Natural Products Expo West

Plant Based Foods Association takes multi-prong approach to identify, meet growing consumer demand for options including and beyond protein

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Plant-based foods

The plant-based market continues to grow at a rapid clip despite a notable slowdown from the double-digit gains in the first year of the pandemic, but to maintain and regain some of the segment’s momentum, the Plant Based Foods Association argues stakeholders must better understand who buys their products and why.

To further fuel industry growth, plant-based players also must defend against restrictive state and federal labelling laws and regulations, and work more closely with farmers to reinforce the resiliency of the food system and take full advantage of agricultural opportunities, the trade group’s CEO Rachel Dreskin told FoodNavigator-USA at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim earlier this month.

She explained PBFA is working towards this goals as part of the group’s broader mission to drive transformation to a plant-based food system that is sustainable, regenerative and “prioritizes producing food for direct human consumption, respects the rights of all animals to live free of exploitation, ensures fairness for farmers and workers, promotes good health and nutrition, is restorative and remains within ecological limits.”

The current landscape

In the months leading up to Natural Products Expo West, many of the headlines about plant-based food have focused on declining sales of plant-based meat compared to the spike the category enjoyed early in the pandemic.

But, according to Dreskin, the slowdown in plant-based meat at retail is “not as dire as some folks are saying,”​ with the category “more or less”​ maintaining market share gains and sales from the past two years, “which is quite tremendous.”

Likewise, she notes, plant-based protein continues to enjoy growth in foodservice, where it has steadily increased year-over-year for the past two or three years.

“When we surveyed restaurant operators looking into 2023 … four times as many operators have said they’re going to be adding plant-based options in 2023,”​ Dreskin said.

She added that while much of the public conversation about plant-based has centered on protein, it is only a small part of the overall segment, which grew 6% to $7.4b in 2021 on top of a 28% increase to $6.9b in 2020 and a 12% increase to $5.4b in 2019 over the previous years, according to data from SPINS, PBFA and the Good Food Institute.

“The industry is so much more diverse,”​ and several plant-based categories are emerging and experiencing substantial growth, including plant-based eggs, bacon, seafood and frozen meals, she said.

Overall, she added, this data combined “paints a very positive picture for where this industry is heading.”

Fulfilling unmet needs

However, for the plant-based industry to seize its full potential and further drive growth, Dreskin says companies need to better understand what consumers want and innovate to meet those needs.

Research conducted by Kroger/84.51 and the PBFA revealed at Expo West showed most consumers are looking for plant-based products with bold and layered spices that fit into cultural cuisines and are convenient to prepare, Dreskin said.

Real and perceived health benefits associated with plant-based products also is a primary attraction for many shoppers, but this cuts both ways as more than half of consumers said they dislike that even though plant-based options are healthier they often still have “hidden unhealth ingredients that people are not always aware of,” including excessive sodium, according to the research.

The biggest turn-offs for consumers are the consistency and texture of plant-based products, followed by price and what they deemed excessive processing, the data also reveals.

Innovating to meet these needs is only part of the solution – manufacturers also must better communicate with consumers how to use and prepare plant-based products, notes Dreskin, adding that current labeling regulations and legislation play a pivotal role in how the industry does this.

“A lot of the proposed rules and the guidance that has been put out from the FDA really has been developed through the framework of animal agriculture, and now it’s being applied to the plant-based foods industry”​ with limited success, Dreskin said.

She explained that PBFA is working to create more equitable labeling for plant-based products, such as the ability for plant-based beverages to use the term ‘milk’ on packaging, as proposed recently by FDA and opposed by the dairy industry, which has a powerful lobbying group.

Ensuring sufficient supply for a scaling industry

As the plant-based industry grows in variety and size, the PBFA is working closely with farmers to ensure sufficient supply of key ingredients and encourage additional investments in plant-based crops for human consumption.

“We are working with farmers in various parts of the country … particularly those who are growing monoculture corn and soy, which is … going primarily to animals, and we’re working with them integrate crops like oats, lupini beans, lentils, chickpeas, and wheat, and in using more sustainable agricultural practices, regenerative agriculture practices, and then we’re marrying them up with companies that are part of the PBFA … directly to source those products and use them in their products and manufacturing,”​ she explained.

PBFA recently met with US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to share the success of these pilot projects and advocate for additional government funding to further support these efforts and build out infrastructure necessary for the plant-based industry’s longer term success, Dreskin said.

She added PBFA also is working with USDA to support broader access to plant-based products through federal benefit programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program.

This includes a push to include within the WIC program more plant-based cheeses, yogurts and milk, beyond the recently added soy milk, she said.

While Dreskin recognizes that PBFA is managing a lot of different elements, she says she is optimistic about the benefits they will deliver in the coming years not just for industry, but also consumers who crave more choices.

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