Meet The Flexitarians

As part of our commitment to uncover leading-edge trends driving consumer demand for fresh produce, Produce Marketing Association recently commissioned Opinion Dynamics Corporation to assess the state of U.S. vegetarianism and vegetarians’ attitudes about fruits and vegetables in particular. We defined a vegetarian as someone who doesn’t eat beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish or animal products of any kind as part of their regular diet.

We also studied “flexitarians” — consumers defined as flexible with their diets, who eat a less rigid but still mostly vegetarian diet with meat consumed only occasionally. Our findings were quite interesting and relevant.

Flexitarians are increasingly flexing their eating power around the table. Fourteen percent of households surveyed had at least one flexitarian. Of that sub-group, 32 percent of respondents reported the level of flexitarian eating had increased in the past few years.

But don’t dismiss vegetarians. While only 4 percent of households reported at least one vegetarian, 29 percent of that group reported their level of vegetarian eating has increased. I recall the impact on our family eating patterns when our son Gregg, then a vegetarian, spent a summer at home, and we found our dining habits shifting to more vegetarian meals as we experimented with family meals.

Combined, these two groups — vegetarians and flexitarians — account for nearly one in five households, a potential customer base that should command the attention of all produce marketers. That large percentage of both groups report such high increases in fruit and vegetable eating in recent years is notable. How many consumer goods marketers can point to increases of this magnitude?

We, as for produce marketers, should spend more time focusing on what we can do to improve the eating experience of these, our best, customers. Even more important than their sheer numbers, these consumers routinely (and increasingly they tell us) put our products at the center of their plates, making them very important customers indeed.

We should pay attention to feeding these vital customers — literally and figuratively. Customers tell us they want attractive pricing and promotions, high-quality goods, product information and usage ideas, such as recipes for home. Because they focus so much on produce, they need our assistance in bringing variety to their eating experience.

What motivates vegetarians and flexitarians to consume a diet so dependent on fruits and vegetables? Better health and nutrition is especially important. Eighty-seven percent of vegetarians, 83 percent of flexitarians and 62 percent of other consumers rate fruits and vegetables as “extremely important” to a healthful diet. It simply makes sense, therefore, to target an already receptive audience with our marketing than risk having our messages and money fall on deaf ears.

The basics of Marketing 101 stress the value of keeping and growing the share of business from the customers one already has. And while existing vegetarians may be eating close to as much fruit and vegetables as they are able, the growth in the number of flexitarians bodes well for making inroads into old habits. The more we can move people from the ranks of flexitarians to those of vegetarians, the bigger will be our impact on growing produce consumption.

The repertoire of fruits and vegetables among vegetarians and flexitarians is not as broad as one might think. For example, berry consumption is not nearly as high relative to other basic items among these groups as I would have expected. We have an opportunity to expand the variety of fruits and vegetables our most loyal and dedicated customers eat. In addition, the opportunity to get vegetarians to trade up to higher-value produce items should not be missed. New varieties, flavors, sauces, marinades, other add-ons, have great potential in driving the vegetarian consumer to higher-value produce and related items.

During a recent three-day conference I attended at the Culinary Institute of America campus at Greystone in California’s Napa Valley, I was struck by the magnificent flavors this country’s top chefs impart to simple produce items. Watching them sauté vegetables in a variety of flavored oils, marinades, and sauces, I got an appreciation of how staid my own approach to veggies has been. The fruit relishes and salsas they concocted made my mouth water.

As leading culinarians from leading university dining operations around the country talked about the growth of vegetarianism among students, I realized that while health is clearly important to vegetarians and flexitarians, we can never forget the three most important motivators for repeat eating: taste first, taste second and taste third.

We also must work to ensure these customers have their demands met in all the places they buy and consume food. I expect both vegetarians and flexitarians like to eat out as much as anyone, and the foodservice industry increasingly offers more vegetarian or otherwise plant-centric dishes. With about half the average family’s food dollars spent on food prepared away from home, the produce industry needs to make sure our foods are well represented on foodservice menus, as I’ve recently written in this space. That’s a win-win for us and the foodservice operator to whom our foods bring the added value of lowering food costs and dialing up flavors to meet customers’ demands — while also boosting dishes’ eye appeal.

Get to know the flexitarians and vegetarians well — they are a growing group of old friends who are important new customers. Best of all, with younger ones coming aboard at an increasing pace, this group will be around for a long, long time.