The Popularity and Misperceptions of Plant-Based Diets

Above: The specialty pie In Ricotta da Vegan is a plant-based hit at Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, New York.

A new national consumer survey commissioned by Danone North America reveals that many people are still confused when it comes to plant-based terminology, with the flexitarian eating style at the top of the list. “The demand for plant-based foods is predicted to remain strong, and a flexitarian style of eating has been declared the food trend of the year,” says Kristie Leigh, director, health and scientific affairs, at Danone. “But the new study found that while 20% of Americans identify as flexitarian or reducetarian (another similar trend that is focused on reducing instead of eliminating meat), more than half of Americans (54%) were not yet familiar with the term.”

In addition, despite it seeming etymologically obvious to some—after all, “flex” is right there in the name—the study found that only 24% of Americans correlate the flexitarian diet with being flexible and nonrestrictive. Younger generations showed higher levels of understanding, yet only 1 in 5 adults were correctly able to define the flexitarian eating style.

Here are a few more statistics from the study worth noting: While 84% of American adults indicated that they were familiar with veganism, this eating approach has the smallest following (1%), followed by only 3% of Americans identifying as vegetarian (ovo-lacto, meaning that dairy and eggs are allowed). Many Americans (42%) still eat meat and dairy nearly daily.

5 Myths and Facts About Plant-Based Eating

To counteract some of the confusion, Danone released a report on some common myths (and facts) about plant-based eating that were highlighted in its study. “While interest in the topic continues to grow, there is a ton of consumer confusion when it comes to understanding the various plant-based eating styles out there,” Leigh explains. “The new consumer survey revealed several major myths on plant-based, and specifically flexitarian, eating styles.” Here are their findings:

Myth 1: Flexitarian isn’t a plant-based diet.

Fact: More than 9 out of 10 Americans (91%) did not consider flexitarian as a type of plant-based diet. Flexitarian is in fact a plant-based diet, with meat and dairy in moderation. This style of eating is abundant in plants and is still considered a plant-based or plant-forward approach.

Myth 2: A flexitarian diet is difficult to follow.

Fact: As the name suggests, flexitarian is a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian,” which are the main benefits of this approach. Yet nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans mistakenly believe that a flexitarian diet is not easy to follow or maintain over time.

Myth 3: A plant-based diet is likely to be inadequate in protein.

Fact: It is possible to consume adequate amounts of protein when increasing plant foods. Similarly, nearly three-fourths of Americans (73%) do not think plant-based dairy alternatives, like soy, provide high-quality protein. The fact is that within the milk alternative category, soy milk, for example, has a high protein content—almost the same as cow’s milk.

Myth 4: A flexitarian diet is a weight-loss diet.

Fact: Switching to a flexitarian eating style may result in weight loss, but the benefits go far beyond a number on the scale. It’s not a quick, short-term way to lose weight. While 41% of Americans see weight management as one of the top reasons to switch to a flexitarian diet, flexitarianism is more of a lifestyle, with multiple health benefits beyond weight. For example, few Americans (25%) recognized a flexitarian approach offers muscle and bone health benefits, although Gen Z was more likely to identify the muscle and bone health benefits of a flexitarian approach (36%) compared to all other age groups.

Myth 5: A flexitarian style of eating is suitable only for adults.

Fact: Among parents in the group surveyed, 20% said their children were following a flexitarian or reducetarian approach, while others reported a vegetarian (4%) or vegan (5%) approach. Nearly nine in 10 (89%) believe that plant-based dairy alternatives are a nutritious option for children, and many parents are already including more plant-based foods and beverages in their children’s diets.

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