This week was an exciting week for the food industry.
Natural Products Expo West returned to Anaheim after 3 years away. And while the event was put on pause, consumer demands certainly were not. Consumer expectations have evolved since the last expo, and attendees were eager to see the latest and greatest innovations from the thousands of exhibitors participating.
After two days of walking the floor, I was especially impressed with companies in the plant-based sector. Since the last time the Expo opened its doors, the plant-based market has grown up. According to SPINS retail sales data, the retail market for plant-based foods was worth $7 billion in 2021, up from $5.5 billion in 2019. And in 2022, the market is forecasted to grow even more rapidly.
But even with the market growing, it isn’t an easy market to enter. Consumers want it all – they deeply care about health, sustainability, and quality and they don’t want to compromise. This makes it difficult for plant-based formulators who want to please their evolving consumer.
It’s clear though the plant-based industry is listening and learning. Read on to see how 7 companies are preparing to meet consumer needs in this competitive industry:
1. Sustainable Ingredients
Our food system is deeply flawed. And consumers are catching on. By redesigning foods, we can reverse global warming, restore native ecosystems, and add health benefits. Here are 2 companies that are utilizing sustainable ingredients to innovate in the plant-based meat space:
- Unlimeat – Upcycling ingredients. UNLIMEAT is not only a plant-based product, but also a driver of innovation toward sustainable food systems. Their proprietary “protein compression” extrusion technology creates a truly meat-like texture. And the best part? They use upcycled products to do it. Produce with small imperfections or excess natural byproducts such as pressed soybeans from creating soybean oil and rice bran from milling brown rice are typically destroyed, but through upcycling. Unlimeat gives new life to wasted produce. Their thinly sliced plant-based meat has a meaty flavor, but with 0 fat.
- Chi Foods – Sustainable ingredients. Chi Foods is bringing the first USDA Organic, Keto, Paleo, plant-based meat to market. Their ground pork uses CHI Nuts, which contain 8x the Omega-3 of Wild Pink Salmon and are the only zero net carb nut on the planet. Their products have no “sketchy stuff” that is typically found in other plant-based alternative meat products. (i.e: no methylcellulose, soy leghemoglobin, wheat, pea or soy protein, food starch modified, monocalcium phosphate, magnesium carbonate, artificial colors or dyes). Their chorizo was particularly good and I look forward to seeing them launch in the market soon.
2. Incredible Taste
With the number of flexitarians rising, it’s clear that consumers are willing to try unique plant-based products. It’s a challenge to please flexitarians though – they will continue to compare the new plant-based version to the original. These high expectations make it quite difficult for companies entering the space. If the product doesn’t live up to consumers’ standards, consumers simply won’t buy it again. There are companies though that are doing it well – here are two that I couldn’t believe were vegan.
- Plant Ahead Sliced Cheese – These plant-based cheese slices are created using coconut oil – yet you wouldn’t know it. The mouthfeel and taste is superb – and if you didn’t know it was plant-based, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Their range is quite large and the ingredient label is small. Well done, Plant Ahead!
- Naturli’s Butter – the exhibitor at Naturli’s booth told me this plant-based butter is better than real butter. I was intrigued. After a spoonful, I was impressed. Made with ingredients such as rapeseed, coconut, shea nuts and almonds, the Danish product had a rich, creamy taste. I will certainly purchase these when they launch in the US.
3. Nutrition forward
With consumer demand for plant-based products increasing so quickly, companies are rushing to launch great-tasting products as quickly as they can. When developing these products, taste and texture is key – but nutrition is often a nice to have. These two companies are making it a priority to make their plant-based products taste great – and help consumers improve their health.
- Current Foods – In 2019, Current Foods set out to make plant-based seafood. After 2 years of R&D, they launched in 2021 with something better: seafood that just happens to be made from plants. Their vegan sushi is great-tasting, pregnancy friendly, and really nutritious. Their tuna and salmon has no cholesterol or mercury, is only 100 calories, and includes 25% of your DV of iron, 40% your DV of Vitamin B12, and 70mg+ of Omega-3. Their great-tasting and nutrient-dense products will be launching D2C this spring.
4. Formulation Improvement
As the plant-based market grows, companies continue to place importance on speed to market. But sometimes that means launching a product that they know will need iterations. Rooted in transparency, these companies have embraced innovation – fully embracing that the fact that their plant-based products can and will get better. And they won’t stop until it’s perfect.
- Miyoko’s – Founder Miyoko Schinner invented the category of artisan vegan cheese. Now she’s on a mission to revolutionize the entire dairy industry. Their products are sold in stores nationwide- but recently they announced they’ve removed its full range of plant-based cheese shreds and slices from the market. In a post on her social media she shared, “In deciding to pull the product off the marketplace, we had to make the decision to take a hit to our revenues in order to re-establish our brand values.” To see so much care and thoughtfulness put into their decision, I’m certainly excited for their relaunch.
- Simulate – Simulate’s plant-based chicken nuggets were extremely good. But when I visited their website, I was even more impressed. In a quite differentiating move, they treat their products like technology – updates included. In their “releases” you can track their R&D updates. “SIMULATE developers are constantly updating the codebase of our products,” it reads on their website. The “Nuggs” product I tried was their 9th iteration, each they spell out what changed between each version. I personally loved the nugget and the transparency that came with it.
These were just 7 of the hundreds of plant-based companies in the market. They all approach innovation in different ways – but what ties them together is their commitment to supporting their consumer base. This year’s Expo West has made it clear that it’s an exciting time to be a plant-based eater, and we have innovative and thoughtful companies to thank for that.