There’s a major shift taking place right now: 39% of Americans now say they are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods, according to a Nielsen survey (1). There are a number of reasons driving this: Plant-based products are vegan, lactose-free, better for the planet, and full of micronutrients. And with product innovations, making the plant-based shift is easier—and tastier—than ever.
Pointing to the Nielsen research, Brock Knight, COO at Lehi Mills, Lehi, UT, notes, “The study revealed that many shoppers aren’t looking to traditional plant-based items like tofu or brown rice; they are looking for an array of alternative options.” This, too, is no surprise. Soy allergies make tofu and other soy products inaccessible to many; rice often contains arsenic, so while it’s a great part of a balanced diet, it can’t make up the whole diet.
In response to this rising demand, or perhaps even as part of the cause, eating plant-based foods no longer means deprivation or lack of variety. There’s incredible innovation out there to ward off diet boredom: Once Again Nut Butter has two new spreads with white cocoa butter; Lehi Valley sells marionberry syrup; Seapoint Farms sells edamame spaghetti and edamame rice. And companies aren’t just selling meat alternatives; they’re taking care to reproduce texture, mouthfeel, and taste, so not only do tofu and brown rice not have to be dietary staples for the plant-based community, but plant-based eaters can switch to plants without feeling like they’re missing out.
Moreover, “plant-based products” doesn’t end with food. It extends into HABA, with vegan skincare, cosmetics, and toothbrushes; it’s hit mattresses; and, perhaps most importantly for the ecologically minded, it’s hit packaging. Plant-based isn’t just a trend—it’s a movement, one that’s affecting every area of our lives, and it’s worth it to stay on top of what’s becoming a staple, what’s brand-new, and what’s important.
Benefits of Plant-Based
In a lot of ways, the benefits of a plant-based diet can seem like common sense: Vegetables and fruits are good for you; we all know that. But science is making those benefits more clear-cut.
For instance: The World Health Organization published a study showing that a higher consumption of dietary fiber can help protect against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancer. The study found that risk reduction was greatest when daily intake of fiber was between 25g and 29g (5). Fiber, of course, is found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating a diet high in whole plant foods is the easiest way of getting that fiber.
Another study found that vegan diets are the best for gut hormones and satiety (6). When a vegan meal was compared to a meal containing meat and cheese—with both meals containing the same amount of calories and the same ratio of macronutrients—the vegan meal increased beneficial gastrointestinal hormones involved in the regulation of glucose metabolism, insulin secretion, energy homeostasis, satiety, and weight management.
Two separate studies found that plant-based diets are good for the planet. The first study designed a diet around the climate: Titled the Planetary Health Diet, it requires half of each plate to be vegetables and fruit, and a third of each plate to be wholegrain cereals (7). Animal products aren’t entirely removed; one beef burger and two servings of fish per week are allowed, as are small amounts of milk, cheese, and butter. But consumption of animal products was chopped in half.
The other study came at it from a different direction: What effects do different diets have on the climate (8)? Researchers measured the carbon footprints of 16,000 Americans in relation to their diets, and found that high-emission diets—mostly meat, dairy, and solid fats—emitted 5 times more greenhouse gas than low-emission diets, which relied heavily on vegetables and grains.
A big reason not to go vegan, according to Leilani Münter, a vegan ex-racecar driver and activist speaking at a a presentation at Expo West, is a “lack of convenient, tasty, affordable alternatives.” She learned this in 2017 at Daytona, where she had a vegan tent and invited spectators to join her for Impossible Burgers and to tell her their stance on veganism. This sentiment was echoed across Expo West: A good mission or a good cause will convince most people to buy a product once, but if the product tastes bad, customers won’t buy it again.
Flavor, therefore, is the biggest factor in formulations: Edward Averdieck, co-founder of The Coconut Collaborative, emphasized taste as the most important selling point of their yogurt, telling WholeFoods: “Taste is an area where plant-based yogurts have fallen behind. If plant-based doesn’t taste as good as or better than conventional yogurt, it’ll stay niche.”
Also at Expo West, Ryan Devlin and Todd Grinnell, co-founders of This Saves Lives, said in a panel that, as impressive as their mission is, a bar that didn’t taste great would never have gained such an impressive following.
Sophie’s Kitchen makes vegan seafood that looks and, according to the company, tastes like seafood; Impossible Foods says their burgers, as per the name, taste impossibly beefy. The Coconut Collaborative, in addition to their yogurt, makes a frozen dessert that tastes like chocolate mousse. Companies are going all-out to make sure people who sample their products become repeat customers.
Along these lines, when customers come in looking for information on plant-based, lead with taste. Keep samples on hand. Get the product into the customer’s mouth, and then you can talk about how healthy it is and how great it is for the planet. And talk about the positives, not the negatives—Münter noted that people vastly preferred positive framing of veganism to negative: talking about how delicious and healthy plant-based products are, rather than about animal cruelty and climate change.
“Consumers are really looking to incorporate clean, sustainable protein sources into their diet,” adds Samantha Ford, business director at AIDP, “while avoiding allergens and other ingredients that may cause sensitivity such as wheat or soy. The growing concerns around sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint are also factors driving consumers away from animal sources of protein and towards innovative plant proteins.”
Skimping on animal products can mean missing out on those nutrients that generally come from meat: protein, vitamins B12 and D3, fatty acids, and heme-iron (2). Fortunately, not only are there plant-based alternatives, there are options. And manufacturers of plant-based products are turning to those options to help ensure their products deliver on nutritional needs.
In some cases, plant-based proteins have animal-based sources beat: “Some plant proteins contain added benefits such as antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, which are often
missing from animal proteins,” explains Ford. “Most plant proteins are also an excellent source of fiber.” So there’s no need to settle for fewer nutrients for the sake of plant-based. Ford walked WholeFoods through different offerings that are incorporated into plant-based products: “Taste, texture, functionality, finished good application, and product labelling all affect which protein a manufacturer will use,” she says, noting that rice and pea proteins are popular. “They are clean-label, allergen-free, and lend themselves well to formulating in a variety of foods and beverages.” AIDP’s RisaPro and PeasiPro are, she adds, “highly regarded for their excellent flavor and texture.” Advantein, she says, is a proprietary pea/rice blend that optimizes the amino acid profile.
There’s also hemp protein, which is the subject of great mainstream buzz right now, plus it has nutritional advantages. As Ford explains, “It’s a complete protein, loaded with essential nutrients and fatty acids. It is also an excellent source of fiber. Given that as a crop it’s highly sustainable and hardly requires the use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers, it is an extremely clean source of protein.”
Scarlett Full, R.D., nutrition scientist with Growing Naturals, says Axiom’s Cannatein Hemp Hearts Protein is neutral in flavor and more than just a protein source: “At 58% protein, it’s also a rich source of essential minerals like magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and essential fatty acids 3, 6, and 9.”
A less well-known protein comes from sacha inchi. AIDP added it to their portfolio a few years ago “for its favorable nutrition content and versatility in applications,” Ford says. She adds that the seeds have a protein digestibility corrected amino acid score of 1, and that they contain omegas 3, 6, and 9, alpha-tocopherol vitamin E, carotenoids, and fiber. “Sacha inchi also benefits cholesterol levels and contains a good amount of tryptophan, which has been shown to raise serotonin in the brain, act as an inflammatory mediator, and help regulate appetite. Having a neutral color and a slightly sweet taste, sacha inchi is a great protein source for ready-to-drink shakes and beverages, cereal bars, and baking applications.”
Plant Protein Month
April is Plant Protein Month! According to PlantProteinMonth.com, this is an opportunity for consumers, retailers, and brands to talk about plant protein news. The website notes that this goes beyond the vegan community, into the flexitarian community and even infiltrating die-hard meat eaters. For resources—including news, videos, and a plant protein FAQ—visit their website.
Another protein-boosting strategy comes from Lehi Mills. The company breeds its wheat for a high natural protein content; Stephanie Evans-Stock, marketing director at Lehi Mills, and Knight told WholeFoods that Lehi Mills has been known to turn away trucks of wheat that don’t meet company standards to help ensure that their whole-grain pancake and waffle mixes have 8 grams of protein per serving. Impossible Burgers have 19g per serving. Sure, it might be difficult for customers to fulfill their protein requirements every single day, but companies know that customers would prefer to, and they’re rushing to meet that need.
For consumers who want to an extra protein assist, Solgar has a vegan protein powder made from peas, brown rice, hemp seed, and pumpkin seed, with 20g of protein per serving and 100% daily value of vitamin B12. NOW Sports makes a variety of plant proteins, both in pure forms—pea protein, sprouted brown rice, and soy—and in a Plant Protein Complex, made with pea, hemp, and quinoa proteins. Vega Sport uses alfalfa and sunflower seed proteins, with tart cherry to support recovery. Amazing Grass adds kale, wheat grass, and barley grass to their protein powder for a green boost. Whey protein has challengers, and those challengers are here to stay.
And there’s also no need for customers to get all their nutrients from a protein supplement—or even to plan every day around getting all their nutrients. For those days when your customers have other plans, or just don’t have time, there’s nothing like a green supplement. They could go for a superfood like moringa: “What is unique about Moringa is that it offers so many beneficial nutrients all in a one-stop-shop. It is rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E, as well as calcium, potassium, and iron. It’s also a great source of antioxidants, amino acids, minerals, and from Yerba Prima it’s organic,” says Sigmund Brzostowski, VP of sales at Yerba Prima. “This is hugely beneficial to the everyday customer, because it’s so difficult to find a single product that can give you all these health benefits in a single serving.”
Customers could also opt for a green powder like wheatgrass or alfalfa, both of which Pines sells, and both of which are dark green leafy vegetables. Green powder supplements might be easier for your customers who are already taking a multitude of pills and tablets, not to mention they can go in just about anything. Smoothies are popular go-tos, as are meal replacement shakes—which are great ways to combine plant- protein powders and green powders—but they can go in just about anything. A glass of juice in the morning is a great way to get a green powder in without having to break out the blender. Pizza, pasta, just about anything with sauce; if you can mix it, you can put a green powder in it. Those looking to up their veggie intake without giving up completely meat might find it an easy addition to scrambled eggs or an omelet: chopping veggies can be a pain, but sprinkling moringa on takes only a couple seconds, and is a nice and easy way to give kids an added plant-based boost, too.
Yes, sugarcane is a plant. Yes, high fructose corn syrup comes from corn. A focus on plant-based, however, has taken sweeteners to a new level in terms of nutrition, glycemic index, and lack of processing. Axiom has coconut palm sugar and rice syrup. Full says that “coconut palm sugar is less processed and thus more natural. It retains some minerals and also has a lower glycemic index than white or brown sugar. Regarding the rice syrup solids, the main benefit is that it has a high perceived sweetness level, so manufacturers can use less to obtain a similar sweetness level to white sugar.” And, of course, Axiom’s sweeteners are clean-label, all-natural, and allergen-friendly.
Mary Kosir, co-founder of WholeMe, says sweetener can come down to personal preference. “In designing WholeMe, we opted for the most natural state of each ingredient, so the less processed the ingredients, the better, which is why when it came to sweeteners we often opted for maple syrup. The glycemic index is lower than cane sugar, too.” While she cautions that people react to sweeteners differently, it’s also worth noting that on a diet like Paleo—wherein processed foods are to be avoided—maple syrup could be just the replacement a customer is looking for.
While plant-based often refers to products that aren’t animal-based, it can also refer to products that aren’t chemical-based. In HABA products, this is vital: science is showing that chemicals can contribute to pollution, can cause the early onset of puberty, or, in the case of talc, might even be causing cancer. S.W. Basics makes plant-based HABA products with the number of ingredients right on the front label, so that people looking for a face exfoliant without any chemicals can choose one that consists of a blend of organic oat and almond flour and sea salt. My Magic Mud makes toothpaste and tooth powder out of coconut charcoal, so that people can clean their teeth with a safe, plant-based product. Tom’s of Maine makes a recyclable toothbrush made from 99% plant material. Desert Essence’s hair products are plant-based, and the ingredient list notes the origin of each ingredient—for instance, they note that their glycerin comes from palm.
Plant-based is jumping out of HABA, too. Simi Summer, Ph.D., recommended in her blog “Once Upon A Mattress: Organic Sweet Dreams” on WholeFoodsMagazine.com that people opt for natural, organic fibers for their bedding: cotton pillows with cotton fill, for instance (3). Hunki Dori Yoga sells eye pillows, yoga mat bags, and neck wraps made from organic cotton, linen, and silk, and filled with organic flax seed. Plant-based is making its way into every product category, and as it grows, it’s in your best interest to, wherever possible, sell plant-based versions of your product offerings.
The movement towards less plastic has been coming for a while, but it often ends with a paper package. Darcey Howard, director of marketing at Coconut Bliss, told WholeFoods: “We had customers coming to us, saying, we love your product, why do you package it in trash? So we worked with our packaging company for a few years to develop a plant-based package.” The packaging is made with bio resin polytheylene, which itself is made from the husks of sugarcane. “If farmers are growing sugarcane anyway,” Howard said, “why throw away the husks?” And Coconut Bliss isn’t alone: World Centric won a NEXTY award for Environmentally Responsible Packaging for their PizzaRound pizza container made from discarded sugarcane fiber (4). The tree-free paper packaging revolution is well on its way.
Planting the Seeds for Sales
As noted, taste is the most important factor in whether or not a customer will make a purchase. Samples, therefore, are king—just make sure you’re sampling your best products. Customer dipping their toes into plant-based who try something that doesn’t live up to expectation aren’t likely to try again.
That said, plant-based is a versatile category. Use a variety of tactics. Merchandise your plant-based products with their animal-based counterparts: Beyond Meat products should go with your meat products, Impossible Burgers with beef and turkey burgers, Sophie’s Kitchen seafood with fish seafood. The goal here, though, isn’t to confuse customers into buying plant-based; it’s to make it easy, convenient, and as habitual as possible. A sign saying “Seafood allergy? No problem!” might find a place next to your vegan seafood. “Juicy—With Beet Juice” may find a home next to your plant-based burgers. Call out the fact that plant-based options are right there, no extra walking required.
For items that are easily ordered online, like protein powders, it might help to appeal to ecological factors: a sign saying “Save the Planet—Buy Plant-Based and Buy It Here,” along with a reminder in smaller print that shipping an item requires a cardboard box and plastic packaging and that plant-based is better for the environment anyway, might get your eco-conscious customers to buy it that first time. A product that works, tastes good, and feels guilt-free is a product customers are likely to buy again.
Last, but certainly not least: don’t forget that plant-based products can live side-by-side with meat-based products. Full notes that flexitarians are on the rise; the existence of Meatless Monday proves her point. Many people are unwilling to give up meat entirely, but are happy to add more plant-based foods into their diet. So yes, stock a wheatgrass supplement where it belongs, but put a basket of them next to your butcher’s counter. There’s no reason why greens can’t beef up a burger just as well as they green up a smoothie.
Remember: Plant-based isn’t a diet, or vegetarianism, or veganism. It’s not even necessarily a lifestyle. It’s a movement, and it’s growing. WF
Critical Merchandising Strategies to Grow Sales with Plant-Based Products
By Daniel Lohman, CPSA
Plant-based is perhaps the fastest growing segment in natural. It is also one of the more confusing segments from the shopper’s perspective. So, how do you leverage the strength of this growing trend to maximize category sales, increase shopper traffic in your store, and compete more effectively against mainstream threats?
The shopper journey has changed dramatically. Shoppers have virtually unlimited choices when it comes to where they spend their hard-earned money. You never want to invite a customer to shop your competition due to poor merchandising, poor product assortment or poor pricing. Remember that everything is about perception and how your customers measure what’s most important to them.
That said, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to how to merchandise plant-based products. For example, is it meat or is it something else? Or, how do you get milk from a nut? Let’s first focus on the basics. What is the promise of the plant-based products you sell, from the shopper’s perspective? This is where every merchandising conversation should start. What is the specific objective of the plant-based shopper and how do you meet their needs?
There are essentially three different kinds of plant-based shoppers:
- Those who already know the benefits of a plant-based diet.
- Those who choose to augment their diet by occasionally substituting with plant-based products.
- Those who want to experiment or learn more about plant-based foods.
The first group most likely has a good foundational understanding of plant-based eating.This group is less price sensitive because they place a high value in a plant-based diet. They will gladly pay a premium for products that deliver a consistent promise of value that they can trust. Talk to them in the aisle and get to know them. Study this group and strive to understand, in their words, why they are committed to the plant-based diet. This group will give you valuable insights that you can use to help educate groups 2 and 3.
These other two groups should be your primary focus when developing an effective merchandising strategy. In other words, a solid strategy that makes it easy for new shoppers to find and purchase the products they want will benefit all of your shoppers.
To accomplish this, partner with plant-based category leaders—brands with actionable insights to help nurture and educate groups 2 and 3 about the benefits of plant-based products. Leverage their content on your website, in-store signage, and within your community.
Now that you better understand the plant-based consumer, it’s time to focus on the shopper journey with your merchandising strategy.
Begin with what appears in each group’s shopping basket at check out and work backwards. Now connect the dots!
A committed plant-based shopper, group 1, will have complementary products from multiple categories in their market basket. Working backwards, how do you make it easier for the committed plant-based shopper to find the products they want? How can you better merchandise those items to improve their shopping experience? This is your blueprint!
Now, armed with valuable insights about the plant-based consumer, support from your brand community, and your blueprint from group 1, you now have a roadmap to develop a solid merchandising strategy.
Your merchandising strategy needs to provide a trail of breadcrumbs to help guide future plant-based shoppers that are simple and easy to follow. This is how you make the plant-based shopper your top priority.
Daniel Lohman, CPSA is an Organic and CPG Industry Strategic Advisor, certified at the highest level of category management proficiency: Certified Professional Strategic Advisor. He is the creator of the free course Turnkey Sales Story Strategies and the BRAND SECRETS AND STRATEGIES podcast, an audio natural products accelerator. Daniel is a trusted and respected member of the naturals community who assists companies giving them a sustainable competitive advantage helping them compete head-to-head with the most sophisticated big brands. His company, Category Management Solutions (CMS4CPG), provides innovative ideas, actionable insights and strategic solutions for companies interested in gaining a significant competitive advantage. His unique approach and expertise are designed for the small to medium size brands wanting to grow their business, build shopper base and expand brand shelf space. It includes strategies of the top national brands without all the added expense. Email Dan at [email protected]
- “Plant-Based Food Options Are Sprouting Growth for Retailers,” Nielsen.com. Posted 6/13/18. Accessed 3/13/19. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/plant-based-food-options-are-sprouting-growth-for-retailers.html
- Atli Arnarson, “7 Nutrients That You Can’t Get From Plant Foods,” Healthline.com. Posted 6/4/17. Accessed 3/13/19. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-nutrients-you-cant-get-from-plants
- World Centric, “Announcement—World Centric PizzaRound Wins NEXTY for Environmentally Responsible Packaging,” WorldCentric.com. Posted 3/12/19. Accessed 3/13/19. https://www.worldcentric.com/blog/world-centric-pizzaround-wins-nexty-for-environmentally-responsible-packaging
- WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “Study: Dietary Fiber Protects Against Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes,” WholeFoodsMagazine.com. Posted 1/31/19. Accessed 3/13/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/grocery/news-grocery/study-dietary-fiber-protects-against-cardiovascular-disease-diabetes/
- WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “Climate-Friendly Diet Healthier for People and the Planet,” WholeFoodsMagazine.com. Posted 1/24/19. Accessed 3/13/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/grocery/news-grocery/climate-friendly-diet-healthier-for-people-and-the-planet/
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