‘2020 was a breakout year for plant-based foods…’ GFI, PBFA, SPINS, unveil 2020 retail sales data

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

US retail sales of plant-based meat rose 45% to $1.4bn in measured channels in 2020, according to SPINS data commissioned by the GFI and the PBFA (pic credit: GettyImages-Aluna1)
US retail sales of plant-based meat rose 45% to $1.4bn in measured channels in 2020, according to SPINS data commissioned by the GFI and the PBFA (pic credit: GettyImages-Aluna1)

Related tags plant-based GFI Good Food Institute Plant Based Foods Association SPINS alternative proteins plant-based meat plant-based milk plant-based cheese plant-based dairy

Sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products - including meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, condiments and meals containing plant-based alternatives - grew by 27% to $7bn in measured channels in the year to December 27, 2020, according to SPINS data* commissioned by The Good Food Institute (GFI) and the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA).

The SPINS dataset (natural enhanced and conventional multi-outlet) excludes several leading retailers that don't share their data, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, ALDI, Costco and convenience stores, and does not include e-commerce sales, so the actual figure is likely somewhat higher.

A 'plant-based' product within this data set is "a product that provides a direct intentional replacement for an animal product​," so in the case of condiments, for example, it would capture sales of Vegenaise (egg-free mayo), but exclude a plant-based product such as French’s classic yellow mustard, as it's not replacing something that is typically animal-based.  

While the 27% growth figure partly reflects a shift in food consumption to the home during the pandemic as retail outlets picked up business lost by the foodservice market, sales growth in plant-based products significantly outpaced growth in the overall retail food and beverage market (+15%), said the GFI and PBFA, while household penetration of plant-based products is also steadily rising.

“57% of households now purchase plant-based foods, up from 53% in 2019.”


Plant-based milk sales +20%

Oatmilk – a relative newcomer to the US plant-based milk segment that barely registered in the data a couple of years ago – has been the category’s runaway success story, with sales surging 219.3% to $264.1m in 2020, catapulting it into the #2 spot ahead of soymilk. Picture credit: Chobani

The largest – and most mature - segment within the category is plant-based milk, which has US household penetration of 39% and generated dollar sales growth of 20% to $2.5bn over the period, accounting for 15% of fluid milk sales (and 45% of category sales in natural food stores), although retail sales of dairy milk sales also rose for the first time in years.

Sales of almondmilk - which accounts of around two-thirds of the category​ – were up 16.9% to $1.59bn in the 52-weeks to Jan 24, 2021.

However, oatmilk – a relative newcomer to the segment that barely registered in the data a couple of years ago – is its runaway success story​, with sales surging 219.3% to $264.1m over the period, catapulting it into the #2 spot ahead of soymilk (which has been on a downward trajectory for years, but has started growing again in recent months​).    

Sales of peamilk – another relative newcomer – were up 15.8%, while coconutmilk – which has been around for a long time – generated sales growth of 25.9%, driven by strong growth in shelf-stable products and more modest growth in refrigerated products.

Plant-based milk by numbers, 52 weeks to Jan 24, 2021 (SPINS)
Ripple Kids new packaging feb 2021
Pic credit: Ripple Foods

US retail sales of plant-based milk rose 21.9% to $2.542bn in measured channels in the year to Jan. 24, 2021, according to data shared with FoodNavigator-USA from SPINS​.

The key segments are:​​​​ (figures below exclude included blended products)

  • #1 Almondmilk (+16.9% to $1.59bn): ​​​​Refrigerated +17%, Shelf-stable +15.8%  
  • #2 Oatmilk (+219.3% to $264.1m): ​​​​Refrigerated +218.6%, Shelf-stable +85.9%  
  • #3 Soymilk (-0.9% to $201.4m): ​​​​Refrigerated -0.2%, Shelf-stable +11.3%  
  • #4 Coconutmilk (+25.9% to $134.6m): ​​Refrigerated +8.3%, Shelf-stable +68.6%
  • #5 Peamilk (+15.8% to $45.2m): ​​​Refrigerated +16.4%, Shelf-stable -2.1%
  • #6 Ricemilk (+4.2% to $44.68m): ​​​Refrigerated -8.5%, Shelf-stable +12.2%

Plant-based meat sales +45%

Sales in the second-largest category - plant-based meat - were up 45% to $1.4bn in the 52 weeks to December 27, 2020, significantly outpacing sale growth in conventional meat, although the latter (far larger and more mature) market also grew in double digits over the period.

Plant-based tuna sandwich picture credit Good Catch
Sales of plant-based seafood – a market expected to grow significantly in the coming years, albeit off a tiny base - rose 23% to $12m in 2020. Picture credit: Good Catch

The strongest growth was generated by higher-value ‘next generation’ refrigerated plant-based meat products (+75%), while frozen plant-based meat sales were up 30%.

Plant-based meat now accounts for 2.7% of dollar sales of retail packaged meat, with US household penetration rising from 14% in 2019 to 18% in 2020.

Sales of plant-based seafood – a market expected to grow significantly in the coming years, albeit off a tiny base​ - rose 23% to $12m.

Plant-based yogurt +20%, plant-based cheese +42%

Some of the greatest dollar growth in the plant-based segment – again off a very small base - is coming from plant-based yogurt (+20.2% to $343m in 2020), plant-based cheese​ (+42.5% to $270m), and plant-based eggs (+168% to $27m).

Plant-based butter (which players in the segment insist is not a fancy name for products that should be labeled as margarine or spreads, but refers to products specifically replacing dairy butter) makes up 7% of the butter category, while plant-based creamers (+32.5% to $394m) now account for 6% of the creamer category.  

Major meat and dairy companies are investing in alternative proteins

Some commentators believe a disproportionate amount of money, time, and column inches is being devoted to plant-based meat, dairy, and egg alternatives, given their tiny share of the overall food and beverage market today.

McPlant burger
Beyond Meat recently announced global partnerships with two of the biggest players in fast food: McDonald’s, and Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut), a month after striking a deal with PepsiCo to develop snacks and beverages featuring plant-based protein. Picture credit: McDonald's

However, others point out that the trajectory is clear, with leading CPG brands from Nestlé​ to Unilever​ and Danone​; huge meat companies from Tyson​ to JBS​; the world’s biggest foodservice brands​ from McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC to Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Dominos; and leading retailers such as Kroger and Tesco all placing big bets on alternative proteins over the past 12 months.    

As to how big the addressable market may be, it’s hard to predict, given that the purchase drivers are not the same in each category, some products are more technically challenging than others, price remains a barrier, and consumers still rate animal proteins highly on taste, texture, and nutrition.

However, “2020 was a breakout year for plant-based foods across the store,” ​said GFI research analyst Kyle Gaan.

The incredible growth we saw in plant-based foods overall, particularly plant-based meat, surpassed our expectations and is a clear sign of where consumer appetites are heading​.”

The size of the prize in ‘alternative’ proteins

A recent report​ from Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation predicted that alternative proteins – plant-based, microbial, cell-cultured - could account for 11% of the global protein market ($290bn) by 2035.

The report – which bases this estimate on the assumption that alt proteins will match animal products on price, taste, and texture pretty soon (which is by no means a given) - spells out that we’ll continue to see increases in animal production for some time, even as alt protein’s share increases, because the overall protein market is still growing.  

* The SPINS data represents retail sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products, including meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy, as well as meals that contain plant-based alternatives. This data was obtained over the 52-week period ending December 27, 2020, from the SPINSscan Natural Enhanced, Conventional Multi Outlet (powered by IRI) grocery channels. It does not include c-stores, e-commerce sales, or data from some retailers such as Trader Joe’s, ALDI, and Costco.

GFI and PBFA also commissioned consumer panel data from SPINS (which used the National Consumer Panel, a Nielsen and IRI joint venture composed of roughly 100,000 households).

Blue Horizon Alternative Protein scenarios
Source: Food for Thought: The Protein Transformation, BCG and Blue Horizon Corp March 2021

According to Mintel, there was a 116% increase in plant-based claims on new US food and beverage product launches between 2018 and 2020.

The plant-based category has evolved to the point that retailers can’t limit who they consider the plant-based shopper​.” Dawn Valandingham, head of retail, SPINS  

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