Ashley Lind, senior director, consumer insights, predictive science, at Conagra Brands told FoodNavigator-USA: “Gardein is the number two player [behind Morningstar Farms/Kellogg] within the frozen meat alternative category, and we've seen really strong growth.
“I think one of the things that is really exciting about the Gardein brand [which Conagra acquired in 2018 with the acquisition of Pinnacle Foods] is that we just continue to attract new users and new households, so we've grown our buyer base by 6% in the last year.
“We are encouraged by the growth that is coming from meat eaters in this space. Meat eaters represent 95% of the total population and represent almost 80% of buyers of the plant-based meat alternative category, and their growth rates in terms of both new buyers and dollar spend is also outpacing that of vegan and vegetarian counterparts."
She added: "Two of the top five new frozen meat substitute SKUs ranked by dollar sales are Gardein Ultimate Chicken products.** Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Chicken Tenders had the second highest repeat rate among all new frozen meat substitutes in the past six months.*** and the Ultimate platform is now more than $12m in retail sales.”****
Beyond the center plate: Soups, meals, snacks...
While Gardein offers centerplate proteins such as meatballs, burgers, nuggets and so on, it is also able to incorporate its plant-based meats into other products in the Conagra Brands portfolio from soups to entrees, said Lind.
“One of the things that's really a competitive advantage for us is that we offer really a complete slate of solutions to consumers. We have handheld, single-serve meals, multi-serve meals, and then there's our recent entrance into soups and chilis and the snacking space with jerky, which speak to the scale and breadth of capabilities that we have within the broader Conagra enterprise enabling us to extend Gardein into a lot of different spaces.”
Fresh vs frozen in plant-based meat
Asked about merchandising in the plant-based meat market, she said: “Right now we still see that roughly 60% of the overall share falls within frozen. Fresh has been growing at a bit of a quicker pace lately, with a lot of that really driven by the expansion of distribution for brands such as Beyond Meat.
“But in general, retailers are dedicating more space, more points of distribution in both frozen and fresh, and there's so much more we can still do within frozen, so that's really been our key focus area at Gardein.
"The fresh space is really anchored on beef as the key protein format, whereas in frozen, there's more evenly distributed growth across multiple protein formats including chicken and pork, and we actually see the growth on chicken outpacing that of beef, even though they're all growing.”
US retail sales of plant-based meat rose 13.2% to $1.409bn in the 52 weeks to July 11, 2021, according to new data from Chicago-based SPINS.
Frozen sales were up 9.54% to $823.9m, while refrigerated sales were up 18.85% to $585.5m over the same period.
All key subcategories are growing, with the exception of frozen grounds and refrigerated loaves and roasts.
Picture credit: Getty Images/pixsooz
Frozen food and the new normal
The frozen food category was one of the big winners in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, and while growth has slowed down as people have started to venture out more, sales remain elevated vs 2019, said Lind.
“We're definitely seeing continued elevated growth in this space… foodservice sales still haven't fully recovered and may never go back to the [pre-pandemic] level.
"It takes something like 60 or 80 days for a habit to form and we’re well over a year into this [pandemic], and people have invested in their cooking skills and some people will continue to work from home.”
We expect to see plant-based opportunities to grow in foodservice as the overall industry rebounds
That said, Gardein still sees significant opportunities in the foodservice as well as the retail market, she said. “We expect to see plant-based opportunities to grow in foodservice as the overall industry rebounds, and we’re seeing Gardein gain share in the space.
“We are partnering with not just operators who are driving unique plant-based experiences such as Veggie Grill and Stand Up Burger, but also operators who appeal to meat-eater consumers interested in plant-based versions of their favorites such as Johnny Rocket’s or The Yard House, where we have a Gardein-branded plant-based menu.
“We also have a sizeable presence in colleges and universities to reach younger consumers, who are more likely to eat plant-based.”
Meat mimicry vs 'plant-forward' options
As for recent innovations, Gardein’s Ultimate range has been a big hit, she said. “We've taken so much inspiration from foodservice and QSR chains. There’s so much activity around chicken within the QSR space and so we're really tapping into some of those on trend attributes. We are actually the first plant based fillet in the marketplace, and the early data is really promising on that.”
That said, Gardein recognizes that there is also a subset of consumers that is not myopically focused on precisely replicating the taste and texture of meat, but looking for more ‘plant-forward’ options with different tastes and textures and a wider array of plants, she said, pointing to the launch of new chickpea, black bean, and falafel burgers under the Ultimate sub-brand.
Consumers, clean labels and nutrition in the plant-based meat category
While there is pressure to improve the nutritional profile of plant-based meat products and to 'clean up' labels, she said, consumers tend to think that merely by shopping the category at all, they are making a better choice: “There's some inherent permissibility and a health halo that comes along with that, and so people already are feeling kind of good about their choices.
“We want to continue to make progress in those areas [nutrition, clean label], but consumers are not willing to sacrifice taste or the product experience.”
As for protein sources in plant-based meat, she said, while some brands make a virtue of being soy-free, “none of these protein sources have been a deal breaker for people to enter into the category, and all of them actually continue to show growth.”
*IRI measured channels (Total US MULO+C) in the 52 weeks ending July 25, 2021
**IRI measured channels (Total US MULO+C) in the 26 weeks ending July 25, 2021
***IRI panel total US all outlets in the 26 weeks ending August 8, 2021
****IRI (POS MULO+C) in the 52 weeks ending July 25, 2021
All images courtesy of Gardein/Conagra Brands