The Plant-Based Phenomenon Is Growing

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A large number of consumers are modifying their diets, eating less meat and dairy and more fruits and vegetables. Some make the switch to an entirely vegan or plant-based lifestyle, but still more are flexible about what they can or cannot eat. “A third of the population considers themselves to be flexitarian, compared to a tenth of the population [identifying as] vegan,” explains Mark Olivieri, CMO of OWYN, based in Fairfield, NJ. “A flexitarian might eat a plant-based diet five days a week, but also ‘flexes’ and consumes meat two days a week.”

The goal for all parties is better health and nutrition and they are not only achieving this through healthier, plant-focused meals but also by supplementing their health with plant-based proteins, superfoods and greens that are rich in nutrients and ideal to consume on-the-go and between meals to avoid unhealthy snack choices and reduce food cravings. This is a growing phenomenon fueled by the way information proliferates via social media and the power “influencers” can have on a generation of people who are consuming content through their smart phones and computers.

“Millennials are the trend setters, creating groundswell movements through their use of social platforms, which are being used to showcase brands and lifestyles,” says Olivieri. “These influencers are being influenced by other influencers — creating a top down nutrition movement. Prominent social influencers including MDs, RDs, functional medicine [practitioners], allergists, athletes, vegan, and fitness influencers are showcasing the benefits with real personal testimonies of how a plant-based diet has increased overall wellness.”
Tapping this audience of plant-curious millennials by having the right inventory and additional information to help them make informed decisions also opens up the rest of your inventory to new eyes and business.

Protein
It has become a cliché at this point for non-vegans to criticize the vegan and plant-based lifestyle by saying that those individuals do not get sufficient protein in their diets. However, innovation in the plant protein space challenges these claims. From food sources, vegans relied on legumes, beans and nuts to get their share of protein. Protein powders were seemingly relegated to the pantries of muscle-bound gym-goers and were made of whey, but proteins made from soy, pea, brown rice, etc. continued to innovate, improving their flavor and nutritional profiles.

“The elephant in the room is that plant-based proteins traditionally have had an inferior taste and texture experience compared to animal based protein,” says Olivieri. “This is changing due to improved manufacturing processes including quality and sourcing of raw materials and taking the time to develop a product with zero compromises. OWYN was developed over 4 years to ensure a product experience that is uncompromised in both taste and quality.”

Now, there are vegan muscle-bound gym-goers who take plant-based protein as well as everyday people looking to supplement the protein in their diets simply to have proper nutrition. “It’s true, protein supplementation seemed to first gain traction with athletes,” says Russ Crosby, CEO of Sunwarrior, based in Washington, UT. “We find that the target has shifted to include the everyday person, not just athletes, and not necessarily vegans and vegetarians. We believe that ‘vegan’ means more than something free of animal products; it is a perfect descriptor synonymous with clean and unadulterated.”

The key to quality protein is having the right amino acid profile, specifically branch chain amino acids, especially if you’re looking for fitness results. The type of protein used is key to get the desired amino acid profile. “A few years ago, soy was the key plant protein source used in most food and beverage items that required plant protein,” explains Olivieri. “Soy delivers all essential amino acids and therefore, is a complete form of protein. However, there are rising allergen concerns in the US (1/4 of the population is impacted by an intolerance or allergy) and soy is one of the villains since it is a top food allergy.”

OWYN, for example, blends pea protein, organic pumpkin seed, and organic flaxseed, “to deliver all essential amino acids in the right ratio to be a true replacement to dairy-based protein (i.e. whey).” In addition, the products are free of the top eight allergens and the firm tests each batch before they go to market.

It’s also important to meet the variety of needs of consumers. Athletes will want something different from the average Joe. Crosby explains that Sunwarrior has three proteins which target different customers and their various needs. “Athletes generally prefer Warrior Blend for the amount of BCAAs, enhanced energy, and increased recovery that it provides.” explains Crosby. “Classic Plus speaks to those with discerning tastes, where flavor matters as much as protein content and quality ingredients. And the Classic brown rice protein appeals to our granola eco-warriors.”

Omegas
Essential fatty acids (EFA) are essential because they do not synthesize naturally in the body, and have to be sourced from food. Most individuals get their EFAs, omega-3 in particular, from fish and fish oil supplements. For those who seek out plant-based sources of omegas, there are several options.

“Plant-based omegas can come from seed oils like flax, sunflower, pumpkin, etc. but they can also come from algae-sourced DHA and EPA,” explains Robert Dadd, product information supervisor for Flora Health, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. “The omegas found in seed oils are the ‘parent’ omega 3s and 6s: alpha-linolenic (ALA) and linolenic acid (LA), a portion of which can be converted to their long-chain forms like EPA, DHA, GLA, etc.”

Like EPA and DHA, there is evidence that consumption of ALA can reduce the risks of heart disease. One study found that women who had a diet high in ALA (1.5 g per day) had a 46% lower risk of sudden cardiac death compared to those with diets low in ALA (1). Another meta-analysis found that high intake of linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, was associated with a 15% lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) events and a 21% lower risk of CHD deaths (2). Adults should consume between 1 and 2 g of ALA per day. In terms of how much flax to eat, Dadd explains that one tablespoon of ground flax has up to 1.8 g of ALA while one tablespoon of flax oil contains up to 8 g of ALA.

When it comes to DHA sourced from algae, Dadd points out, “There’s no substantial difference between DHA from algae or DHA from fish other than how they’re obtained; the body will utilize both the same. However, algae-sourced DHA does not carry the same concerns for oceanic pollutants and depletion of fish stocks as fish-sourced DHA.”

The key to proper nutrition is having the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Unfortunately, the average American’s diet is much richer in omega-6 than it is omega-3, which heightens the inflammatory response in the body. So while vegetable oils can be a great source of omega-6, it’s important to significantly improve one’s consumption of omega-3s. One plant-based source mentioned above is algae, but some great additional sources are chia and hemp seed. In terms of omega-3 content, chia seeds provide about 2.4 g of omega-3s per tablespoon (3). “Let’s not overlook Chia, one of the highest known plant-based sources of omega fatty acids, specifically omega-3,” says Zach Adelman, founder & CEO of Navitas Organics, based in Novato, CA. “Chia Seeds are tiny and mighty and pack a solid nutritional punch. We call them ‘the most versatile superfood’ because they have a mild nutty taste and can easily be added to just about anything.”

Hemp seeds provide about 1 g of omega-3s per tablespoon, though as Adelman explains, have the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 which is about 3:1 (3). “Navitas Organics offers an unroasted and gently hulled Hemp Seed sourced from Canada…are buttery soft and delicious and can be incorporated into almost any food or smoothie,” he says. Hemp powder is a little bit different, he explains, making it an excellent protein source, in addition to omega-3s. “Hemp Powder…differs greatly in fat and protein content from the seeds…because Hemp Powder results from cold pressing the oil from the seeds, therefore reducing the overall fat content while bolstering the protein content up to nearly 50% protein by weight,” Adelman explains.

Phytocannabinoids
Hemp extracts (not to be confused with hemp oil) rich in phytocannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) are also becoming a big part of people’s lives because consumers find the phytocannabinoids to provide immense benefits when it comes to their overall health, stress response and even in recovery for athletes.

Research shows that the endocannabinoid system governs many functions in the human body including mood, sleep and hormone production. Author John Hicks, MD writes that the endocannabinoid system “interconnects all systems, organs and tissues and responds to changes in the internal and external environment…to keep our bodies functioning at their best by adapting to change” (4). Two types of cannabinoid receptors in the body, CB1 and CB2, are located in every organ system.

Hector Lopez, M.D., scientific and medical advisor to CV Sciences, based in San Diego, CA, emphasizes the importance of CB2 receptors when it comes to joint health. He explains that in animal studies and human cartilage cell cultures, there was substantial improvement when CB2 receptors were preferentially stimulated. This is particularly promising because CBD, explains Lopez, “appears to favor a CB2 receptor tone over CB1 receptor, and as such, appears to be well suited for the role of augmenting joint health, mobility and joint/muscle/tendon discomfort associated with day-to-day physical overexertion or exercise.”

The CB1 receptor’s prominence in the brain is important for regulating our stress response. “The CB1 receptor is the most densely distributed receptor type in the human brain,” explains Aimée Gould Shunney, ND, licensed naturopathic doctor, and medical adviser for CV Sciences. “There’s a lot of them in the hypothalamus and the limbic system in general which basically manages our emotional life.”

Hemp-derived phytocannabinoid products are generally sold in oil form, via dropper or spray bottle, but can also be taken as capsules. However oils offer more diverse utilization.

Superfoods
You’ve likely seen the term “superfood” on many products. Unfortunately, this can be misleading at times because there is no standardized definition of the term. “‘Superfood’ is first and foremost a marketing term with no precise definition, so it can be overused, which can lead to the public developing some indifference to the term,” says Dadd. “Generally, though, they are foods that stand out as being especially nutrient-dense and offering significant amounts of several key nutrients.”

Adelman concurs, adding another element to it — the environment. “Superfoods are inherently special whether it be their abundant nutrients or unique properties but to preserve these properties — organic, traditional farming practices and minimally invasive processing methods are a must,” he explains. “This same philosophy applies to the environments [where] these superfoods are cultivated. Preserving farm land and the traditional methods used to farm them is imperative to our mission. In our opinion, sustainability, organic and health are decisively interconnected.”

“Maca is our flagship superfood,” says Adelman. “We were one of the first to introduce Maca to the North American market. Maca, a relative of radish, is a root plant grown in extreme conditions atop 14,000 ft plateaus in the Peruvian Andes. Maca is one of the rare plants on earth considered to be a true adaptogen, which means it supports the body’s ability to manage stress and promotes balance and vitality.”

This herb has been used for centuries as a treatment for sexual dysfunction, fertility and as an energy booster — maca is often referred to as Peruvian ginseng. Unfortunately, not enough scientific evidence exists so far to support the herb’s adaptogenic properties but some research exists that points to its potential. For example, two small randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trials found that maca reduced the scores for measures of depression and anxiety in post menopausal women compared to baseline and placebo (5,6). However, its growing popularity and usage is sure to spark additional research to confirm what people are experiencing for themselves.

Cacao is another superfood Adelman recommends, though it might seem counterintuitive. “People continue to be amazed that Cacao, one of the most nutritious foods on earth is the same source from which all chocolate is produced,” he says. “Many chocolates have been known to have health supportive properties and that is determined by the quality and ratio of Cacao used. Cacao is one of the richest antioxidant sources of all foods (especially flavanols) and has many healthy promoting properties including cardiovascular, brain and mental health.”

Indeed, in a comparative analysis, cacao was measured against blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate powder and was found to have significantly greater antioxidant capacity and flavanol content (7). Another superfood, acai likely has the best name recognition. “This superberry is native to Brazil, which is where we source our premium quality, freeze-dried acai powder,” says Adelman. “Acai is strikingly dark purple in appearance, which is a direct reflection of its antioxidant abundance, specifically anthocyanins, a phytonutrient linked to skin health and longevity. When compared to other berries, acai is also unique because of its rich omega fatty acid content. It contains almost 50% fat by weight and is a hearty, delicious, colorful and healthful addition to any diet or lifestyle.”

One recent study, for example, found that women consuming 200 g/day of acai pulp for four weeks experienced increased antioxidant capacity and reduced production of reactive oxygen species, based on blood samples.

Greens
Greens are another product category with emerging popularity. In some ways it is nothing new, as wheat grass shots have been a staple of natural products stores, but it has diversified and become more convenient at home and on the go. Cereal grasses like wheat grass aid digestion, but only when juiced. “When wheatgrass is juiced, the cell walls of the grass are broken and the nutrients become available and digestible by people, which is where the health halo associated with wheatgrass originated — with the juice,” explains Adelman. “We source an organic New Hampshire grown wheatgrass where only the vibrant, young, green blades are juiced (many wheatgrass powders include the whole root system, which is voluminous and non-beneficial) and then freeze-dried with a proprietary method to preserve as many of the inherent nutrients as possible.”

“Everyone’s greens powders are a little different,” says Crosby. “Many rely on just one or two grassy greens as the bulk ingredient(s). Barley and wheat grasses are typical, as is alfalfa. This is a great starting point. Who doesn’t like a good wheat grass shot?”

To mix it up a bit, he explains that Sunwarrior, for its products, has added moringa, ginger, concentrated juice powders and probiotics to the mix. “Moringa for its polyphenols, ginger for its anti-inflammatory properties, concentrated juice powders to up the body’s alkalinity, and probiotics to make the gut happy,” says Crosby.

“In addition to fermented cereal grasses (to aid their digestion), vegetables like kale, broccoli, and alfalfa, along with digestive herbs and spices offer a good source of fiber, protein, and varying amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant phytonutrients,” says Dadd.

Wakunaga of America Co., Ltd., based in Mission Viejo, CA has multiple SKUs for different functionalities: Energy, Digestion and Immunity. “The Greens Blend is a classic mix of barley and wheat grasses with chlorella, kelp, FOS and brown rice for a balanced blend of energy-boosting green nutrients that support an active metabolism,” explains Jay Levy, director of sales for the firm. “Harvest Blend combines antioxidant rich fruits and veggies with immune supportive greens, grains and herbs formulated to support and maintain normal immune system function and defend against harmful microorganisms. Sprouts Blend starts with the greens blend as base for metabolism support and adds organic sprouted ancient grains, beans and nutrient rich seeds combined with Spirulina to provide a natural, gentle prebiotic for healthy digestion.”

The convenience that powdered greens products offer consumers is perhaps the biggest selling point, because time and resources can be limited for many. “From the start, Wakunaga saw a need to bring green superfoods to health conscious consumers who did not have access nor the time to blend their own green drinks from scratch,” says Levy.

Playing with Your Food
Plant-based nutrition has immense potential for retailers. Yes, these products are designed to make proper nutrition convenient, but also creative. Powders and oils are ideal formats for people who enjoy making smoothies or juicing at home. However, smoothies and beverages are just the tip of the iceberg, with potential in other food applications such as baking, similar to what we’ve been seeing in the collagen space.

“We recognize that the protein space is crowded and the choices for smoothie mixes are aplenty,” says Adelman. “This is why we consider our Essential Blends a daily superfood inclusion with many uses including smoothies, desserts, baked goods or an easy add-in to yogurt, oatmeal or cereal. Our Essential blends deliver approximately 50% protein by weight (from 5 protein-rich plant sources), 4 vitamin and mineral-rich Navitas superfoods, a green superfood complex, 6 billion probiotic CFU’s from 9 different strands and 4 digestive enzymes.”

He does note however that some nutrients such as vitamin C and the probiotics will not be quite as viable after baking, due to the high heat, but are still a nutritious and tasty complement to recipes with the protein, nutrients, no added sugar and multiple flavors. Navitas’ Essential Blends are also designed to be paired with the company’s Superfood Daily Boosts, functional formulas which come in Wellness, Focus, Detox, Beauty and Immunity.

“We recommend combining our Boosts and Essential Blends for a complete and functional smoothie or boosting any food with a specific function in mind,” Adelman says. “For instance, making ice pops for kids with coconut milk and our Immunity Boost during this relentless flu season or adding a scoop of our Focus Boost to morning oatmeal for an energizing, clean, tasty, nutritious way to start the day.”

Some manufacturers also sell ready-to-drink (RTD) products that create crossover sales between their products to increase sales. Retailers can spark interest by putting an RTD protein shake in a refrigerator at checkout, creating potential sales of protein powder. “The ready-to-drink protein shake is the flagship item in the OWYN lineup,” says Olivieri. “Based on demand (and data suggesting strong overlap purchase behavior), we decided to launch powders shortly after. About 2/3s of RTD buyers also purchase protein powder.”

“This ever-apparent shift toward cutting-edge nutrition (that also happens to be convenient), has encouraged us to develop plant-based products in easy-to-use formats that don’t compromise taste in the process,” says Ryan Therriault, VP of marketing & innovation for Amazing Grass, based in Newport Beach, CA. This means creating formulas that attract athletes with 20 g of protein but also 7 alkalizing greens and two servings of vegetables others are looking for, or even, effervescent tablets.

“What can get easier than a scoop of powder in your smoothie than simply dropping a tab in water and waiting 4 minutes for some fun fizz, flavor and nutrition?” says Therriault. “Condensing all of the nutritious benefits into tablet format definitely posed its challenges, particularly to stay in line with our stringent food values but we’ve found this line to be one of our most popular, given the innovative and on-the-go format while still holding true to our core values of using only organic and non-GMO ingredients.”

The creative potential of these plant-based nutrition products makes health fun and easy. While it’s true that consumers utilize influencers on social media for recipes and guidance, retailers can be the first to expose customers to these products by incorporating a juice bar to their stores. By demonstrating the potential of all these ingredients in a prepared beverage, you can increase sales because you are not just selling refreshments, but samples of the products on your shelf, giving customers an incentive to try some of them at home.
Phytocannabinoid products, for example, have become a unique addition to juice bars. “We’ve been selling to the LA market in Erewhon Market, and they have incorporated Charlotte’s Web into their tonic bar,” says Josh Stanley, CEO of CW Hemp, which makes Charlotte’s Web, based in Boulder, CO. “We are seeing that trend more and more in the LA market and are actually trying to encourage more of our retail partners that do have tonic bars or juice bars that this is a great way to leverage this health trend.”

CV Sciences has also seen this trend. In a Retailer Spotlight video on the WholeFoods Magazine website, featuring South Pasadena, CA-based Grassroots Natural Market and Kitchen, Stuart Tomc, VP of human nutrition for the firm, described the retailer as one of the first to not only sell hemp-derived CBD oils but also incorporate them in their juice and smoothie bar. “We started selling CBD products probably three or so years ago, now it’s like everybody is selling it,” says Meir Puni, co-founder and owner of Grassroots Natural Market and Kitchen. “We put it in the juice bar because we wanted to create more awareness so people would try it, like it and want to buy the bottle to do it themselves.”

While he admits giving customers the option at the juice bar didn’t necessarily improve sales of the CBD products themselves, it was an important part of raising awareness and getting past the stigma hemp extracts and CBD products can bring. Now that publicity surrounding cannabis is peaking, the demand is high both on the store shelf and at the juice bar. Of course, CBD oil is not the only product that Grassroots Natural has cross merchandised.
“We offer a protein powder which we cross merchandise [in the juice bar] and when people come in for protein powder and I tell them we use it in our juice bar, it’s easier to sell because a lot of people already like it, so most likely they will too,” says Puni. “[Customers] will come in and say they want the same powder they drank in the juice bar.” WF

References

  1. “Alpha-lipolenic acid.” https://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/alphalinolenic-acid, Accessed February 26, 2018
  2. M.S. Farvid, et al. “Dietary Linoleic Acid and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies.” Circulation. 130(18): 1568–1578. 2014.
  3. M. Reinagel. “Chia vs. Hemp vs. Flax,” https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/chia-vs-hemp-vs-flax, Accessed February 23, 2018.
  4. J. Hicks. “The Medicinal Power of Cannabis” Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, 2015.
  5. L. Stojanovska, et al. “Maca reduces blood pressure and depression, in a pilot study in postmenopausal women.” Climacteric. 18(1):69-78. 2015.
  6. N.A. Brooks, et al. “Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women are not related to estrogen or androgen content.” Menopause. 15(6):1157-62. 2008.
  7. S.J. Crozier, et al. “Cacao seeds are a “Super Fruit”: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chem Cent J. 5: 5. 2011.

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