Almonds during the manufacturing process at a factory in Birmingham, UK, (Photographer: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg News)

Plant-Based Foods Are Finding an Omnivorous Customer Base

(Bloomberg) -- It’s not just the vegans.

Plant-based food sales rose 20 percent over the past year, to more than $3.3 billion, according to new retail data from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association. Non-dairy milk sales rose 9 percent over the past year, to $1.6 billion, making it the biggest sector of the category. Plant-based creamers are up 131 percent, at $109 million in sales, cheeses are up 43 percent, at $124 million, and yogurts grew 55 percent, reaching $162 million. Even plant-based meats were up 24 percent, hitting $670 million in sales. In the same year, cow milk sales fell 6 percent, by dollar value.

“These foods have moved into the mainstream,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the PBFA. “They’re not just for the relatively small niche of vegan or vegetarian.” 

Shoppers aren’t necessarily choosing almond milk instead of 2 percent. Nearly nine in 10 households that purchase a milk alternative also bought dairy milk, according to a 2017 USDA report. Simon attributes a lot of this to mixed households, with dairy and non-dairy drinkers, but individuals are consuming both. Sixteen percent of the plant-based milk-drinking users on Lose It!, the calorie-tracking app, also logged some form of dairy milk.

Sweet Earth Enlightened Foods, which sells such vegan and vegetarian products as Harmless Ham deli slices and a cheesy Truffle Lover’s pizza, say they are finding new consumers. “Five years ago, our customers were largely self-classified as vegan or vegetarian, with a sprinkling of ‘flexitarians,’” said Kelly Swette, Sweet Earth’s chief executive officer. “More and more, consumers identify as ‘leaning towards less meat.’” 

Food behemoths are moving into the space. Campbell Soup Co., famous for its canned chicken noodle soup, now also sells Bolthouse Farms Plant Protein Milk, a pea-based dairy alternative. “Campbell introduced [it] to give people an alternative to both traditional dairy milk and lower-protein alternative milks,” said Anita Shaffer, Global Nutrition Program manager at Campbell. While a serving of almond milk is low in protein compared to dairy milk—typically 1 gram of protein, compared to 8 grams—Bolthouse’s Plant Protein Milk has 10 grams. 

“In reducing meat consumption, cholesterol and saturated fat are the biggest two things consumers are looking to avoid,” said Will Schafer, vice president of marketing at Beyond Meat. One four-ounce patty of 80 percent lean beef has about 80 milligrams of cholesterol and 9 grams of saturated fat. The company’s equivalent Beyond Meat burger—made with pea protein and beet juice that makes it “bleed” when cooked—has no cholesterol and 5 grams of saturated fat. 

The company has always targeted meat eaters, and its own market research has found that more than half of its consumers are omnivores. “Consumers are looking for something that gives them the experience of meat without downsides,” said Schafer. “Or, as I like to say, you can have your burger and eat it, too.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.