy cheese companies asking, “Are you made from real meat? Real dairy?” 

What this question made me realize is that new food product development and marketing is in a weird place. At a time when research tells us that post-Covid, among all generations, there has never been more interest or demand for health and wellness foods, somehow lab-created, plant-based foods have morphed into a wellness solution. But the sad fact is that ‘plant-based’ does not mean healthier or real, as the nutrition labels prove. Case in point—Yo Eggs, as seen at the Expo. While they promote that they are plant-based, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, and sustainable, the trade-off is the unnatural ingredients that differentiate a real egg from a plant-based one.

When looking at the plant-based trend, the marketer in me contemplated whether this was a trend that fresh produce should be leveraging more. Analyst Mordor Intelligence predicts the Global Plant-Based Food and Beverage Market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of a little over 9% between 2024 and 2029. As we continue to see fresh produce consumption remain stagnant or decline, one can’t help but look at the plant-based growth trend and not feel a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out). 

My perception is that plant-based demand is driven by Millennial consumers who are entering their earning prime and who are educated, as well as socially and environmentally conscious. 

They view plant-based as a solution to meet their health needs and environmental concerns. But what about the next generation? How do Gen Zers feel about plant-based and if fresh produce should be capitalizing on the trend?

Given I am currently lecturing 80 Gen Z students every week in my Food Marketing and Produce Marketing classes at California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo, I decided to ask them about their perception of plant-based foods and marketing fresh produce as ‘plant-based.’

There was a definite consensus and 80% said “no”–do not market fresh produce as plant-based. Their comments tell the story.

“When I hear ‘plant-based,’ I assume the product is manufactured and made up of multiple ingredients. Fresh produce is just ‘plant.’ Emily E.

“I avoid food labeled plant-based because the foods I have seen are all highly processed. I would love to see more produce used in plant-based products though, like could cauliflower find a way to be plant-based chicken?” Holly B.

“While I do consider produce plant-based, the title plant-based is for products that have other additives and are not natural and real.” Hannah O.

“I don’t look for plant-based as I believe in consuming real products – not foods produced in a lab.” Akira K.

“I don’t eat plant-based foods as they are man-made and not real or grown.” Charlotte T.

In my experience teaching university students, I think Gen Z has a more cynical and mistrusting attitude toward food trends like plant-based, which I believe will benefit fresh produce in the future. However, in the interim, we can learn from today’s plant-based marketers in the following ways: 

Make bulk fresh produce more convenient. Ideas like Mann’s Air-Fryer vegetables appeal to Gen Z’s who want health and convenience but lack vegetable-prep skills and are short on time.

Make more emotive connections. Younger consumers love CPG marketing that links a product’s benefits to their mental and physical wellness interests. 

Never assume the current generation knows the specifics of produce’s health benefits. Consumers want particular aspects of wellness, e.g. digestive health, sleep and energy. How can fresh produce link its nutritional benefits to these specific needs?

As a plant, fresh produce is more real and wholesome than anything plant-based. We just have to figure out how to communicate this benefit more effectively. 

  • Lisa Cork is the chief executive of Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd and Adjunct Professor of Produce Marketing at Cal Poly State University in California.