- Plant-based food has seen a higher growth rate than general food sales during the coronavirus pandemic, according to SPINS statistics for the 16 weeks ended April 19 analyzed by the Plant Based Foods Association. Compared with last year, plant-based sales were up 90% in mid-March as consumers stocked pantries and freezers. In the four weeks after that, plant-based food sales grew at a rate of 27% more than 2019 and 35% faster than the food category in general.
- Sales of plant-based meat have skyrocketed during the pandemic. All plant-based meat sales are up 148% versus 2019, and sales grew twice as fast as conventional equivalents during the four months analyzed. Refrigerated plant-based meat saw the most growth, with sales spiking at 241% compared to 2019 during the pantry loading peak. In the weeks following, the category has grown 113% over last year.
- Other plant-based categories also have seen strong sales peaks. Plant-based cheese sales were up 95% compared to 2019 in mid-March. Sales in this category have remained on an upward trend, with a growth rate of 54% in the four weeks after the consumer buying peak. Tofu and tempeh sales were up 88% over 2019 in mid-March, and have grown at a 35% clip since then.
Even without a pandemic keeping people at home, experts forecast sales growth in the plant-based sector in 2020. After all, there are more products at a growing number of retailers, different items that are closer to the real thing, and a growing acceptance for plant-based food as a mainstream option. A pre-pandemic analysis of SPINS data by the Plant Based Foods Association and Good Food Institute found the entire plant-based food market was worth $5 billion, with dollar sales up 29% during the previous two years.
The pandemic has helped sales in all sectors of the food business, so naturally plant-based products also would benefit from increased consumer buying. Plant-based products benefit in part from a health halo. More than half of consumers said they ate plant-based food because it makes them feel better, according to a DuPont Nutrition & Health study from 2018.
This halo is extremely important to consumers now.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a continued shift in consumer purchasing toward natural and organic products that enhance health and immunity,” Tony Olson, owner and CEO of SPINS, said in a written statement with the data. “Our data shows, the plant-based meat boom of last year continues and as reports of animal-based meat shortages increase, we can expect plant-based meat to gain even more traction.”
Plant-based food has the added bonus right now of coming from what could be viewed by consumers as a safe source. After all, scientists say the coronavirus was an animal disease that spread to humans. Plant-based food companies have long detailed the risks to human health and the environment posed by animal agriculture. In the current situation, consumers may be more apt to believe them.
The factories where plant-based food is made also are viewed as healthier. While crowded worker conditions in meat processing plants have led to coronavirus outbreaks — forcing plants to temporarily shut down and straining the meat supply — plant-based food factories haven't had any of the same problems. These operations require less manual labor than their conventional counterparts and tend to have social distancing built in. Conscientious consumers may decide to buy plant-based products to support an industry with better working conditions.
While the recent sales growth in plant-based foods is impressive, it's hard to decipher what it really means. Plant-based meat and cheeses have been on a growth trajectory for years, and consumer options have multiplied in the burgeoning space. Many manufacturers have been increasing distribution of their products this year, meaning more consumers have an opportunity to buy them. For example, Impossible Foods began 2020 with its products only in a small handful of grocery stores nationwide. Now, they're in about 2,700 locations, an 18-fold increase.
The statistics do reinforce a couple of basic premises. Plant-based eating is a trend that's here to stay. The fact that sales were so high for tofu and tempeh — two stalwarts that were at the center of many vegetarian meals decades before "plant-based" was a commonly used term — shows this kind of diet is being embraced by many age groups right now. When the pandemic has abated, it will be interesting to see if plant-based alternatives represent a larger percentage of what's on consumers' plates.