Humans have been designed to be omnivores. However, just a few days on a meat-based protein diet at the expense of fiber (plants) will lead to almost immediate GI issues:  griping, gas and constipation. This is because the human GI system cannot effectively manage breakdown and assimilation of a meat-heavy diet.

However, as the growing number of ardent vegetarians and vegans can attest, notably those who have banished meat/animal ingredients completely from their diets for years, doing so imposes no harsh issues. Many report more effective weight management, and overall health and vitality. Today’s plant-based foods provide the much-needed macronutrient protein to ensure healthful balance.

As retailers, you have undoubtedly noticed the continued spate of new plant-based food launches. Don’t hesitate to add more of these SKUs, or to jump onto a new brand or line extension.  It’s never been more exciting to cater to the veg-veg clans — and the growing number of omnivores who want something healthy and tasty. Doing so also brings the opportunity to do what natural products retailers do best; teach and inspire. Michele Simon, JD, MPH, executive director, Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), asserts, “Consumers still need a lot of education when it comes to these foods.”

Market Innovation Sparks GrowthAnd although there remain millions of consumers who still hold archaic ideas about vegetarianism/veganism, the plant-based food industry is becoming quite the force in food innovation and manufacturing, bringing about the necessity of educating your community about these products, as Simon strongly advises.

According to the PBFA, from June 2015 to June 2016, the plant-based food industry logged in an annual revenue of $4.9 billion with total sales of $13.7 billion. This market is also responsible for nearly 61,000 jobs and has contributed $6.1 billion to the US Gross Domestic Product.

The team at Imlak’esh Organics, Santa Barbara, CA, is “very optimistic about the innovation and growth of the plant-based market,” says Kathleen Tan, outreach coordinator.  She attributes this to the growing awareness about factory farming conditions and cautions about meat-related health concerns, which seemed to have sparked a noticeable shift in food consumption habits where more plant-based options are now available in restaurants and groceries. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds offer an array of macro and micro nutrients including vitamins and minerals, amino acids, enzymes, protein and fiber.

However, Brad Lahrman, Director of Marketing, Lightlife Foods, Turners Falls, MA, observes that more than ever, consumers are purposefully seeking more plant-based options to incorporate into their diets. These include vegans and vegetarians desiring more variety, as well as flexitarians (omnivores who enjoy consuming plant-based options) who want healthier food options. “Plant-based eating is certainly on the rise,” he declares. “A food movement driven largely by millennials, 37% of consumers ages 25 to 39 are likely to seek out plant proteins, the highest of any age group, according to a recent report from Packaged Facts.”

In terms of innovation, Lahrman says he is noticing a variety of new products being introduced by competitors in the category beyond the traditional veggie burger. Plant-based frozen meals, snack bars and even crackers and chips are some recent launches aimed to create more options for consumers who want to choose plant-based foods.

Vegetarian diets have become even higher profile, thanks in large part to mainstream movies, TV, YouTube, Google, e-books, consumer magazines, and celebrity interviews which, says Ran Artsi, President of Skinny Pasta, Suffield, CT, “are a driving force and bringing awareness to vegetarian foods that reduce disease and obesity.”

Relatedly, he observes, specialized vegetarian and raw products are now found in pharmacies (CVS, Walgreens), mainstream grocers (Kroger, Ahold), discount chains (Walmart) and club stores (Sam’s, Costco). As we approach 2017, vegetarianism and veganism are no longer confined to old-school health food retailers. “From fast food to five-star restaurants, vegetarian options are becoming more commonplace and calorie count call outs are key points of sale factors to drive trial,” Artsi states.

Making it bleed is a newer innovation, observes Eugene Wang, managing partner of Sophie’s Kitchen, a plant-based seafood company based in Sebastopol, CA. While the older school of thought is manufacturing the plant-based food to be more authentic to the plant, the new school strays from that. “The old school thinking is that if you are offering a plant-based food, you don’t have to go overboard to make it look identical to the meat it’s replacing,” he explains. “However, some manufacturers are indeed ‘trying to make it bleed,’ and taste just like real meat, mouthfeel, flavor and visually. And the question is: are the meat-eaters going to be lured here? I think the verdict on that is still out.”

The goal of Sophie’s Kitchen is, Wang emphasizes, to make a brain-body connection. For example, konjac root allows for a seafood-like mouthfeel but without an off-putting fishy taste.

But the market goes way beyond simple meat/beef or poultry alternatives. The plant-based dairy market is also experiencing exhilarating increases in launches and consumer purchases.

For example, Los Angeles-based Califia Farms has experienced what Kaitlin Barton, Director of Marketing, describes as dramatic sales growth in the last couple of years for its vegan almond milks. All this demand, she notes, drives product innovation: Califia Farms has launched more than 25 vegan SKUs in just the last two years. And “we are seeing other companies, such as Kite Hill, also gaining significant traction with innovative, quality plant-based alternatives, including dairy-free cheeses and yogurts,” she adds.

And beyond the food itself, Barton sees innovation in aesthetics to capture attention on the rise. She points to her company’s “iconic bottle” which she says “helped lead the way in breaking through the genericization of the retail refrigerator case.” These refrigerators typically contain standardized cartons, thus making Califia’s packaging capable of capturing consumers’ keen attention. “It is a very exciting time to be in this space and to see so much innovation,” she stated.

Manufacturers would not enthusiastically invest in research, development, logistics and marketing if there were no demand on the immediate horizon; but not all vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian motivators, tastes and personal missions are the same. And there’s no doubt that this is a much different market now than it was only a scant few years ago.

Perfect Pickler of Bradenton, FL reflects this innovation for the growing market of plant-based eating. The firm’s CEO Wendy Jackson explains that the combination of the desire to eat plant-based diets and the $29 billion DIY market, driven by Millennials, led to a new patent-pending technology for the easy-to-use home pickling/fermentation kit. “When you look at the raw food movement, it’s all about enzymes. Probiotics are also huge. Fermenting your vegetables provides both,” she says.
All of a sudden, in last couple of years, the market exploded for a couple reasons. One is the celebrity effect, as so many have and are coming out saying that they are vegans. The culture — bloggers, mass media, social media, are all driving this trend too. —Eugene Wang, Sophie's Kitchen
People are learning that eating fermented foods is healthy, and consumer acceptance of plant-based foods has increased dramatically in just the last three to five years. For example, when Sophie’s Kitchen first entered the plant-based foods space six years ago, Wang recalls, the market was much smaller. And echoing Artsi’s observation, he notes, “All of a sudden, in the last couple of years, the market exploded for a couple reasons. One is the celebrity effect, as so many have and are coming out saying that they are vegans. The culture — bloggers, mass media, social media, are all driving this trend too.”

Another factor driving product and line growth, says Wang, are the venture capitalists starting to legitimize and pay attention to this area of manufacturing. Further, more retailers are adding more space and shelving as well as promotions for plant-based food options.

All this combined, energetic exposure, says Artsi, is helping consumers to build healthy habits that demand low-calorie alternatives in other traditionally high carb and high calorie categories that are yet to be transformed. Skinny Pasta for example has only 9 calories per serving versus 220 calories on average for conventional pasta. For vegans and vegetarians, pasta has been traditionally a heavily consumed food, and with increased concerns about carbohydrate consumption and weight gain, products such as Skinny Pasta may be aimed squarely at the plant-based consumer market.

Lahrman relates that Lightlife’s business is up double digits over the prior year across all classes of trade. “We know that plants are no longer a side dish, but are holding their own at the center of the plate for many Americans,” he says. Further, Lahrman adds, a big part of this growth is that it’s easier than ever to reduce meat consumption due to the number of food companies that are launching new and innovative plant-based products; they are actively competing on taste to gain shelf space, and if a product doesn’t taste good, or offer that gratification, it will not succeed.

“It’s all connected,” comments Tan. The vegan market is flourishing because it is responding to the growing consumer demand for plant-based products. This demand stems from a better understanding of how food affects consumers’ health. Ultimately, the greater understanding of the benefits that come from a plant-based lifestyle directly increases the demand for plant-based products.

In a survey Califia Farms conducted in conjunction with Berry Cart last year, the majority of respondents (73%) agreed that meat and dairy are not environmentally sustainable for our planet and that a more plant-based diet is the diet of the future. Interestingly, of the survey respondents who identified as omnivores, more than half reported consuming plant-based alternative dairy beverages several times a week. The top two reasons cited were: “I like the taste” and “healthier than dairy milk.” Of the omnivores, one in five consumes plant-based alternative dairy beverages “because it is more humanely produced than dairy.”

Also keep in mind that many omnivores have turned away from milk due to GI distress, a possible lactose-intolerance.  Those consumers who do eat meat and animal-based products, now more than ever, will indeed purchase and eat plant-based foods and beverages, as many are concerned about gluten and other inherent chemicals that may cause reactions due to sensitivities; and plant-based foods — and their manufacturers — are mostly held in high esteem as being healthy and better for you.

Brand manufacturers of plant-based foods and beverages have profiled their core consumers, which create excitement for retailers to create social media and other marketing and promotional campaigns and events.

According to Artsi, persons who are suffering from sugar and glucose intolerance are primary consumers of Skinny Pasta. “Our line helps individuals who want to enjoy pasta, and are living with conditions like diabetes, celiac, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, among others,” he explains. “In addition, our low-calorie formula is ideal for those looking to maintain a desirable weight.”

Imlak’esh Organics’ plant-based offerings, says Tan, resonate with a wide spectrum of people, “from mothers to hippies to foodies to yogis to educated Millennials to health-conscious Baby Boomers.” The common denominator these “conscious consumers” all share is the knowledge of the role that food plays in health.  They are people who consider not only how their food and beverage choices affect themselves, but also the world around them. “Our devotees align with our mission of providing the most nutrient-dense organic, sustainably harvested foods to nourish the people and provide living wages and socio-economic opportunities for small farmers,” she says.

Customers who seek to support companies that showcase social responsibility may like that Imlak’esh Organics donates 5% of its profits to projects around the world, and also encourages Sacha Inchi farmers in the rural rainforest regions of Southeast Asia to go beyond sustainable farming by aiming for regenerative practices that help to regrow the rainforests.

Lightlife, which was founded in 1979, has seen a dramatic shift in the personality and habits of its consumers. Some of its consumers, says Lehman, are on strict no-meat diets, and Lightlife’s products provide these individuals with the much-needed macronutrient, protein. “More recently, the Flexitarian movement and the emergence of the Millennial shopper has brought the semi-vegetarian to our brand,” he observes. “They’re dipping their toes into meat-reduction, more open to trying new things and are looking to get the enjoyment of hot dogs, ground beef, burgers, etc. without the saturated fat or cholesterol. They’re realizing that an enjoyable, substantial meal doesn’t require animal-based products.”

Califia’s team believes that almond milk’s ability to showcase the flavors of cold-brew coffee (trending right now) has been “a high point in dairy-free adoption, as more and more consumers are honing in on cold brew coffee’s clean energy benefits,” Barton comments.

Appealing IdeasAnything that goes down the gullet is easy to promote — just sample. But, according to some brand manufacturers, there are other great ways to not only deliver the message that plant-based foods are suitable for everyone who graces your doorstep, but engender shopper loyalty.

During sampling, offered Tan, “experiment with your foods!” Plant-based foods are now available in such a wide variety, that they cover the spectrum of tastes, and certain combinations may provide fuller meal-based options, as well as ideas for what to eat and provide the family for the upcoming week.  “Have fun with it, play with your food, and share what you come up with,” she encourages.

Simon of the Plant Based Foods Association recommends hosting regular tastings and if you have an RD on staff, make sure he or she is available to answer questions. “It’s also really important to have clearly defined locations in the store where consumers can find these foods. This is a top priority for the association, to help retailers with how to best merchandise plant-based foods,” she shares.

Barton agrees, noting that Califia Farms enjoyed successful events with complementary brands such as Navitas Naturals, promoting the latter’s Back to the Roots cereal with demos and recipes, as one example. “These complementary demos can bring new consumers into the category by showing how plant-based foods can deliciously work together,” she emphasizes.

While creating sampling tables and related events, one school of thought is to emphasize the term plant-based over a closed identity, such as vegan or vegetarian.

“A growing number of consumers are more open to trying ‘plant-based foods’ or ‘plant protein’ versus ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian,’” he said. “So designating merchandising areas in the store as ‘plant-based’ or ‘plant-protein’ is a great start. Make plant-based foods a destination.”

And, people of all ages are active on social media, therefore, a continually updated social media presence is a must now for retailers. And when it comes to all things plant-based, not only is social media great to promote, but you can also link up with the brands themselves. Califia Farms, for example, posts recipes and ideas, says Barton.

“We strive to show customers that our brand is so much more than just the product. And for retailers, merging their social media initiatives with a lot of the creativity expressed every day by new and innovative vegan/vegetarian brands is a great way to draw customers into your stores.”

The vegan/vegetarian market is no longer so exclusive or poorly understood by typical consumers. The trend is that even mass-market omnivores know that eating a vegetarian diet is a healthy choice, and many of these consumers are much more willing to try a plant-based food as long as it tastes good. And while many may now be purchasing some options at their local supermarkets, this is a grand opportunity for you to get the word out that your store has much, much more to offer to satisfy nearly every taste and palate.WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine December 2016