“We’ve done our own research into this," said Bob Nolan, senior vice president of insights & analytics at Conagra Brands (which acquired Gardein in 2018 via its acquisition of Pinnacle Foods).
"And we think the opportunity between foodservice and retail on just center plate protein is $25bn in the US market alone, and we also think that there’s probably another $5bn where plant-based protein is part of another thing, so we’re putting Gardein [plant-based meats] in our Birds Eye dinners and in some Healthy Choice meals, for example," he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“I’d say that to be conservative, in the next 7-10 years we’re talking about a $30bn opportunity across all markets in the US.”
'At Gardein, we think we have a very clear advantage in chicken'
Several large retailers Conagra Brands works with are adding more shelf space to the meat alternatives category, while foodservice customers are also adding a wider selection of plant-based options to menus, said Nolan.
“They don’t just want a burger, they want nuggets, they want to give people more choices."
As for protein selections, “[Beef] burgers certainly get a lot of attention, but chicken in retail is growing at almost two and a half times the rate of the beef substitutes,” he said.
“Beef represents around 60% of all meat alternatives and chicken substitutes are at around 25%, but chicken is growing at around 26% while beef is more like 11%. At Gardein, we think we have a very clear advantage in chicken, which we have in every form imaginable. I was just with a very large foodservice customer, which thought the products tasted better [than the real thing].”
He added: “The thing that gets us excited is that [Gardein’s] growth has been primarily driven by vegans and vegetarians, and we really think the future growth for us - and for others building taste forward solutions - is with flexitarians.”
“Now that we own Gardein, we are very well positioned to capitalize on the explosive growth in this exciting space [plant-based meat].
"One area of the Pinnacle portfolio where we now see far greater growth and innovation opportunities than previously forecast is the Gardein brand… We think there's no brand that better illustrates the enormous long-term opportunity ahead than Gardein, a real jewel in the portfolio that we haven't spent a lot of time talking to you about or capitalizing on in market."
Sean Connolly, CEO Conagra Brands, Q4, 2019 earnings call, June 27
Blended products: ‘You’re in no man’s land’
So what does he think about the new wave of ‘blended’ products, which combine regular meat with plant-based meat?
Nolan, who used to work at PepsiCo - which like many soda companies has experimented with ‘mid-calorie’ sodas combining sugar and high intensity sweeteners such as the ill-fated Pepsi True - said he was not convinced that blended products would catch on.
“None of them [the mid-calorie sodas] worked at all, they’re all gone, because you’re in no man’s land. In the moment, the decision is, it’s Saturday, we’re having a cookout and man, I want a [regular beef] burger, the real thing. Then on Monday, it’s a case of, I ate and drank too much at the weekend, I want to eat no meat today and feel better about my choice. I don’t want to feel half way better about my choice.
“There’s rarely room to be not one or the other, so what I saw in the soda category, I think you’re going to see that here.”
New ultimate burger could be sold in the frozen or fresh meat aisles
While recent SPINS data suggests that a new wave of fresh/chilled products are driving category growth (fresh plant-based meat sales grew 37% in the year to April 21, albeit of a small base, vs 2% growth in the more mature frozen meat alternatives category), there are opportunities throughout the store, claimed Nolan.
Gardein’s new burger (which will replace the current Beefless Ultimate Burger) could be sold in several different locations in the store, he said.
“[In addition to the frozen meat alternatives category] there’s also the frozen protein category, which is usually run by the meat department, and that’s things like frozen burgers and steaks, all the frozen meat, and we think that could be a good space for us. We think the fresh space could also be good [for the new burger], although it’s mostly private label.
“We want the product to be wherever in the store where consumers are going to solve their problems.”
‘Taste trumps everything else if you want to reach a lot of people’
Asked about the relative performance of key brands in the frozen meat alternatives segment, in which Morningstar, Garden Burger (Kellogg), and Boca (Kraft Heinz) have lost share in recent years), he said: “There are winners and losers in the category, and most of the folks that are growing faster are in the second generation.
“For some of the first generation brands, taste was not primary, although they are modernizing now. There are folks that will compromise if they have a specific dietary need, but taste trumps everything else if you want to reach a lot of people.”
Only about 1% of the discussions of soy were negative
Asked about ingredient choices in the plant-based protein market, he said customers – who were “somewhat neutral” on this issue - often asked Gardein (which uses pea, wheat, and non-GMO soy proteins) for its opinion on consumer sentiment.
“We went out and mined a lot of social media data and only about 1% of the discussions of soy were negative and it was about the disruption of hormones and things like that, but we think that there will be demand for both soy and pea protein.
“Look at what happened in the plant-based milk market; you’ll see consumers picking different ingredients based on health and taste.”