The inaugural Plant Based World Expo was a huge success by any measure of a conference. The expo hall featured a wide variety of plant-based food vendors – with lots of tasty samples. The speaker lineup included an impressive variety of industry experts – from culinary, to health to business. 3,737 attendees made for a packed house and lots of buzz around plant-based foods.
With 125 exhibitors and sponsors, there was plenty of food to sample and talk about! In the plant-based meat section, apart from No Evil’s signature seitan line, there was a movement away from gluten towards other protein sources – largely pea protein. There were a good mix of incumbents and startups debuting new products.
Lightlife sampled their new “beef” grounds and bratwurst “sausages”, no doubt aiming to compete with Beyond Meat. Dr. Prager’s showcased delicious new “chicken” tenders. Beyond the Butcher debuted a wide variety of their Uncut line – from sausage patties and crumbles to burgers to pulled pork – there was something for everyone. In seafood, Good Catch sampled their signature tunas and a new Korean flavor I enjoyed.
In the dairy category, my favorite plant-based cheeses included Miyoko’s stellar line as well as Follow Your Heart, Daiya (with a new smoked gouda), Good Planet, and MozzaRisella. And in the milk category, the only one I’ll mention is the new Plant Oat line – especially the “extra creamy” variety which outshines any other plant milk I’ve tried in terms of creaminess.
As far as snacks go, the were Pig Out “bacon” chips are almost too good to be true. The vegan jerky category was surprisingly crowded, with my favorites being It’s Jerky Y’all and Pan’s mushroom jerky. For indulgent sweet treats, you can’t go wrong with the new Daiya ice cream bars or Nada Moo’s decadent flavors including marshmallow stardust. I’m pretty sure it’s what unicorns eat.
I attended the Eat For the Future business track, which included talks about the current state of the industry and projections about the future. The timing couldn’t have been planned any better. The forum began the day after Beyond Meat announced their Q1 earnings, which helped their stock price soar after their already wildly successful IPO. The feeling that this event was a harbinger of change was expressed by every speaker. The notion that we’re at the front end of a hockey stick curve – the most dramatic and fastest change to human eating habits in thousands of years – is about to happen. The excitement was palpable.
The growth of the industry is largely due to the one third of Americans who now identify as “flexitarians.” In retail, product positioning is a key contributor to growth, with mainstream integration of plant-based products into traditional departments being seen as a critical. The two pioneers are seen as Silk, who integrated soy milk into the dairy case (and out of the shelves in a corner of the store). This lead to the massive growth we’ve seen in the non-dairy milk industry, which now accounts for 13% of all milk sales in the US. Oat milk is rising like a rocket – with a 4,895% sales growth in the last year, with almond growing at 10% and pea protein milk growing at 53% in the same time period.
Beyond Meat was the first to integrate plant-based meats into the traditional meat department, a strategy they may have been borrowed from Silk and has certainly paid off. Nearly nine out of ten Beyond Meat consumers are meat eaters. At the conference, the integrated category approach was unanimously touted as the best current retail strategy. The startup Beyond the Butcher were the first to integrate their plant-based hamburger patties into the actual butcher counter – butcher paper and all – at Bristol Farms. While all of this seemed unthinkable a few short years ago, now it seems like the tip of the iceberg. The Good Food Institute shared their vision of the “protein department of the future” where consumers can choose any protein source: from animal, plant or cellular agriculture.
The growth and excitement of plant-based foods isn’t limited to retail. The conference included talks on food service trends, which definitely includes plant-based. Mainstream chefs are getting more creative with vegetables as the center of the plate as well as incorporating plant-based meats. As Matt de Gruyter of Next Level Burger shared, “As we learn more about health, science and the environment, the question becomes not why would you eat plant-based, but why wouldn’t you?”
Having gone through the dot-com boom of the late nineties – I can tell you the plant-based foods industry is starting to feel a lot like the “internet boom”. I expect it to be a lot less tumultuous – meaning no “bust” or “bubble.” A lot more than my employee stock options are at stake for the future of this industry. The conference topics alone are a testament to the many virtues of this shift – from the environment, to individual health, to public health and safety and animal welfare – the reasons for this industry are many and the reasons against it are nil. The literal appetite is growing – consumers are enthusiastically supporting plant-based options – and investors are hearing the call.