Plant-based foods bloom amid growing demand

These days, supermarket dairy aisles and freezer sections nearly always have space dedicated to plant-based products, and the variety of offerings seems to grow with every trip to the store.

Consumer demand for plant-based foods is on the rise and food makers are obliging, according to research from Innova Market Insights, which found the number of new food items in the US with plant-based claims rose to 320 in 2016, from 220 in 2015 and just 94 in 2012.

“What’s happening is an exciting combination of increased consumer interest in eating healthier in general, with plant-based as a big part of that trend, and real innovation by some companies that have been around a while, and newer companies offering better tasting plant-based versions of animal products,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association.

According to its website, the association’s mission is: “To ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods intended to replace animal products such as meats, dairy, and eggs, by promoting policies and practices that improve conditions in the plant-based foods industry, and educating consumers about the benefits of plant-based foods.”

The trade group has grown to about 86 dues-paying members since its launch last year, most of them small- to medium-sized companies.

Consumers are seeking healthier alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs, without sacrificing familiar flavors and textures, Simon said. “With the new options, it’s no longer a sacrifice, whether they’re completely vegan or dabbling in plant-based eating a few times a week,” she said.

“While there are many societal reasons, most people are really more motivated by their own health than the environment or the animals. It’s certainly true with the older demographic, and with millennials there’s more interest in the environment. But at the end of the day, the food has to taste good to keep them coming back.”

Plant-based replacements for dairy products are big category and non-dairy cheese-type products likely rank as the most improved over earlier versions, Simon said.

“There are so many good choices now that do have that familiar taste and texture,” she said. There are shreds and soft, spreadable cheeses, there’s one made with butter beans. There’s so much innovation.”

Many vegan food makers start small and grow, including Impossible Foods, which drew big buzz not long ago with the launch of a plant-based burger so realistic that it “bleeds.” The company said this month it now has the capacity to produce a million pounds of its vegan meat each month at factories in California and New Jersey, according to a report in Organic Authority. When the plants are running at full capacity, they’ll make enough food each month to feed 4 million people, the report said.

Other new plant-based products are coming from established companies that have made their fortunes in dairy and other animal products.

Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has released three new flavors of certified vegan ice cream to add to the four it launched last year, and Breyers recently created two almond milk-based frozen desserts in Vanilla Peanut Butter and Oreo Cookies & Cream flavors.

French dairy giant Danone announced last week that it has completed its acquisition of Colorado-based WhiteWave, which began as a tofu and soymilk maker and today commands a huge stable of brands that includes plant-based lines such as Silk, So Delicious, Alpro and Vega.

Another dairy company switched completely to plant-based production. Elmhurst Dairy in New York closed its doors after 90 years and reopened as a plant-based business, making a line of vegan milks from almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and walnuts.

Plant-based versions of meat, dairy and egg products tend to be pricier than their animal-based counterparts, for several reasons including policies that subsidize the animal industries, Simon said.

“Our policy agenda is about leveling the playing field, making sure members have a fair shot in reaching consumers. Our long-term goal is, we want to make sure every consumer has access to these foods. If price is a barrier, we want to address that,” she said.

Another issue when it comes to access is the challenge of retail shelf space. With so many new products on the market, retailers have to make decisions about which to stock and that often means switching out brands that might have just been starting to catch on with consumers. Other times, brands may have to pull one product to get shelf space for something new, and the situations can make it difficult for brands to build loyalty and for customers to consistently find their favorite brands and products, Simon said.

There are signs that retailers are freeing up more shelf, fridge and freezer space for plant-based products.

“Increasingly, the conventional retailers are jumping on the bandwagon, but there’s still a long way to grow,” Simon said. “The whole idea is to help mainstream these products, we don’t want them to be seen as just for a niche audience.”

Target’s ongoing effort to boost grocery sales has included the addition of many vegan products, and Kroger is also working to add more plant-based foods. In a recent panel at Natural Products Expo West, Kroger executive Mathis Martines talked about the rising demand for plant-based products.

“People are actively looking at these things to take animal fats out of their diets,” he said. They’re also looking for alternative sources of protein, and that demand is driving buying decisions by the retailer. “For us it’s not temporary, it’s not a trend, it’s a long-term change in how we eat as humans.”

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