After a wonderful few days visiting members and exploring all the latest innovations in plant-based foods on the tradeshow floor, the PBFA team shifted gears to host a series of educational conversations as part of the “State of Plant-Based and Alternative Protein” panel series at Expo West. 

The past few years have been challenging for the food industry and as CEO Rachel Dreskin shared in her opening remarks to the panel series, the plant-based foods industry has been remarkably resilient in the face of inflation and supply network disruption, on top of the everyday requirements of running a food business. The story for plant-based foods continues to be one of inspiration, fueled by entrepreneurial spirit, and the keen ability to adapt and adjust. Alluding to our forthcoming 2022 U.S. retail sales data release, Rachel shared that the plant-based foods industry has held firm and continues to showcase new areas of growth and bright spots that speak to consumer commitment to this segment.  

Rachel Dreskin, Julie Emmett, Shannon Weis, and Linette Kwon

With this framing in the backdrop, the State of Plant-Based and Alternative Proteins programming provided a comprehensive view into where the plant-based industry stands today and outlined the clear opportunities for growth and development that will pave the way for the future. 

The series started with a deep dive into consumer sentiment of plant-based foods with the presentation of PBFA and 84.51’s recent “Unmet Needs: Insights and Solutions” report; explored how retailers are approaching supplier diversity and how emerging brands can meet consumer demand for innovative, sustainable, and accessible plant-based foods; and showcased fundraising trends and provided insights into how plant-based brands can stand out. 

If you were unable to attend in person, here are a few key takeaways from the panels:

Uncovering the Unmet Needs of Plant-Based Consumers

Julie Emmett, Shannon Weis, and Linette Kwon

As the plant-based foods industry continues to scale and diversify, obtaining a deeper understanding of the plant-based consumer is crucial for brands and retailers alike. PBFA’s Vice President of Marketplace Development Julie Emmett and Data and Consumer Insights Analyst Linette Kwon were joined by 84.51° Lead Insights Consultant Shannon Weis to discuss findings from Kroger’s shopper insights to find what consumer needs are being met, which ones are not, and where the opportunity for plant-based foods exist. The goal of the conversation was to inform retailers on how to leverage insights into their merchandising and purchasing strategies and build consumer loyalty as well. These insights were also valuable to plant-based brands looking to tailor their approach and offerings based on consumer insights. 

Some standout points included:

  • Major opportunity for plant-based: A whopping 66% of the total adult U.S. population is engaged with plant-based foods, which demonstrates the size and potential of the category. 
  • Health: The number one driver for consumers who eat plant-based foods is health. This is particularly the case for the 25-34 and 55-64 year-old shopper segments who like the health angle most for plant-based foods. In terms of areas for improvement, consumers noted plant-based options can have ‘too much sodium’ or be ‘too processed,’ which stands out most for consumers aged 55-64. Based on the positives and negatives, it is clear that consumers want nutrient-dense foods with new/exciting flavors and better texture. 
  • Other motivations: Taste and flavor of plant-based foods was ranked most important by consumers aged 35 to 44 and animal welfare resonates with consumers aged 25-34 and 45-54.
  • Areas for improvement: The consistency and texture of plant-based foods is one of the most identified areas for improvement amongst consumers, particularly those aged 35 to 44, followed by high price food consumers aged 25 to 34. Plant-based cheese in particular is a segment highlighted by consumers for growth with respondents looking for options that are more similar to animal-based cheese in terms of taste, creaminess, and ability to melt.  
  • Innovation ideas: Based on the insights, consumers would like to see more unique or bold flavors–not just with standard American foods but global cuisines such as curries, enchiladas, and tamales–in addition to more plant-based options for instant meals to improve accessibility and convenience. 
  • Looking forward:  Consumers are hopeful about the innovation that will come from the plant-based food space. Sixty-nine percent of respondents agreed with the following statements: ” I think in 100 years there will be more options available. I think more products will be perfected as far as taste and texture. I think there will be things that we have not even thought of yet.”

You can view the full report here

How Retailers Collaborate with Emerging Brands: Access, Supplier Diversity, and Innovation

Adrienne Smith, Jasmine Byrne, Le’Spencer Walker, Sachi Singh, Dan Kurzrock, and Chef GW Chew

Supporting emerging brands and prioritizing supplier diversity efforts to create authentic connection with consumers and boost innovation in the plant-based food space took center stage at this year’s Expo West. As retailers and brands look for ways to increase collaboration to meet consumer needs, strategies to create sustainable pathways for growth for BIMPOC and women-owned businesses prove mutually beneficial–particularly when it comes to providing the sustainable and healthy options that consumers want. 

This comprehensive panel was moderated by New Hope Network’s Adrienne Smith and featured panelists Jasmine Byrne of PBFA member Big Mountain Foods; Le’ Spencer Walker of Target; Sachi Singh of Rootless; Dan Kurzrock of Upcycled Foods Inc; and Chef GW Chew, PBFA advisor and member company Something Better Foods.

A few takeaways from this panel included: 

  • Prioritizing supplier diversity helps retailers engage consumer values: Kicking things off  from the retailer perspective, Le’Spencer highlighted how his work in merchandising vendor development prioritizes supplier diversity, in particular working with minority- and women-owned businesses who can help Target deliver on their consumers’ unique wants and needs. Authenticity, sharing the brand’s “why,” and the story behind what motivated them to create plant-based products stood out as Le’Spencer’s top ways brands can build connection with consumers – because at the end of the day, shoppers want products that are culturally relevant and fit into their unique lifestyle.
  • Consumers choose plant-based for health: In congruence with the findings from the Unmet Needs research, Chef GW Chew spoke to how his plant-based meats are designed to help people enjoy all the delicious foods they’re used to – like BBQ ribs and fried chicken – while improving their health. Having personally witnessed family members and friends who developed chronic illnesses at young ages, Chef Chew speaks to how this personal connection to food motivates his work and that is woven throughout the Better Chew brand. 
  • Taste and sustainability are part of access: Helping people engage with the health benefits of plant-based foods stood out for Sachi as she shared how Rootless products are made using nutrient-dense seaweed that not only provides essential nutrition to their consumers but also helps to regenerate the ocean environment where it is grown. For Sachi, this holistic approach to creating products that meet a variety of consumer values while increasing access comes down to taste. As she said “people don’t want to taste the ocean” but novel ingredients like seaweed offer so much opportunity. For her, creating a seaweed product that is delicious is helping to pave the way for further climate-friendly innovation in food. 
  • Emerging brands are uniquely positioned to deliver on intersectional values: Jasmine shared about Big Mountain Foods’ work to shorten their supply chain and how this process enabled them to provide a market outlet for regional, women-owned farms that now supply the fava beans used for their new products. In addition to shortening supply chains and the myriad benefits that can have for a business, Dan spoke to tackling food waste and how ReGrained upcycles spent barely into their nutrient-dense SuperGrain+ and how brands and retailers can collaborate to help consumers make change with their dollars by making sustainable options more accessible. 

Fundraising in 2023: How Plant-Based Companies Can Attract Investment

Audrey Gyr and Anu Goel

Shifting gears to the investment landscape for plant-based foods, Anu Goel of SPINS and Audrey Gyr from the Good Food Institute took the stage. Seeking investment to bolster growth and enable increased production and distribution is a key strategy many plant-based food companies have leveraged to help grow their businesses. Finding the right opportunities for investment and positioning brands for success securing investment was the core focus of this panel. Acknowledging the challenges the entire food industry has faced with declines in investment opportunities, Audrey and Anu provided direct insight into how plant-based brands can stand out and what sort of marketing and sales metrics investors are looking for to seal the deal. 

A few key points that stood out from the presentation include:

  • Clear marketing: Showcasing the unique positioning of your product on the label is a great way to attract consumers and demonstrate the value to investors. Certifications can help demonstrate commitment to quality, environmental standards, plant-based attributes and more to build consumer confidence. 
  • Strength in Retail/Marketplace: Being clear on your sales data is important when meeting with investors. Demonstrating ability to meet consumer demand and hit certain sales targets are crucial when seeking investment. Knowing your consumer trial and repeat buyer rates are also core to illustrating consumer satisfaction and commitment to your product.
  • Investors resonate with ESG: When it comes to the alternative protein space, ESG and impact are the leading divers for investment interest and tend to lead to more prolific investing. According to GFI data, 42% of investors listed this as their top priority followed by 26% listing return on investment. 

With so much rich learning, listening, and sharing during these sessions, it was hard to walk away from these panels and not feel hopeful for the future of the plant-based foods industry. As an organization, PBFA is dedicated to providing spaces for idea sharing while also delivering on the most pertinent and cutting edge data to elevate and strengthen the plant-based foods industry. A big thank you to all the panelists who made these deep conversations possible! We look forward to continued collaboration to advance our industry and inspire food systems change.