A dream deferred: Bean sales soar as shoppers seek nutrient-dense, plant-based & diet-friendly foods

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/AnVyChicago
Source: Getty/AnVyChicago

Related tags beans Organic plant-based

Five years after the United Nations celebrated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses to raise awareness of legumes’ nutritional value and sustainability, SPINS data shows sales of dried beans are skyrocketing as consumers look for more nutrient-dense and budget-friendly products in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.

Sales of shelf stable vegetables, tomatoes, grains, canned beans and peanut butter also are on the rise and outperforming total product sales as the pandemic shifts consumer priorities to products that will sustain them between less frequent shopping trips, Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of business development at SPINS told attendees this week during New Hope Network’s Spark Change virtual Natural Products Expo.

She also notes that during lockdowns many consumers have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle with fewer options to move and exercise compared to the before the pandemic. As such, they want every calorie to count – upping the ante for nutrient-dense products, as well as those that support popular diets and lifestyles.

Beans check many of these boxes, as illustrated by the increase in consumer interest in them.

“How many times in the past did you just walk by the dry bean section in your store?”​ Peters asked attendees. “Who would have guessed early last year that categories like dry beans and vegetables and tomatoes would be growing at rates in the high twenties of growth and even over 50% for dry beans.”

According to SPINS data for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, 2021, sales of dried pinto beans were up 453%, dry kidney beans 232%, dry black beans 207% and dry green pea, brown lentils and adzuki all up more than 100% over the prior year.

“This is a really interesting trend when you see the variety both in taste profile and use cases, things like pintos and kidneys and black and green peas and beyond. We also combine not only that variety and the strong nutritional profile, but we think about the significant implications and potential for sustainability, as it relates to agriculture and care for the earth that go far beyond just personal health benefits,”​ Peters said.

Within that framework, Peters also noted that sales of shelf stable organic vegetables are up 31.7% versus 23.1% for conventional, while sales of shelf stable organic tomatoes are up 30.7% compared to 23.7% for conventional, organic grains 29.5%  versus 21% for conventional; and organic peanut butter 11.9% vs. 9.4% for conventional.

These sales gaps suggest that consumers perceive organic as healthier versions of the nutrient dense products they seek, Peters said.

Reflecting on this dramatic shift, she advised brands and manufacturers to “really think about the products, again, the nutrition that you're putting into what you're bringing to market.”

Plant-based diet further bolsters demand for beans and vice-versa

Consumer interest in pulses also is being driven by the rising popularity of plant protein, Adrienne Smith, senior food business reporter with New Hope Network, noted during a different Spark Change session focused on innovation trends.

She pointed out that peas give a nutritional boost to Ripple non-dairy milk, and chickpeas and lentils elevate the amount of protein in pastas made by Chickapea, which promises 23g per serving.

Consumers’ broader embrace not just of plant-protein but plant-based products overall is fueling higher sales of plant-based products across categories compared to their mainstream counterparts, Peters said, noting that plant-based products saw sales climb 29% year-over-year to $5.7b for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, 2021, compared to 15% for food and beverage overall.

Peters explained that plant-based innovations are emerging in new categories typically associated with meat and dairy based products, and are bringing with them heightened health benefits and nutrient density, which is further lifting sales.

For example, she noted plant-based shelf stable rinds and cranklins saw sales increase 188% over the past year, while sales of plant-based frozen breakfast entrees are up 64%, plant-based mac & cheese is up 56%, and plant-based whipped desserts are up 38%.

Paleo- & keto-claims bolster sales

In addition to nutrient density, SPINS data also underscores the power of diet- and lifestyle-related claims to drive sales at a time when consumers stuck at home are looking for help maintaining healthy eating habits, Peters noted.

For example, she explained, paleo eligible products are growing fast and represent shopper desire for fewer additives, less refined sugars and the absence of inflammatory agents. These include paleo-differentiated shelf stable hot cereals, sales of which are up 189% for a total of $1m in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2020, and sales of paleo pastas, which are up 80% for a total of $12.4m in the same period.

Likewise, sales of keto eligible products underscore the push back against sugar and a desire for fewer carbs. Baking mixes and pancake mixes with keto callouts are up 149% to $16.9m and plant-based meat is up 45% for a total of $804m during the year ending Dec. 27, 2020, Peters pointed out.

Ultimately, she noted, the trends come together to support the growing trend of food as medicine, which Peters says has grown during the pandemic and which she predicts will continue to gain momentum even after the coronavirus vaccine has been distributed widely.

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