Nestlé has no plans to scale back its presence in the plant-based space as many consumers remain interested in having options to choose from when they eat or drink, a top executive told Food Dive.
Mel Cash, Nestlé’s chief marketing and innovation officer, said shopper interest in plant-based products is robust enough, despite a recent slowdown, that the world’s largest food maker needs to have some of its most recognizable brands participating in the category.
While plant-based foods and beverages are a small part of the $104 billion in sales Nestlé recorded globally last year, it also remains a key area of growth for the company.
"Even as we start to talk about, ‘Is plant based tamped down,’ there's still significant awareness, significant desire, and again, listening to the consumer, they're still telling us that's where they want to go,” Cash said. “We need to be there.”
Nestlé entered plant-based foods in a big way in 2017 with its acquisition of Sweet Earth. Since then, it has expanded the brand into new categories, such as plant-based chicken, beef and deli meats.
In the last few years, the food and beverage giant also has created plant-based extensions for its Coffee mate, Natural Bliss and Starbucks creamers and Toll House chocolate chips. It also added plant-based meat as an option in its DiGiorno Pizza and Stouffer’s Lasagna.
Cash said Nestlé’s portfolio of large, recognizable brands gives it an advantage in attracting and retaining consumers to plant-based alternatives. If an individual had an animal-based offering before from Nestlé and enjoyed it, they might be more likely to try the one made with plants, even if they may have had a bad experience with another plant-based brand outside of the company before.
“There’s credibility. I may have tried something else within the [Nestlé] portfolio previously and felt really good about it. And so my confidence in that first try in a new space like plant based is going to be good,” Cash said. “There’s enough pull from consumers that makes it the right opportunity for us.”
Nestlé is moving aggressively to boost consumer awareness of its plant-based products.
The food and beverage giant plans to continue offering new flavor extensions in products where it already has a plant-based presence, such as Tollhouse morsels or in coffee creamers.
It’s increasing distribution of Sweet Earth hamburger and chicken into food service as a way to get consumers to try the products with the hope that they’ll decide to buy it later on in the grocery store. And Nestlé is using its innovation accelerator to develop new brands on a smaller scale that it could consider expanding more broadly if they prove successful.
Once a fast-growing food category, the plant-based industry has seen growth slow or decline, especially in meat. It has prompted several major companies to roll back their presence. In 2022, JBS USA abruptly shuttered its Planterra plant-based business, and Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Maple Leaf Foods’ Greenleaf Foods all cut employees.
Even as some of its competitors reduce their plant-based footprints, Cash said consumer awareness and trial has grown enough that it will remain ingrained in consumer eating habits. “We don’t think that is going away, which is why we’re still committed to plant-based options,” she said.
Steve Presley, CEO of Nestlé’s North American business, told Food Dive last September that the plant-based trend is “still a really strong consumer trend” but one that “got a bit frenzied.” At the time, he downplayed a “massive migration to vegetarian or vegan,” and instead predicted most consumers would go meatless one or two days a week.