A Fundamental Shift: Plant-Based Growth

Plant-based has been having a moment, and it shows no signs of slowing. Here’s what’s driving demand, how brands are staying ahead of the curve, and what’s on the horizon for foods and more.

“Plant-based foods sales grew to $7 billion, a 43% increase, in the past two years,” shares Julie Emmett, Senior Director of Marketplace Development, Plant Based Foods Association. “This growth is 2.5 times faster than total food sales and indicates a fundamental shift in consumer adoption of plant-based foods into their diets.”

Category growth is being driven worldwide by Flexitarians, or Reducitarians, according to Julia Stamberger, CEO and Co-founder of Planting Hope: “In 2022, up to 50%+ of people worldwide identify as flexitarians, people who are purposefully cutting back on animal proteins in favor of incorporating more plant proteins into their diets.”

Why is this population rising? Emmett provides an overview: “The fastest-growing consumer motivation to purchase plant-based foods is planetary health, led by Gen Z and younger generations. While taste, price, and convenience are the primary purchasing drivers, we’re seeing an explosive and sustainable growth of plant-based foods, driven by consumers’ embrace of the significant environmental, social, and health benefits of eating plant-based. Brands’ commitment to continually innovate is meeting consumers’ desire for great taste and texture. Hundreds of new products are introduced each year to meet consumer demand. With rapid expansion in both grocery stores and in fast-casual and fast food, over 80% of all Americans have tried plant-based foods and 78% are repeat buyers.”

Also worth considering: There are many people who can’t eat certain animal-based products, for whatever reason, including health, and plant-based allows these populations to try new dishes, and recreate old ones. “A large portion of the population are sensitive to animal products,” notes Stamberger. “More than 70% of the globe is lactose-intolerant, for instance, making plant-based dairy a better choice for health.” To maximize Planting Hope’s impact—and ease life for those who need it—the company focuses on pantry staple categories, offering sesame milk through Hope and Sesame, plant-based snacks through Mozaics and Veggicopia, and multi-plant grains through RightRice.

It’s also a way that consumers can make a difference in their daily lives, says Michelle Ferguson, VP Marketing, Miyoko’s Creamery: “I think the majority of people are turning to plant-based foods because they want healthier and more nutritious options. There is also a growing number of people who are becoming more aware of the impact animal agriculture has on our planet, on the people who work within the industry and on the animals, so more people are adopting either a vegan diet or even flexitarian, where they are just substituting a few meals a week. People understand that they can have an impact on these big issues by the decisions they make with their forks. The growth in this category is not a short-term fad, but is reflective of the growing consciousness in regards to health and sustainability.”

In addition, Amy Boyer, Chief Commercial Officer, Aloha, lists one more influential element: “I think some of it is the Lizzo factor,” she says. “She makes it very well-known that she eats a plant-based diet on her social channels, but in a very fun way. Plant-based food has become more accessible, more common, and more inclusive—it is not just for vegans, it can be for anyone.” For many, plant-based may well seem cool.

 

3 Reasons Consumers Make the Shift…

Personal health. “The health benefits of eating more plants have been well researched,” says Ken Krasnow, Chief Marketing Officer, Dr. Praeger’s. “Health organizations including the U.S Dietary Guidelines for Americans, World Health Organization, American Diabetes Association and American Cancer Society have been touting the benefits of plant-based foods and cautioning against high amounts of processed meat consumption for some time now. Furthermore, many people have experienced incredible health-related results from reducing meat intake.”

To that, Gael Orr, Director of Marketing, Once Again Nut Butter, adds: “As plant-based diets become more mainstream, shoppers are looking beyond novelty plant-based products and seeking whole-food options that provide real nutrition, like Once Again’s lineup of nut and seed butters. Our natural and certified organic products provide a sustainable source of pure plant-protein that is delicious simply spread on toast or can be easily incorporated into a variety of wholesome recipes.”

Plant-based products can deliver a bevy of nutrients, as well. “Our Hemp Fuel protein powder, for example, contains 20g of protein per serving, all nine essential amino acids, fiber, healthy fats, and minerals,” notes Dan Schulz, Innovation Officer, ECS Brands. “It’s also water soluble, so it doesn’t fill you up, and it tastes delicious. When you get protein from hemp, you get all the nutrition and protein you need.”

Martin Williams, President and Co-founder of Above Food, shares that Above Foods’ brands—which include New Ocean, Tuno, Eat Up!, Farmer Direct Organic, and Culcherd—are leveraging nutrient density in pulse products for snacking and baking, gut-health benefits in alt dairy, and regenerative products turned into gluten-free oat-based pizza crusts with 42g protein, gluten-free oat bagels with 21g protein, and a wide range of baking mixes.

Planetary health. “According to a report by the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization, ‘the meat industry has a significant impact on water, soils, extinction of plants and animals, consumption of natural resources and global warming,’” Krasnow quotes. “People are aware of the facts because they are meaningful and easy to remember. For example, Stanford University reports that the meat and dairy industries alone use one-third of the Earth’s freshwater.”

Christine Mei, CEO of Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch, bundles this up with curiosity. “We’ve seen the plant-based industry grow exponentially over the last few years as more brands and products have come to market. We can contribute this to a few factors but the most prevalent being the growing number of curious consumers eager to expand their flexitarian palette. More consumers are becoming aware of their carbon footprint and sustainability efforts, and see eating plant-based products as a way to make a personal impact.”

The focus on planetary health should extend beyond the product, suggests Stamberger: “Just as innovation is being pushed in the formulation of plant-based products, innovation is also bringing more sustainable packaging solutions to market. As of this year, our Mozaics chips are packaged in NeoPlastics packaging film, which can be disposed of in any waste stream and will degrade quickly in landfills, releasing a harvestable biogas.”

Animal health. “Most Americans believe that animals raised for food deserve to be treated humanely,” Krasnow asserts. “Yet, most of those animals are raised in factory farms while suffering in cruel conditions. Those who would like to reduce meat and dairy consumption for these reasons, but aren’t ready for drastic measures, can start by adding meatless Mondays to their meal plan and changing plate proportions so meat takes up less space than delicious veggie-based foods.”

Best Practices for Claims & Transparency

Claims help consumers understand the impact of what they’re buying, but if consumers see false or even just weak claims, they may lose faith. Above Foods’ Martin Williams shares that his company is working against this: “For our products and brands, we lean heavily into attributes that can help qualify and quantify the health and environmental impacts. When we talk about being nutritious or what we call nutrient dense, we have claims that we can back up, like having complete proteins, or having gut health benefits, or having category-leading macro nutrients like protein and fiber, or having an industry-leading Gluten-Free standard.

“With respect to sustainability,” Williams continues, “we want to deliver proof points against this, versus just relying on greenwashing platitudes, which is far more common than most people know. So, for some of our brands, this is in the form of Organic products or Regenerative Organic Certified products. For all of our products, we supply the base ingredients and protein so we can control for the fact that they are all created through regenerative agriculture practices, including no-till farming and the addition of soil biologicals to improve soil quality. Our belief is that supply chain transparency and nutrient density will be amongst the most important and valuable attributes, and that is what we’ve built across each of our nine brands.”

…and 3 Reasons They Repeat Buy

Convenience. People are busy, and they don’t want to sacrifice health or flavor. Brands are starting to cater to that. One example: Once Again’s newest launch. “This year we launched a snack product that aligns with consumers’ interest in grab-and-go, ready-to-eat foods,” shares Orr. “Once Again’s new graham cracker sandwiches are the first sandwich crackers on the market that are both certified organic and gluten free. Available in peanut butter and sunflower butter flavors and also vegan and part of our Honest in Trade program, they’re a snack the whole family can enjoy.”

Another example: OhSo Tasty, a line of gluten-free soups containing noodles made from a sea vegetable called Kanten, that can be eaten right out of the cup, one minute after adding hot water. Still a third example: MiSOgood, offering flavors of miso—some soy-free—that can be used as seasonings or to make soup in less than a minute. Offer options that are useful both for taking to work or school, and that allow home chefs to cut down on cooking time, and you’ll give shoppers easy ways to incorporate plants into their lifestyle, no matter how things are changing day-to-day.

From another angle, plant-based is convenient because it’s healthy, without being a diet in the traditional sense of the term. “This isn’t about adopting a cumbersome diet,” Krasnow says. “It’s an overall approach to eating. There’s no need to fast or fret about calorie counting. It only requires bringing a little more consciousness to one’s diet to eat more plant-based and fewer animal-based foods.”

Lauren Kahner, Marketing Director, Follow Your Heart, points to convenience from still another angle—it’s getting more and more possible to go plant-based without leaving anything behind, and in some cases, without trying anything new, which builds a sense of ease, positive feelings, and trust: “Consumers are seeing the wide variety of offerings in the market and are realizing that there are great tasting alternatives out there that leave them feeling satisfied. Plant-based eating is achievable without significantly changing your diet. You can still have that delicious, juicy burger with melty cheese and creamy mayo, and it’s all plant-based. Every time a consumer has a positive experience, it continues to build trust in the category.”

Taste. “If food doesn’t taste good, it just won’t work for the duration,” asserts Boyer. “Trial is one thing, but repetition is the most powerful sign. Aloha has been unwavering on taste and quality, never cutting corners on ingredients or flavor. In an increasingly competitive plant-based world we can’t afford to not deliver on our promise of helping people along their happier paths to healthy—starting with making it easy for people to enjoy what they put in their mouths.”

Krasnow agrees: “The Good Food Institute found taste to be the primary driver of consumer purchases of plant-based products. At Dr. Praeger’s, we specialize in creating great-tasting, healthier food. A recent blind taste test, conducted by Acupoll, revealed that Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers beat top competitors on taste, texture, appearance, aroma and types of vegetables used. Most consumers stated that Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers are heartier, more satisfying, and better for everyday meals than other top brands. When consumers read the nutritional information on the packaging, they were 30% more interested in purchasing Dr. Praeger’s products.”

Danny O’Malley, Founder and President of Before the Butcher, added his voice in support of this category. “Demand for our products specifically comes from the taste and texture that separates us from most of our competitors. Even with the large-scale health concerns, people won’t buy or continue to buy plant-based meat if it doesn’t taste good or lead to a positive meal experience.”

This area still has room to grow, says Shulz. “Manufacturers will continue to improve pleasurable culinary experiences. Of course people like to be healthy but they are far more strongly influenced by their taste buds and stomachs. That’s where the money is. Give people pleasure that just happens to be healthy and it’s a winning combination.” ECS is looking to provide that healthy pleasure: “At ECS Brands, we are working on an innovative way of extracting and purifying the protein from not only hemp seeds but also the plant biomass that gets discarded after CBD has been extracted from it. The results are clean white protein powders of high purity and neutral taste and the byproducts are also quite valuable so we expect this to quickly become the premier plant-based protein once we launch.”

Hand-in-hand with taste comes comfort, says Erin Ransom, SVP Growth—Marketing, Sales, & Product Innovation for Tofurky and Moocho. “Tofurky products are specifically appealing because they’re comfort-food-forward. A large part of plant-based demand is driven by younger consumers entering the category—those consumers are voting with their dollars for industries that give back to the environment, rather than taking from it, but they’re not looking to sacrifice on their eating experience. Tofurky products aim to satisfy deliciousness first, so one doesn’t feel as if ‘doing good’ requires giving up on familiar food or traditions.”

Good marketing. “It is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Williams. “Much of the new product innovation consumers are increasingly exposed to through marketing is plant-based, so naturally this is top-of-mind for consumers.”

This will likely have a much broader effect as time goes on, suggests O’Malley, simply because of a bit of a trickle-down effect. “This category will continue to grow exponentially as younger generations grow up with these products as a staple in their daily diet. The first years of any food industry serve as a mass consumer test. Once consumers accept these products as a staple of their diets, this industry will embed itself as a compliment to the animal protein market worldwide.”

Plant-Based Beauty

Plants aren’t just food—they’re skincare, too, and they’re big in skincare. “The plant-based cosmetics industry is projected to reach $20 Billion by 2025,” shares Sophie Lilley, VP Marketing, Thayers Natural Remedies, citing GrandView Research. “This is driven by increased consumer knowledge around what they put into (and onto) their bodies. Each year, we see more promising data on efficacious plant-based ingredients. With more robust data we can create more solutions.”

Thayers is working to meet the needs of increasingly educated customers. “We can harness the power of Certified Organic Witch Hazel, Aloe Vera, Snow Mushroom, and more, to provide intense hydration benefits. The next frontier for our brand is a transition to ingredients made using Green Science, which, simply put, is using science to enable the sustainable cultivation of ingredients and extract the best natural origin ingredients through cutting-edge technology. At Thayers Natural Remedies, we are inspired by the powerful and effective skincare solutions that nature can bring us, like Certified Organic Witch Hazel, a mainstay in our Facial Toners and Mists. This is the fundamental reason the brand has been a fixture in medicine cabinets for 175 years—it’s always been about naturally derived ingredients and efficacious products that provide results.”

Where Plant-Based is Going…

Looking to the future, Emmett gave this broad look at the category: “We are seeing innovation across a number of categories, and when our 2021 Retail Sales Data is released this spring, category standouts will be even more clear. Based on current trends we’re seeing across our membership and the broader industry, innovations in plant-based chicken, bacon, eggs, and seafood are gaining prominence. Sales of plant-based eggs grew by 168% percent the past year—illustrating the incredible potential for innovations. Many of these products use different nutritious ingredients like mung beans, oats, peas, chickpeas, lentils, artichokes, and fava beans. We’re also seeing brands pushing the envelope and stepping into upcycled ingredients to make plant-based milk.” And, a bonus: The pandemic has slowed growth in one space, but Emmett says it’s coming back. “We are excited to see plant-based foods expand in prepared foods in both the deli and bakery departments. This area of innovation was disrupted by the pandemic but is now a priority for retailers for expansion, and plant-based foods companies and ingredient suppliers are well-positioned to partner with retailers in this area.”

Other areas in which the industry will improve:

Mimics. “Recent plant-based growth has been fueled by what some call ‘mimic’ or ‘alternative’ meat,” Krasnow notes. “Technology has made it possible to imitate the taste, texture, aroma and mouthfeel of animal meat. The popularity of these products has spurred unprecedented competitive activity. Today, brands must find new ways to stand out across a spectrum of health and taste. Expect big news on this front from Dr. Praeger’s.”

Seconding that: Jill Dexter, VP/GM, Gardein. “For many years, consumers associated plant-based products with vegans and vegetarians, and a veggie burger was the most common offering. But a rise in flexitarians has sparked growth not only in the size of the audience, but in the diversity of plant-based foods that we offer. Because flexitarians enjoy the taste of meat, products that look, cook and taste like meat are sought after.” To that end, Gardein has introduced the Ultimate Plant-Based Burger and Ultimate Plant-Based Chick’n in tenders, nuggets, and filets, which are intended to offer the taste and texture of meat.

Also in this category: whole-muscle meats, which O’Malley sees coming up quickly. “In the very near future—later this year!—we will start to see plant-based whole muscle meats hit the market. i.e., steaks, chicken breasts, pork loins, etc. This will be a natural and exciting evolution for the plant-based meat industry.”

Follow Your Heart’s Kahner suggests that without good mimics, plant-based will always miss out on consumer dollars. “For plant-based innovation, we need to stop looking for ‘new’ and start looking for ‘better,’” she says. “We see the focus being on plant-based cheese innovation. Without moving plant-based cheese products towards dairy equivalency, the category will not reach its full potential. Continuous enhancements will be made across our cheese products to improve flavor, texture, and functionality. The goal is to make plant-based cheese more accessible to the consumer in their everyday usage occasions. Recent innovation from Follow Your Heart includes our Dairy-Free Bleu Cheese and Feta Crumbles. These are the first-to-market dairy-free crumbles and they are delicious, satisfying, and creamy with all the crumbly goodness of their dairy counterparts. Further proof that the category is continuously evolving providing positive experiences to consumers.”

A suggestion from Ferguson: Products that apply traditional techniques may have an easier time attaining that texture and accompanying positive experience. “Miyoko’s has transformed the art of creamery by applying it to plant milks. The fact that we use traditional creamery techniques (such as culturing and fermentation) and pair it with the best plant milks allows us to create products that have an incredible flavor and strong nutritional values that many ‘substitutes’ or ‘alternatives’ don’t provide. Miyoko’s Creamery’s newest innovation is our liquid vegan pizza mozzarella. This incredible new product takes vegan cheese to a whole new level. It melts, bubbles and browns just like traditional mozzarella cheese, and most people can’t even taste the difference.”

Summing it up: “The plant-based industry must improve juiciness and texture in product offerings,” says Ransom. “Tofurky is releasing a spicy, chewy pepperoni as well as a juicy, savory hot dog this year that are sure to win over newcomers to the category. Innovation will drive integration, as new ingredient technologies, recipes and production breakthroughs create imperceptible differences between animal and plant offerings.”

Variety and versatility. Veggie burgers may be a core product, but they’re not the be-all, end-all. “From Before the Butcher, look for XL chicken chunks that bite and chew just like chicken, and organic line of burgers and grounds, as well as, heat n’ serve meals (Chicken Fajitas, Beef & Broccoli, Roasted Pork & Peppers, etc.),” shares O’Malley. “Our strategy centers on versatility, not just producing the core plant-based meat patties.”

Dexter is seeing the same. “We’ve seen the category shift from a heavy focus on plant-based beef to a broader collection of alternatives to other protein types, such as chicken and pork. In the past year, plant-based chicken has made great strides in the quality of offerings. Consumers seeking plant-based foods don’t want limited options, and as the category continues to innovate, they’ll have even more choices.” Gardein intends to continue focusing on its Ultimate Plant-Based line, with more additions set to launch over the summer.

Nor are people looking only at meat. “Driven by the convergence of health, wellness, environmental and animal protection trends, the plant-based seafood market is set to surpass one billion dollars in sales over the next decade,” says Krasnow. “Specifically, consumers and governments are increasingly concerned about the health risks associated with consuming mercury and other pollutants found in seafood. The adverse impact of commercial fishing on sea life and the exploitation of natural resources to meet global demand for seafood is propelling the need for plant-based options. At Dr. Praeger’s, we believe that transitioning to plant-based seafood in a variety of flavors and packing sizes that support busy consumer lifestyles is a must.”

Mei, too, sees massive alt seafood category growth, noting that plant-based seafood is safe for those with shellfish allergies as well, expanding the population of interested consumers. “With the plant-based seafood sector expected to grow to $1.3 billion in the next 10 years, there’s room for dramatic growth. In terms of innovation, we consume around 300 species of animals from the ocean, compared to around 30 from land. The impact opportunity to disrupt the seafood category is enormous and provides endless possibilities for innovation. So far at Good Catch, we have launched plant-based solutions to tuna, white fish, crab and salmon. We see an opportunity to break ground on new product formats and grow our portfolio over the next few years. We are always working on our innovation pipeline. As the footprint of our brand grows, we are expanding our existing lineup of fan favorite offerings as well as making sure customers have access to our products, no matter where they are. Our goal is to be the go-to source for culinary driven plant-based seafood.”

And demand for variety isn’t just in terms of various meats to mimic—it’s also in terms of the plant ingredients themselves. “We’ve had numerous buyers express interest in alternatives to wheat and soy proteins,” shares Natalie Slater, Marketing Manager with Upton’s Naturals. Upton’s Naturals has responded with Taco Style Fava Crumbles: “This meat alternative is made with a fava bean blend, so it’s wheat and soy-free, but still provides 9g of protein per serving and features a texture that’s similar to that of slow-cooked ground beef. We flavor the crumbles with a custom blend of taco seasonings to give them a satisfying and familiar flavor.”

Plants done better. “The initial areas where innovation has been concentrated is in direct dairy and meat analogues: plant-based meat that looks/tastes like animal protein, plant-based cheese and dairy that looks/tastes like animal-based dairy products,” observes Stamberger. “While that innovation continues, new development is happening making existing plant-based food more nutritious and/or more sustainable. RightRice is a great example of this: our veggie rice provides a direct alternative to white rice, but it’s made of lentils + peas + chickpeas + rice, delivering 10g of complete protein and 40% fewer net carbs than rice, one of the top three most consumed gains on the planet. Rice has always been plant-based; RightRice delivers the same complete protein delivered by animal protein, with all 9 essential amino acids the body can’t make and must get from food.”

Plus, Stamberger notes, initial plant-based offerings may not have been as good as plant-based can be. There’s room to improve. Some early products, she explained, didn’t quite match what they were replacing in terms of nutrition, and didn’t deliver on the sustainability front, either, both points that new innovations are working to improve. “Our Hope and Sesame Sesamemilk is formulated from sesame, an extremely sustainable seed,” Stamberger says. “After sesame seeds are expressed for oil, we upcycle the nutrition-rich rest of the sesame as the base for Sesamemilk, previously considered a byproduct or used for animal feed. Sesamemilk delivers comparable nutrition to dairy milk, deliciously, with 8g of complete protein per serving, and is an excellent source of Vitamin D and calcium.”

Snacks may be an ideal format for plant-based—so often unhealthy, yet seen as a delicious daily treat, plants could revolutionize this space. And we’re already seeing it happen. Paul Nardone, Hippeas, explains: “With the advancements in food and manufacturing technology coming together nicely in extrusion technology, you can process all kinds of vegetables and other nutritionally fortified recipes into snacks that few other formats allow. We’ve found that people love Hippeas Organic Chickpea Snacks because they’re delicious, better-for-you, plant-based and contain both protein and fiber. Hippeas hits all the markers in regard to what consumers are looking for—the taste and nutritional profile are both great. We have some exciting innovation in the pipeline, so keep a lookout for some news the back half of the year and into 2023.”

Clean label. The desire for clean-label comes with the plant-based territory, opines Slater. “As a plant-based lifestyle becomes more mainstream, consumers are reading nutritional labels more closely and looking for easy, tasty options made with simple ingredients. This is where Upton’s Naturals’ products really shine. We’re taking foods that have been around for thousands of years, like jackfruit and seitan, and updating them for the modern palate using seasonings you’d find in your kitchen.”

This isn’t a surprise, given that clean label is a major trend in its own right, says Krasnow. “Consumer demand for authenticity and transparency has been a driving force behind the clean label movement that has influenced food manufacturers to rethink ingredients and clean up supply chains for over 10 years. Minimally processed and socially responsible ingredients have become a must for an increasing number of decerning consumers. Dr. Praeger’s has always been known for producing great-tasting products with ingredients that people feel proud to serve. Our innovation will continue to deliver on our nutritional values.”

Function. Boyer notes that the “food as medicine” trend exists on two fronts. On the one hand, people want their food to help them stay well in the long-term, through clean nutrition, like nutrient-dense organic vegetables. And on the other hand, people want their food to boost their health on a daily basis, through specific health-boosting ingredients, like vitamin C, ashwagandha, or caffeine. Plant-based is positioned to meet both demands, and Aloha is looking to help. “Functional foods (e.g. chocolate espresso that just launched) or Iced Coffee (RTD that launched in Q4) is a category that we are getting into because we recognize today’s health-conscious consumer wants multi-tasking, healthy, delicious foods that will get them through various occasions—from needing a morning or afternoon pick-me-up to support for immunity or mood.”

Merchandising improvements. “The category will move toward integration, with plant-based products being merchandised next to their animal protein counterparts,” opines Ransom. “This will help families of mixed consumer preferences to easily purchase both plant-based and animal-based products for their tables.”

The issue, Kahner says, is limited shelf space, which will need to be addressed. “There is a lot of plant-based innovation in the market that isn’t yet on grocery shelves due to the limited space allotted for plant-based foods. Particularly in a category like cheese where consumers expect a variety of options for different occasions, this is a challenge in bringing innovation to consumers. As the shelf expands, there will be more opportunities for consumers to find the plant-based products they are looking for and incorporating them as an everyday part of their diet.”

 

…and Where It Isn’t Going

Plant-based isn’t going away.

“Plant-based is not a passing trend—it’s a lifestyle that more and more people are signing up for, for the long-term,” says Nardone. “Whether you’re doing it for your health, the environment, animal health or all three—there’s a major shift happening.”

That shift will hit more and more places, Boyer suggests: “It will go head-to-head, even more so than it already has, with meat and dairy products until plant-based options are offered everywhere you go.”

The final word, from PBFA’s Emmett: “The potential for growth in plant-based foods is enormous.” WF