Although it’s still small, interest in plant-based diets is growing, says survey

More than half of all Americans would eat more plant-based foods if they had more information about the effect of their food choices on the environment, said a survey released on Thursday.

“Americans by and large are not eating a plant-based diet — we know that,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University, which released the survey with Earth Day Network. “On the other hand, they are very willing and interested in trying a plant-based diet and actually believe it would be better for their health.”

He said the results signal a shift, one that has been promoted by some as a way to combat climate change because of the carbon footprint of meat production, and by others for health reasons. “It suggests the wind is already at the back of this transition” to more plant-based foods, Leiserowitz said.  

Leiserowitz was part of a panel, sponsored by the Earth Day Network, that discussed the survey results Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington. The Earth Day Network is affiliated with Earth Day, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in April.

Although only 4 percent of Americans self-identify as vegan or vegetarian, 20 percent choose plant-based dairy alternatives two to five times a week or more often, according to the Yale project. Roughly the same percentage choose not to buy products from food companies that are not taking steps to reduce their environmental impact.

“Many simply don’t know yet which products are better or worse,” said Leiserowitz, which he called “a huge communication opportunity for food producers, distributors, and sellers.” 

Still, the survey found that plant-based diets are not among people’s top concerns; 70 percent said they rarely or never talk about this issue with friends or family. Nearly two-thirds said they have never been asked to eat more plant-based foods.

However, the poll found that 94 percent would be willing to eat more fruits and vegetables, and more than half said they would be willing to reduce meat consumption — about the same percentage who said they would be “very willing” or “willing” to try plant-based meat alternatives. Those products have recently been rolled out by fast-food giants like Burger King

Forty-six percent of survey respondents said they were also willing to try dairy alternatives, such as soy and nut milks. And 26 percent surveyed said they would be willing to try lab-grown meat as an alternative to meat from animals (though only 5 percent were “very willing” to try those products).

The survey of 1,043 American adults 18 years and older was conducted in December 2019 by Ipsos KnowledgePanel. The research was funded by Earth Day Network as part of its Foodprints for the Future campaign, which considers the “environmental impacts associated with the growing, producing, transporting, and storing of our food — from the natural resources consumed to the pollution produced to the greenhouse gases emitted.”

Cost, taste, and convenience can be motivators — or barriers — for trying plant-based foods. The survey found that half of all Americans (49 percent) think a meal with a plant-based main course, such as fruit, vegetables, or meat/dairy alternatives, is more expensive than a meal with a meat-based main course like beef, chicken, or fish.

“The perception that plant-based foods cost more is not true,” Leiserowitz said. “Yet that is a very important perceived barrier for many people.” 

“I’ve lived in places that even the grocery owner didn’t know what organic was,” said another panelist, Erick Castro, Founder of How to Be Vegan in the Hood

According to the survey, households with an annual income of less than $50,000 are less likely to purchase or eat plant-based diets. Twenty percent of lower-income Americans are also more likely to say they lack access to a nearby store.

“Food is ultimately about our identity,” Leiserowitz said. “It’s about our culture, it’s about our friends and our family. It’s something that we enjoy and gives us pleasure.” 

Consumers may have a negative perception of foods promoted by environmental activists, because they may receive a message that “You need to sacrifice, you need to eat these things that don’t taste good because they are better for the planet,” he said. “That’s not the way to engage people.”