Vegan is out. Plant-based is in. And don’t be fooled: These words are not synonyms, at least in the eyes of the consumer. Vegan, with its hippie image, can sometimes have a negative connotation. Conversely, plant-based diets are hip.
Plant-based foods are now found throughout the entire grocery store, including the frozen aisle, in everything from pizza to entrees and ice cream.
Plant-based is not a cut-and-dried term. It can mean a product is, for all extents and purposes, vegan: It contains no meat or dairy products. Or it can mean it has some plant-based alternatives, such as a nondairy cheese or a nonanimal derived “meat.”
Landover, Md.-based Giant Food has seen a significant increase in plant-based frozen foods in the past year, especially in ice cream, meatless and novelty items, as well as entrees, pizza, vegetables and appetizers, says Daniel Wiggington, director of nonfood, who until recently was the category manager for dairy and frozen food for the 163-unit chain.
Meanwhile, in The Fresh Market’s frozen cases, “we’ve seen an increase in product offerings and innovation,” says Dwight Richmond, director of center store and merchandising for the Greensboro, N.C.-based company. “We’ve seen an increase in ‘plant-powered’ products that are not just about plant-based protein.” He points to products such as Cado avocado ice cream and Strong Roots’ burgers, fries and bites.
PCC Community Markets, which has 11 natural and organic stores in and around Seattle, has carried plant-based frozen foods for years. But things are changing. “The new trend we’re seeing is plant-based meat replacements,” says Senior Grocery Buyer Scott Owen. “The aim of many manufacturers now is to entice the carnivore to plant-based alternatives. In that respect, the uptick in new products is definitely charting steeply upward. I see the marketplace catching up to the necessity of plant-based alternatives now.”
If consumers are asking, manufacturers will respond. According to Tom Vierhile, VP of strategic insights, North America, for Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights, product launches containing the word “vegan” had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24% from 2016 to 2019, while products containing the word “vegetarian” had a CAGR of 9% in the same time. Meanwhile, launches of food products described as “plant-based,” “100% plant,” “plant-powered” or “plant protein” had a CAGR of 146%.
Photograph courtesy of Daiya
“The word ‘plant’ has become an important and profitable selling attribute of food products,” says Julie Henderson, VP of communications for the National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA) in Harrisburg, Pa. “There has been a rising trend of plant-based frozen foods over the last few years as consumers are becoming both more health-conscious and environmentally aware.”
New Customers and Crossovers
In great news for retailers, many sales of plant-based frozen food are new sales. And awareness of these foods is high. According to the Consumer Alternatives to Meat report from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), Washington, D.C., 49% of consumers have tried a plant alternative to animal meat, and 44% described themselves as omnivores, so they are open to trying alternative protein sources.
Overall, however, people are eating more plant-based products. According to IFIC’s Food and Health Survey from May 2019, 24% of consumers said they were eating more plant-based protein than they were a year ago. And much of this is coming from the frozen aisle. Data from SPINS data commissioned by The Good Food Institute, Washington, D.C., shows that frozen plant-based “meat” accounts for 73% of all dollar sales of plant-based meat, while refrigerated plant-based meat accounts for 26% and shelf-stable plant-based meat accounts for just 1%.
Refrigerated “meat” sales are rising faster—by 85% from April 2017 to April 2019—while sales of frozen plant-based meat grew by 26%. And according to analysts from Barclays, faux meat is projected to reach 10% of the $1.4 trillion global meat market in the next decade.
Albertsons, based in Boise, Idaho, has found lots of customers are interested in a flexitarian lifestyle. The retailer reports that 29% of people identify as flexitarian, meaning they pursue a plant-based diet while occasionally eating meat.
Responding to this, Albertsons partnered with San Francisco-based Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) last August to introduce new plant-based frozen bowls under its O Organics label, with dishes such as edamame teriyaki vegetable rice bowl and a chickpea curry and spinach rice bowl. These are available in all of the retailer’s banners.
Flexitarians on the Rise
While Giant can’t pinpoint how much of plant-based sales are new, due to lack of data, Wiggington says, “Shoppers are buying both meat products and plant-based frozen foods.”
“Sales of plant-based frozen food have risen, but meat product sales have not declined in response. It seems like many shoppers are buying both products,” he says.
At PCC, many shoppers switch back and forth, and Owen says plant-based foods “offer an avenue to cut back on meat but let customers enjoy a similar flavor and texture. The bottom line is that these alternatives give customers more choices, and the quality of the meat replacements has become remarkable.”
Richmond of The Fresh Market also sees more flexibility among customers. “Consumers are blending their protein needs and are more flexitarian,” he says.
Vancouver, British Columbia-based Daiya is known for its plant-based cheese but also offers frozen plant-based foods such as burritos and pizzas. “Our products are designed for plant-based loyalists and flexitarians alike,” says Mike Cooke, VP of sales. “We often find that many people who are not vegan or plant-based really enjoy what we have to offer.”
While it’s largely millennials and their desire to experiment that is driving this trend, it’s not exclusively them. “All age groups have put their toe in the water,” Wiggington says.
Owen of PCC says health is the bigger factor in driving sales of plant-based frozen foods rather than age. Health is a large component—personal and environmental—“and one which affects all age groups,” he says.
But, Richmond says, “It’s more about lifestyle than it is generational. It’s a consumer who’s health-conscious, interested in eating a balanced diet and who also tends to be more environmentally conscious.”