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Plant-Based Report: Pandemic powers plant-based foods

More than a meatless burger, plant-based items are booming and private label brands are looking to capture the growth.
Zachary Russell
Associate Editor
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The desire for plant-based and vegan items continues to grow. The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute (GFI) reported U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods increased 27% in 2020, making it a $7 billion market.

The two organizations said plant-based food sales grew by more than 25% in every U.S. census region and that 57% of households now purchase plant-based foods, up from 53% in 2019.

More recently, Tastewise, an AI-powered food intelligence service, released an alternative plant-based protein report for Q3 of 2021. The study showed that the plant-based meat market accounts for just 1.4% of the total retail meat market, but is worth $1.4 billion in the U.S., increasing by more than $430 million in sales from 2019 to 2020.

Consumers have been drawn to plant-based meats, such as Kroger’s pioneering Simple Truth Plant Based line, for sustainability and health reasons. In fact, in 2020, Kroger launched 53 new plant-based items to add to its portfolio and said 1.4 million households bought a plant-based Simple Truth product.


“The way we order, cook, and eat is already transforming in the face of a global pandemic, climate change, new technologies, and increased interest in health,” said Alon Chen, CEO at Tastewise, Chicago. “Today’s consumers require food and beverage that responds to their needs and provides solutions to their problems — from the personal to the planetary. Responding to the devastating advance in climate change, many companies are working to reduce the significant climate footprint of the animal-farmed meat industry by innovating ways to move away from animal meat. This increase in resources devoted to plant-based meat products, combined with consumer demands for real, versatile solutions, results in a timely shift in the way we consume food.”

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So far, private brands have had success with launches of plant-based meat alternative mainstays. Greenwise, Publix’s organic private label, introduced pea-based chickenless tenders in August, joining meatless burger patties of the same material that came out earlier in the year. Pea-based options appeal to consumers who want meat alternatives that are also soy and gluten-free.

In May, one of the most profitable store brands, Target’s Good & Gather added over 30 plant-based items to the collection, signaling a bright future for the category within Target. The retailer added more than just meat to the collection, adding meatless options like buffalo style cauliflower wings, Good & Gather non-dairy milk and creamer alternatives, dips and spreads.

“Guest demand for plant-based offerings is incredibly high and continues to grow,” said Rick Gomez, EVP and chief food and beverage officer at Target, at the time of the release. “By adding Good & Gather Plant Based to our curated assortment of plant-based offerings, we’re giving guests more of what they want and making it easy for them to discover the joy of food every day.”

The report from Tastewise shows which meats American consumers have most replaced with plant-based alternatives, also showing which vegan meat options are rising in popularity. Plant-based meat items on the upswing could pave the way for innovations within store brand portfolios.

Sausage and chicken are currently the two most popular plant-based meat options, with sausage alone making up 34% of all meat alternative consumption, according to the Tastewise study. Items that are on the rise as potential meat alternatives include lamb (+212% from last year), salami (+159%), charcuterie (+148%) and jerky (+85%). Of branded products specifically, beef/roast items, deli meats, and jerky are the least-tapped items, with chicken and patty options leading the way.


Alternative Dairy
For store brands, the plant-based dairy trend is an opportunity to grow the category of dairy as a whole. Elizabeth Guthrie, senior director of product management for own brands at Albertsons, spoke about plant-based dairy alternatives at the recent Store Brands Industry Forum on Beverages, and how private labels are adapting to the new trends.

“Non-dairy alternatives aren’t only keeping customers in the dairy aisle, but they’re also bringing a new influx of new customers into the [dairy] category,” said Guthrie. “The innovation is really revitalizing the section. The explosion of plant-based alternatives are helping to appeal to such a broad range of customers to meet all the needs that they have. Store brands are leaders and innovators in this space, you’ll continue to see own brands adjust to meet changing consumer needs through different sizes, flavors and nutritional call-outs.”

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According to the PBFA and GFI study, plant-based milk — the largest plant-based category — has reached $2.5 billion and accounts for 35% of the total plant-based food market. Even as the most developed category, plant-based milk grew 20% in dollar sales, up from 5% in 2019.

Jason Heiselman, director of culinary at Hungryroot, the first AI-powered curated grocer, noted four growing trends in plant-based foods: experimentation, fermentation, rices and plant-based sweets.

"Rather than opting for a traditional beef cut when grilling steaks, people are looking to meatier vegetables that prepare well using similar methods such as mushrooms or cauliflower, or that provide good bases for plant-based inventions,” said Heiselman. “Whether people are buying fermented products such as kombucha or kimchi, or trying basic fermentation at home, an awareness of its health benefits and the variety of options available has increased interest in fermentation. Rice is also a fantastic base ingredient if you are creating plant-based food combinations at home. Plant-based ingredients like black beans and chickpeas are growing as base ingredients for sweets, replacing less nutrient-rich staples.”

Heiselman credits the pandemic for the shift in the trends toward plant-based foods and the newfound curiosity of consumers to try new ingredients.

“While there has already been a broadening awareness of what eating healthy really looks like, a key driver behind a lot of these trends is more time at home,” said Heiselman. “The pandemic kept us at home, and even as we emerge into a new normal, we are still home more than we were pre-pandemic. We’re juggling child care and lunch prep — for our children and for us. This has
brought renewed interest in and passion for what we eat and how we make it. It has influenced how and what we cook, and what we look for when shopping.”