Study: Plant-Based Attains Popularity with Gen Z

woman holding fork in front table, plant-based

An eye-opening 81% of college students will choose a plant-based food offering when it’s the default option, according to a recent study led by foodservice provider Sodexo.

And these Gen Zers are more interested in plant-based options than previous generations.

“A lot of college-aged individuals are much more aware of not only the health benefits of plant-based eating, but of its impact on the impending climate crisis,” said Matthew Kenney, CEO of Matthew Kenney Cuisine and co-founder of Ntidote. “Educational content and information about climate change has never been as ubiquitous as it is now, and that evokes a reaction from the younger generation due to the sheer urgency of it.”

Knowing this, what can food manufacturers do to capitalize? Let’s break down the study and see what experts had to say:


The study, which was led by Sodexo, along with the Food for Climate League, and Better Food Foundation, observed dining halls at three universities. The study noted what would happen if plant-based dishes were presented as the default option versus a meat option. Eight meals were offered in the dining halls, which offered one vegan and one meat option.

The meals were then presented in two different ways – plant default and control days. On plant default days, only the vegan options were put out, but students had the option to ask for the meat alternative. On control days, meat and plant-based options were offered side-by-side.

The eventual findings: on plant-default days, 81% of students stuck with the vegan option – which was an increase from the 31% of students who regularly chose the plant-based option. The findings also showed that students were more likely to express satisfaction with plant-based meals on days when it was the default option.


Based on findings from the study, Sodexo concluded that using plant-based as a default option can help create a positive attitude toward a vegan meal, and that normalizing plant-based foods could make this option even more popular among Gen Z-aged consumers.

“This study confirms what we’ve seen repeatedly – that Gen Z students are not only open to plant-centered dining…they feel good about eating in places that (feature) plant-based meals,” Jennifer Channin, the Better Food Foundation’s executive director, said in a press release.

“These findings give us hope that the plant-centered food system our world needs is easier to achieve than we used to think.”

The Food Institute spoke with a few experts who weighed in on what can be done to make plant-based options more appealing to the masses.


Fergus Smithers, head chef at plant-based food subscription service Grubby, told The Food Institute that getting in front of school-aged consumers is key. Free samples are a great example of this and it’s also a great way to get feedback from them, Smithers said.

‘In my opinion the best way to get students to choose plant-based food options is to make them relatable,” the chef added. “Design dishes and menus around recipes that students are likely to be cooking in their student halls. There’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Marketing expert Kay Gowrinath said it’s essential that companies like food manufacturers look at the driving factors for college-aged students.

“Speed, convenience and cost should be considered alongside ethical components, including packaging choices and sustainability,” Gowrinath, the managing director of Xquisite Productions, said regarding plant-based products. “A strong brand that’s well-positioned and culturally inclusive will tend to do well, especially if they’re creative enough to connect with the customers in real life and via the digital world in which they’re immersed.”

The Food Institute Podcast

The reasons people eat a specific product can vary even in a single day. That begs the question – what are consumers looking for in their food products throughout a day, a week, and a year? Kerry’s Soumya Nair and Shannon Coco joined The Food Institute Podcast to share Kerry’s research on the fluid dynamics of consumer eating.