Here’s some food for thought: What if thought came before food?

For Gen Z, that might just be the case. According to recent research, taste is not the primary driver for our youngest generation when consuming alternative protein products. Instead, the majority of Gen Z say they’re willing to sacrifice flavor for a product that aids causes that are critical to them.

52% are willing to sacrifice taste for issues they care about

That’s just one of the fascinating findings that emerged from a national online survey of more than 1,000 American consumers of all ages (sponsored by C.O.nxt and conducted by Menu Matters). Alternative proteins may be causing a paradigm shift in the food industry in more ways than one.

How widespread are alternative proteins?

They’ve gone mainstream. According to the survey, 71% of 18- to 29-year-olds have tried a plant-based burger, the most popular form of alternative protein. Among those who try alternative proteins, most continue purchasing. While these were initially pushed out by restaurants, the pandemic shifted that dynamic and retail now leads the way in this category. At home every day, alternative proteins gain more of a foothold.

What benefits do alternative proteins bring?

It depends on who you ask. Younger consumers believe that alternative proteins can aid environmental, energy and hunger issues they’re passionate about. Baby Boomers are less likely to believe in any ancillary benefits.

76% said they had increased their consumption of alternative proteins due to concerns about climate change

But over 76% of those surveyed said they had increased their consumption of alternative proteins due to concerns about climate change. Many from Gen Z believe alternative proteins will help feed the world more efficiently, reduce energy consumption and help conserve water. They want their eating habits to reflect their beliefs.

Seriously, is taste really not the primary driver for a food item?

Over half of consumers surveyed said the taste of this food item isn’t a principal concern. That’s not just Gen Z. Over half of ALL consumers claim that flavor comes second.

This isn’t a best-of-both-worlds commitment either. Consumers acknowledge that alternative proteins don’t match up to animal proteins in taste yet. Only 25% of those surveyed believe that a burger substitute was as delicious as the original.

All that being accounted for, taste and texture of alternative proteins are likely closing the gap too. Only 18% of consumers surveyed said they weren’t interested in trying alt protein food at all now that these items have become more mainstream and accepted. Plus, there’s a possibility that some consumers were optimistic about their future behavior, and still might default to taste when the decision comes.

What does the future hold?

Nearly 91% of consumers say they plan to reduce their consumption of animal proteins, with most claiming they are searching for a balance between animal and alternative protein sources.

87% of consumers say they plan to incorporate both animal and plant-based foods into their diet

As the world becomes more diligent about preserving our planet, the trend of putting the environment first when it comes to food will likely grow with it. Companies and brands that successfully enact and communicate impactful sustainability efforts will position themselves strongly in the minds of not only younger consumers, but the overall population. Balance will be crucial.

“What we’re finding with Gen Z consumers is that they are far more realistic than Millennials who often had far more ambitious and not entirely realistic goals,” Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters, said. “Gen Z, and consumers generally, want to feel better about their choices.

Looking ahead, products that seek to edge consumers toward plant-based need to consider it in increments and consider that smaller changes will be more palatable than larger ones and create communication accordingly.”

How companies speak about themselves, how they market their products, how they innovate and develop—it’ll all be impacted if consumers put their principles over their palate.

C.O.nxt Insight

At C.O.nxt, we’re fully prepared to help companies navigate this new reality. Our team of subject matter experts focuses on food and agriculture—farm field to processing to entrée on a plate. We always have our finger on the pulse of food trends that are shaping the industry. We can help you build a new brand, protect a current one or target the right audiences. Let’s talk when the time is right to handle your next strategic marketing and communications challenge: Marcy Tessmann,