Plant-Based Foods Gain Traction During Pandemic

Mark Hamstra | 27 Aug 2020

Demand for plant-based foods, which had already been increasing sharply in recent years, received a boost during the pandemic, according to retailers.

Shoppers increasingly turned to plant-based alternatives for several reasons, including because of supply shortages among traditional meat and dairy products and for health reasons.

“Our customers’ desire to remain healthy correlated to an increase in immune-building categories we’re known for, such as vitamins and healthier products like organic and plant-based foods,” said Jack Sinclair, CEO of Sprouts Farmers Market, in a recent conference call discussing the company’s second-quarter earnings.

The specialty plant-based segment has grown more than 27 percent since 2017, reaching nearly $5 billion in total brick-and-mortar sales in 2019, according to the recent State of the Specialty Food Industry research, from the Specialty Food Association and Mintel. According to SPINS, sales of plant-based products outpaced sales gains in the overall food and beverage market, as well as in natural products and organic products, during March, the SFA State of the Industry report found.

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives, for example, were up 300-400 percent or more in March, compared with a year ago, and far outpaced the sharp increase in the sales growth of traditional animal proteins.

In the plant-based alternative milk category, shoppers may have also been attracted to the products’ longer shelf life as they sought to minimize shopping trips.

Supply Chain is Resilient

Some reports indicated that the supply chain for plant-based alternatives remained strong during the pandemic as traditional meat and dairy processors struggled to keep up with the surge in demand in March and April.

“We have not seen any real issues in the food supply,” Tony Antoci, CEO of Los Angeles-based Erewhon Market, told SFA News Daily. “During the crazy days in March and April the supplies were short, but for the most part recovered completely.”

Some retailers, including Kroger Co., also reported strong sales of their private-label plant-based products.

“Having identified plant-based foods as a key trend well before 2019, the Simple Truth plant-based platform continues to deliver strong growth, growing over 32 percent in the first quarter,” said Rodney McMullen, chairman and CEO of the Cincinnati-based retailer, in a conference call with analysts discussing results for the period, which ended May 23.

In fact, Kroger’s King Soopers banner came out on top in terms of private label, plant-based assortment in the Good Food Institute’s inaugural Good Food Retail Report on plant-based foods. The Denver-based chain carries more than 35 private label items across product categories, including the new Emerge refrigerated line of plant-based meat alternatives.

Refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives have surged 112 percent in dollar sales and 70 percent in unit volume between 2017 and 2019, driven in part by inflation and in part by consumers trading up to new premium brands such as Beyond Meat, according to the SFA State of the Industry report.

The share of sales remains small for some plant-based categories, such as cheese, at 3.4 percent, and frozen entrees, at 5.7 percent, but in many cases these items are driving sales growth and generating consumer excitement with innovative new products, the report concluded.

Restaurants Embrace Plant-Based Options

Restaurants are also seeking to capitalize on the growing consumer interest in plant-based foods. In addition to the widespread addition of burger and sausage alternatives from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, restaurants are looking to other plant-based sources for meat, seafood, and cheese analogs, according to a recent Datassential webinar. Fifty-eight percent of consumers said they want to increase their consumption of plant-based foods, the firm’s consumer research showed.

Among the plant-based ingredients of note appearing on restaurant menus are:

  • Aquafaba, the liquid leftover from cooked chickpeas, which can be whipped like meringue and substituted for egg whites in recipes, said Carly Levin, account manager and plant-based expert at Datassential, during the webinar. “It’s sustainable, and growing on menus,” she said.
  • Burmese tofu, which is made from chickpea powder and is somewhat similar to polenta. It is commonly used in Burmese cooking and could be a soy-free tofu analog for the increasing number of consumers avoiding soy products, Levin said.
  • Jackfruit, which Datassential research shows is up 58 percent on menus in the last four years, substitutes in its unripe form as an alternative to shredded meats in dishes such as a faux barbecue pulled-pork sandwich.
  • Heart of Palm, which can be used as a substitute for seafood in some dishes. It has been hollowed out and featured as an alternative to calamari rings at Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles, for example.
  • Banana blossom, which is used in Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines, has a taste similar to artichokes but can also be used as a seafood substitute because of its texture. “Texture is so important” when it come to plant-based alternatives, said Levin.
  • Vegan cheese in general, which is growing faster than any other type of cheese on restaurant menus, according to Datassential. Mention of vegan cheese on menus is up 200 percent in the last four years, the research firm reported.