It’s been a rough year for the plant-based protein category, but manufacturers are working overtime on a wide range of new and improved products that mimic their real meat counterparts in every regard.
Athough the plant-based food category continues to expand at a healthy clip, the meat substitutes segment has cooled off considerably. Thanks mostly to price increases, dollar sales were down just 0.9% during the 12 weeks ended July 10 to $286,457,185 across channels, but units and volume tumbled 9.4% and 6.7%, respectively, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI (iriworldwide.com).
‘Within plant-based meat alternatives, nothing is hotter than chickenless.’
The refrigerated meat substitutes subcategory (-15.8%) saw the steepest decline as top sellers Beyond Meat and Impossible transitioned significant pieces of their portfolio to frozen, which registered a 3.3% dollar gain. But the bigger issue is “the influx of new players entering the marketplace with products that just don’t taste good,” says Ken Krasnow, executive vp and chief marketing officer at Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, Elmwood Park, N.J. “Since taste is the No. 1 barrier [to category growth], that’s not good news,” he adds.
NEXT-GEN PRODUCTS ENGAGE ALL THE SENSES
But taste isn’t the only area where plant-based proteins are falling short, says Matias Mutchnick, CEO and co-founder of New York-based NotCo. They’re also missing the mark on smell, feel and function, all of which are needed to truly replicate the real meat experience. To create a product that satisfies all of the senses, NotCo uses artificial intelligence to find the perfect combination of plant-based ingredients. As a result, the food technology company’s NotBurger, which launched in America this summer, tastes just like the real thing, “no sacrifice required.”
But according to Mutchnick, NotCo recently secured a new set of patents that will also allow it to develop aromas that can conjure up happy memories associated with food. “We’re banking on the power of scent to propel the industry forward by making plant-based foods that taste and smell so delicious that it’s easy for consumers to choose plant-based long term,” he says. Available in four-packs, NotBurgers are also sold singly, offering consumers a low-cost way to sample the product.
Other companies are also working to better replicate their animal-based counterparts. For example, San Francisco-based Hooray Foods just rolled out a new version of its plant-based bacon that “mimics pork bacon like never before.” Thanks to proprietary emulsion forming technology, each strip now includes a variety of crispy and chewy parts — just like the real thing. The company also added new natural flavors and conducted a comprehensive color analysis to elevate both the taste and appearance of the product. “The end result is a winning combination that delivers the full sensory experience of cooking and eating bacon,” says Hooray Foods food scientist Patrick Dziura.
In addition to making plant-based meats that more closely mimic their animal-based counterparts, manufacturers are also focused on making meatless products more convenient. Chicago-based Food Dreams Made Real, which also owns the Suji’s brand, will launch what it believes is the first fully cooked plant-based bacon in early 2023, reports chief inspirational officer Suji Park. Offered under the R.E.D. (Real. Earth. Delicious.) brand, the product is intended for meat eaters, she says, so it looks, smells and tastes like real bacon. But it’s ready in seconds — no frying pan required.
While the new item will likely be a boon to time-pressed consumers, it also opens up opportunities in foodservice where plant-based bacon can’t be fried on the same griddle as animal-based bacon due to the risk of cross-contamination. Since R.E.D. is pre-cooked, that’s not a problem, says Park.
VARIETY ESSENTIAL TO GROWTH
Another key to category growth is what Rich Campbell, senior brand manager for Conagra-owned Gardein, calls diversification. “As more consumers enter this space, it’s important that they have an abundance of choices — great tasting options that aren’t restricted to just a few items.” He adds, “There is so much more to this category than just veggie burgers and ground beef alternatives.” This summer, the Chicago-based company expanded its Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based lineup with several new SKUs, including Chick’n Wings (in Buffalo and BBQ flavors), a Spicy variety of its Chick’n Fillets, and a pair of Breakfast Saus’ges (Original and Spicy).
But one of the most anticipated new launches comes from El Segundo, Calif.-based Beyond Meat, which will debut a sliced steak product this fall, opening up a whole new category, according to vp of sales Jason Mosley. “Our sliced steak product unlocks a broad range of culinary versatility for consumers. Whether they add it to their breakfast burrito, salad or sandwich for lunch or to weeknight staples like tacos and pizza, we think consumers will be amazed by the taste and texture of Beyond Steak, and it will be a great way to bring new users into the category.”
The company is also expanding its Beyond Chicken portfolio with the addition of plant-based Chicken Nuggets. “Plant-based chicken is the fastest-growing plant-based segment, up 24% year-to-date in MULO,” says Mosley. “And, earlier this year, Beyond Chicken Tenders won People Magazine’s 2022 Foods Awards — the only plant-based meat product to be recognized for its amazing taste.” Made with non-GMO ingredients and no added soy, “Our new Chicken Nuggets will be a great everyday item that offers a solution for parents looking for nutritious, easy-to-make meals for kids that can be prepared quickly and conveniently. I personally love cooking them in an air fryer,” says Mosley.
Dr. Praeger’s is also cashing in on the popularity of plant-based chicken, which Krasnow says is now a bigger seller than plant-based burgers. “Within plant-based meat alternatives, nothing is hotter than chickenless,” prompting the company’s introduction of five Perfect Chick’n SKUs this month. The newcomers include Chick’n Tenders, Chick’n Nuggets, Buffalo Chick’n Nuggets, General Tso’s Chick’n and Nashville Hot Chick’n, the latter two of which are new to the category. “These bite-size chick’n and sauce items are so tender, flavorful and delicious, consumers will be shocked they’re not eating real chicken,” says Krasnow.
Another new variation of plant-based chicken comes from Los Angeles-based VFC, which offers a vegan spin on classic fried chicken. Made with wheat protein and a “Southern-fried” crispy corn flake coating, its lineup includes Chick*n Filets, Chick*n Bites and Popcorn Chick*n, all of which deliver a nostalgic meal experience that’s good for the planet and good for animals, according to general manager, U.S., Craig Bowlin. This November, he reports, the company is launching a new version of the range made with more soy protein and less wheat for a lighter, crispier texture.
DEMOS, MEAL DEALS & EDUCATION
What can retailers do on their end to sell more plant-based protein? Mutchnick says in-store demos can go a long way toward winning over plant-based holdouts who don’t know just how good meatless proteins taste nowadays. He also suggests retailers merchandise plant-based meats alongside their conventional counterparts so consumers can see all of their options in one place.
However, Conagra’s Campbell says integration isn’t always the best approach since a dedicated plant-based section can really “bring the category to life” by showcasing the breadth of options. But he’s a big proponent of incorporating plant-based proteins into multi-product meal solutions. “Combining meat alternatives with other meal-time favorites is a great way to bring the growing flexitarian consumer into the category,” he explains.
‘Combining meat alternatives with other meal-time favorites is a great way to bring the growing flexitarian consumer into the category.’
But perhaps the best way to boost sales of plant-based proteins is through education, which starts with a knowledgable sales team, says Krasnow of Dr. Praeger’s. “Educate your staff and consumers about the benefits of plant-based foods, the breadth of choices, how they fit into their diet, and creative recipes that expand consumption across multiple occasions,” he says. “This is the time to become the resource that both new and established customers need.”
Krasnow also suggests retailers get to know plant-based consumers better. They’re generally younger, more educated, more affluent and live in urban environments. As a result, he says, “It’s important to speak their language and embrace their culture, preferred aesthetics and communication platforms.” Retailers also need to recognize that many plant-based shoppers are “foodies” looking for a bit of adventure. “So don’t let your inventory grow stale,” says Krasnow.