Popular Plant-Based Alternatives in 2020 and What to Expect Next

Fueled by increasing consumer interest in health and wellness and a desire to lessen our impact on the environment, plant-based food alternatives today are growing nearly two times faster than total U.S. retail food sales.

The segment grew 27% last year as sales jumped from $5.5 billion in 2019 to $7 billion in 2020, according to data from SPINS and The Good Food Institute.

With any emerging food segment, consumer interest drives innovation and therefore category growth. In the plant-based segment specifically, technological advancements and improvements to taste and texture will lead to greater product variety and appeal to larger audiences as it more closely mimics animal-based protein.

Mimicking the taste and texture of animal-based protein is important to capturing greater market share as the growth in plant-based meat is supported primarily by adults who continue to eat real meat. Consumers globally reported to Mintel an interest in limiting their meat intake, but that doesn’t mean they are avoiding meat altogether.

We are starting to see some evolution occur in plant-based foods today, but the segment still has a long way to go. To understand where the segment is going, we first need to look back to see where it has been.

What Plant-Based Alternatives Were Popular in 2020?

According to a Gallup poll released in January 2020, 41% of Americans had tried a plant-based meat product, including half of Americans under the age of 50. The data showed that about 60% of those who have eaten plant-based meat would do so again.

So, what plant-based foods sparked consumer interest last year? Burgers.

Plant-based burgers reigned supreme for the majority of 2020, riding on the coattails of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats success in 2019. In spring 2019, Impossible Foods partnered with Burger King, Qdoba and many other restaurants to sell its plant-based burgers. Beyond Meat followed, selling its products to Del Taco, Subway, and KFC.

Alternative protein burgers are usually consumers’ first experience with the world of plant-based protein. Consumers often start with a plant-based burger to feed their curiosity and sense of adventure, in addition to wanting the health and environmental benefits that come along with it. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have achieved mainstream popularity with their plant-based products because they closely mimic the taste and texture of meat.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat both succeeded in penetrating QSRs first with burgers, then with alternative sausage and chicken. Impossible Burger saw a 98% increase in menu mentions from 2018 through 2020, according to Mintel’s Trending on US Menus: Plant-Based Proteins report. Mintel also reports that from 2017 through 2020, chicken substitute mentions increased 198% on U.S. menus, and sausage substitutes saw a 17% rise in mentions.

Plant-based meat, especially burgers, achieved mainstream prominence thanks to Impossible and Beyond. However, the two brands have encouraged a growing number of imitators to the point of near saturation of the market, and consumers are now looking for greater variety in format and plant protein ingredients.

Market Evolution into 2021

Today, nearly half of all consumers are saying they are choosing plant-based alternatives more now than they did in early 2020. The market explosion is explained by experts as an outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, evidenced by more consumers putting greater emphasis on their health and wellness, as well as the environment and sustainability.

From November 2020 to today, plant-based seafood has begun to emerge on the scene. Companies are replicating crab, lobster, tuna and shrimp to offer consumers more variety. But according to the Good Food Institute’s Plant-based Market (2020 Release), seafood accounted for just $9.5 million or one percent of the more than $5 billion in total plant-based meat and seafood dollar sales. The Good Food Institute considers plant-based seafood a market white space.

“The seafood industry has been completely oblivious to this trend,” Maiko Van Der Meer, co-founder of plant-based firm Novish and ex-meat and seafood industry executive told GlobalData.

In late 2020, there was less market demand and innovation taking place in plant-based seafood compared to plant-based meat because consumers consider animal-based seafood to be healthy. There was less awareness about the negative impacts of fishing and antibiotic use in fish farming, unlike the negative health and environmental impacts reportedly caused by the meat industry that consumers have been hearing about for years.

“People have heard about the health [issues], animal welfare, methane and CO2, and antibiotics [surrounding meat consumption], Van Der Meer said. “What you see around seafood is there is a lot of issues, like overfishing, bycatch, heavy metals, the antibiotic use in farming, but they are less known to people and it will take a while until people realize it would be a good idea to also eat less fish and maybe look at some alternatives.”

Consumer awareness continues to increase this year, thanks in part to Seaspiracy, a documentary on Netflix that aims to shed light on the environmental impact of fishing. According to The Beet, “Plant-based seafood is to 2021 what plant-based burgers were to 2019.”

A major player in plant-based seafood today is Good Catch, which claims its plant-based seafood will help fulfill its mission of helping preserve the oceans’ natural resources. The company recently expanded to the prepared foods section in select Whole Foods Markets across the U.S. with its plant-based deli-style tuna salad. Good Catch also offers plant-based fish burgers, tuna, crab cakes and fish cakes.

2021 and Beyond

As technology continues to advance in the plant-based space, we are keeping an eye on cell-based meat alternatives. Cell-based meat, also known as lab-grown or cultured meat, is produced by cultivating cells as opposed to farming animals. The technology is based on stem cell biology and tissue engineering.

Eat Just recently received regulatory approval to sell cell-based chicken in Singapore. San Francisco-based Eat Just is the only company in the world selling cell-based meat.

So, the question on everyone’s mind: Is cell-based approval coming to the U.S.?

While early reports indicated industry experts believed approval could happen later this year, it looks like the timeline will be further out. Though that isn’t stopping companies who are already creating cell-based meat while they wait for regulatory guidelines and approval in the U.S.

Interestingly, U.S. consumer willingness to try cell-based meat rose from 27% in 2018 to 65% in 2019, according to a study in Frontiers in Nutrition. But again, the taste and texture of the product will play a major role in whether consumers will continue to buy after trying cell-based meat. The final product of cell-based meat does require additives to resemble the color, texture and taste of traditional meat, which is where Synergy Aromas can help.

At Innova Flavors, we have been working in the plant-based category since 2003. We are the meat and savory flavor specialists, delivering authentic vegan flavors, and have an experienced technical team who can develop customized solutions for your unique substrate and processing parameters.

Schedule a call with your Innova Flavors representative to be further guided through the plant-based flavoring process and to learn how we can help your meat alternative taste amazing!