The plant-based foods industry has been subject to rising negative media scrutiny in recent months, and the incomplete and often one-dimensional narrative being spread is worth examining more closely.
As the only U.S.-based trade association representing the plant-based foods industry, our role is to champion, elevate, and strengthen the sector, driven by the remarkable power of our collective. It is essential that we face critiques (both positive and negative), with both an open mind and resilience, and seize opportunities to come together, adapt, and innovate—qualities that have enabled the plant-based foods industry to become the powerful force that it is today.
The continued growth of plant-based foods amidst the challenging backdrop of the global pandemic and supply network disruptions—which have upended the entire food system—speaks to this industry’s ability to connect with consumers, engage their desire to eat in alignment with their values, and provide delicious options that meet expectations, for every eating occasion. We celebrate the courage and tenacity of our members, who are building businesses that challenge the status quo and capture our collective vision for a food system that operates with the interests of people, planet, and animals in mind.
While it is important to acknowledge that the challenging media narratives we’re seeing can sometimes take a pessimistic view, their existence also underscores the advantages and strength of the industry:
Plant-based foods offer consumers opportunities to effect change.
Just a few years ago, our sector didn’t boast enough sales or variety to even be called an “industry”—and the growth from mere “category” to a full-blown powerhouse in the food world has been a riveting story to follow. The promise of the industry, which is now made up of roughly a thousand visionary companies and brands in the U.S. alone, symbolizes something we rarely see in modern-day capitalism: A for-profit industry fueling transformation of a system that, if not transformed, will take us and the planet down with it.
Like the burgeoning alternative energy sector, a plant-based food system presents a rare opportunity to make and spend money in a way that comports with our values and the positive impact each of us aims to have on the world. And as our research shows, consumer interest in plant-based foods is incredibly strong.
Let’s not forget: 57 percent of emissions from global food production come from raising animals for meat and dairy, in addition to growing crops for animal feed. Industrial animal agriculture is a leading driver of ocean dead zones, air and water pollution, and public health crises like antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases. As a mother of two children, I know I am not alone when I say that I want to leave our planet a better place than when I entered it.
Innovation and variety are fueling market growth.
The plant-based foods industry represents stunning innovation, and new products are consistently introduced into the market to meet rising consumer demand. And—no surprise—these exciting products are driving much more meaningful growth compared to conventional, less innovative categories. Plant-based has expanded beyond meats and milks—plant-based meat alone has grown 74% over the last three years and plant-based milk is now the growth engine for the entire milk category—to now offer an alternative to virtually every type of animal-based food under the sun, and the hugely expanded number of options available today are garnering immense public interest.
Most Americans have tried plant-based foods and, in grocery stores, 79% are repeat-buying and coming back for more. Plant-based foods’ retail sales have grown 54% in the past three years, catapulting U.S. retail sales to $7 billion. When we first started publishing data on plant-based food sales in 2018, there were only six categories to report on. Our most recent 2021 retail sales data covered 20 plant-based categories in grocery stores, which speaks to consumers’ desire for plant-based options for all occasions and all meals, including snacking, baking, and cooking.
We can see the power of plant-based performance influencing the world of food service, as well: Plant-based foods are now found in 48% of restaurants across the U.S., and this number has grown steadily–without decline–over the past decade.* The popularity of plant-based options amongst consumers has enabled them to gain ground on menus, even when most restaurants reduced the size of their menus during COVID and its aftermath. And the horizon continues to look bright: Four times as many foodservice operators plan to add more plant-based meat options to their menus in 2023, rather than reduce them. With these numbers in mind, it’s clear that our industry has long surpassed any “fad” or “trend” status, but has become a full-blown movement built on the fact that consumers want plant-based options—and not just one or two, but a vibrant and varied array that caters to every craving.
Consumers are shifting to plant-based.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. We can’t deny the serious control the meat industry has over the protein market, which begs the question: Will plant-based foods claim a slice of the meat pie, and thus challenge Big Meat’s dominance over the industry and its profits?**
The Plant Based Foods Institute, PBFA’s sister non-profit organization, just published a first-of-its-kind Plant-Based Migration Analysis report, in collaboration Kroger and its data partner 84.51°, to examine plant-based shopper dynamics over the course of two years—and dive deeper into the growing consumer shift from animal-based to plant-based foods. And we can definitively say that a shift is happening: Consumers who engage with plant-based food categories are gradually lessening their spending on animal-based products in related categories.
The comprehensive research evaluated purchases by nearly eight million Kroger households and measured changes in spending across animal-based and plant-based foods for five categories – milk, refrigerated and frozen meats, frozen meals, cheese, and yogurt. Up to this point, the industry assumption was that plant-based sales were purely incremental to animal-based food sales. We now know that consumers are interested in purchasing plant-based foods instead of animal-based foods not only for their health, but because they like the taste, appreciate the variety, and want to make more environmentally-friendly food choices.
We must evolve the narrative around plant-based foods.
Consumer research and market reports show that there is an undeniable path forward for plant-based foods, and the strength and momentum of this industry is only getting started. Resistance is to be expected when changemakers chart an alternative path, and this is an industry that endeavors to build a better way to nourish the world’s population and help avoid climate peril.
Consumers are increasingly engaged, demonstrated by their commitment to more “developed” categories such as plant-based milk and meat, while branching out into other exciting product categories like plant-based seafood, eggs, and frozen prepared meals. And plant-based brands, which we are honored to convene and work on behalf of, continue to innovate, improve existing products, and introduce new ones to meet evolving consumer demands. We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to achieving equitable access to plant-based foods, and this sort of broad-scale food systems transformation requires thoughtful collaboration and partnership, which deserve due attention and recognition in media headlines.
At PBFA, we harness the power of the industry’s collective consumer engagement and company leadership to create marketplace environments that optimize sales and enable all consumers to find and enjoy the plant-based foods they are demanding. We work steadfastly to defend and champion the industry’s interests via our labeling, regulatory, and broader policy work, and are charting a course to ensure access to plant-based foods are a default for those who want them. Everything we learn about consumer demand for delicious, more sustainable, health-promoting plant-based foods has demonstrated to me that the work we’re doing is essential and that we are on the right course.
Now more than ever, I am confident that the industry—led by our trailblazing member companies—is poised to achieve further growth and drive the critical food systems transformation we need.
*Source: Datassentials MenuTrends YE Sept 22
**(As an important note: when I talk about the meat industry and those who benefit from it, I don’t include hard-working farmers in that. Most farmers are not benefiting from the system as it stands right now, and plant-based, when coupled with increasing government support for agricultural systems that feed into the plant-based industry, presents tremendous opportunities for farmers and rural communities—more on that in another piece!)