Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

New York — It’s not just the vegans.

Plant-based food sales rose 20% over the past year, to more than $3.3bn, according to new retail data from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association. Non-dairy milk sales rose 9% over the past year, to $1.6bn, making it the biggest sector of the category.

Plant-based creamers are up 131%, at $109m in sales, cheeses are up 43%, at $124m, and yogurts grew 55%, reaching $162m. Even plant-based meats were up 24%, hitting $670m in sales. In the same year, cow milk sales fell 6%, 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%. Nearly nine in 10 households that purchase a milk alternative also bought dairy milk, according to a 2017 US department of agriculture report. Simon attributes a lot of this to mixed households, with dairy and non-dairy drinkers, but individuals are consuming both. Of the plant-based milk-drinking users on Lose It!, the calorie-tracking app, 16% 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, 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 programme manager at Campbell. While a serving of almond milk is low in protein compared to dairy milk — typically one gram of protein, compared to eight 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% lean beef has about 80 milligrams of cholesterol and nine 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 five 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."

Bloomberg

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