Plant-Based Meat: The Past, Present, and Future – Part 2

Last year, we wrote a blog about the past, present, and future of the plant-based meat industry [If you missed it, check it out here]. At the time that was written, there was really only a handful of players within the industry (Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Lightlife, etc.). Many of those brands weren’t nationally distributed in grocery stores, and only had a few had been introduced into foodservice. There was still quite a bit of confusion about what these products actually were, and why they were being marketed as a “better” alternative to traditional meat.

Well, suffice to say, a lot has changed in the past year. Between the influx of new brands in the market, massive growths in distribution, and the ongoing pandemic shifting consumer interests – there’s quite a bit for us to reflect on.

Stiff Competiton

At the end of last year, we started to see a huge increase in plant-based meats in national grocery chains. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were two of the biggest contenders, and it seemed like every week they were expanding their distribution into more retailers/regions. However, many brands were quick to follow. Lightlife, Field Roast, and Pure Farmland rapidly grew their distribution, and soon after many private brands released their own meat alternatives. Now, arguably most grocery retailers across the country carry at least one of these brands (if not multiple).

Although consumer interest in these products has obviously grown, there is still quite a bit of skepticism about them. Recently, on Beyond the Shelf, we spoke with the President of Greenleaf Foods, Lightlife, and Field Roast, Dan Curtin. In our interview, he shared with us how many brands have failed to sufficiently educate their customers about their ingredients. Although many arguments can be made in favor of plant-based meats, consumers are naturally wary of anything that feels overly-processed or lab-created. Curtin explained how the brands he works with are pushing for cleaner label products because consumers deserve to know what they are eating.

Focus on Health

Let’s just talk about the elephant in the room: the pandemic. When our blog was posted last year there was absolutely no way of knowing just how much of a wild card 2020 was going to be. However, what we did know was that many consumers were becoming more health-conscious. And, well, COVID-19 just accelerated that shift. Better-for-you products really hit their stride during 2019. They were set-up for a great 2020, and plant-based meats fit really well into that mindset. Once the pandemic hit, and after the initial panic buying phase, many shoppers started to reevaluate the type of products they were purchasing. Not only were immune-boosting products flying off the shelves, but many people started to think about how they can generally be more healthy.

And, in another turn of events, several of the largest meat processing plants in the country were forced to shut down after employees tested positive for COVID. So with shoppers concerned about their own health and now the safety of traditional meats brought into questions, plant-based alternatives were perfectly positioned to fill the needs of many consumers. Although the health benefits of plant-based meats can differ between brands, their marketing and packaging really spoke to customers who were looking for healthier products. The benefits of traditional meat have been brought into question over the past few years, but COVID-19 really forced customers to take a step back and think about trying something new – and many may never look back.

What’s Next?

As we mentioned in our previous blog, traditional meats are not going anywhere. There will always be a market for them, and no matter what type of production/distribution disturbances may occur, the industry will always bounce back. However, the timeline of plant-based alternatives growing in popularity has been sped up. We will continue to see more and more brands entering the market, and many of those will highlight their cleaner labels to help ease consumer’s minds. We will even start to see brands introduce more varieties to their product lines, including chicken substitutes, fish substitutes, RTE dishes, and new flavor varieties to their existing products.

However, the pandemic isn’t quite over yet, and 2020 may still have some curveballs for us. And although we may not be able to see what the future has in store, I think it’s safe to say that the growth of the plant-based meat industry is not slowing down any time soon.

To learn more about the current state of the plant-based meat industry, please listen to our interview with Dan Curtin.