The old adage that money doesn’t grow on trees isn’t true anymore. Specifically, money now grows on plants.

Ample evidence of the plant-based foods movement was on full display at the Produce Marketing Association’s 70th Fresh Summit Convention & Expo, held Oct. 17-19 in Anaheim, California. There were more than 1,200 exhibiting companies represented at the Expo, with 250 participants in the Fresh Ideas Showcase.

Jeffrey Dunn, chairman and chief executive officer of Bakersfield, California-based Bolthouse Farms, which showcased Protein Keto beverages in a variety of flavors, as well as rainbow-colored julienned carrots, was quick to point out the genesis of America’s plant-based movement is fresh produce.

“They are not different things,” he emphasized. “The science is very clear. Eating more plants is just better for you. Creating a plant-based food system can be a major initiative for the United States.

“This won’t be a produce show in 10 years,” he added. “This will be a food show that is plant based.” 

Looking at specific opportunities, vegetable “noodles” are one booming category, as consumers shift from pasta to the rising selection of vegetable-based pasta options, explained Tristan Simpson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Growers Express, LCC, Salinas, California, marketers of Green Giant Fresh beet, butternut squash, carrot, sweet potato and zucchini noodles. 

Simpson shared data from Nielsen and Mintel that reveal per-capita pasta consumption in the United States fell by 4% in 2017, while annual sales of vegetable noodles more than doubled in the same year.

“The hardest thing to change is human behavior, but consumers are changing now that they have options,” she said. “To change habits, it has to be amazing. It’s got to deliver on taste and texture.”

Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce Co., Coral Gables, Florida, said that Del Monte’s range of veggie noodles offered to consumers under the Del Monte and Mann brands include zucchini, beet and carrot noodles, Sweet Potato “Fettuccine”, Kohlrabi “Linguine” and Butternut Squash “Rottini”, all of which are perfect alternatives to traditional pastas.

“Consumers are increasingly looking for opportunities to add more veggies to their meals,” Christou said. “Consumer desire to make healthier choices across all day parts is helping to drive the growth in the veggie noodle category. Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc. is committed to meeting the needs of consumers across North America. and we offer a number of veggie noodle solutions that help consumers to make plant-forward choices.”

The Fresh Food Group, The Woodlands, Texas, exhibited fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, snacking products and home meal replacement (HMR) solutions that support consumers’ healthy and active lifestyles. The company covers four primary categories: fresh-cut vegetables and fruit, fresh snacking solutions, meal kit solutions, and ready-to-go meals.

When chefs develop plant-based protein alternatives, beans and grains are where they often turn to, explained Alexander Lombardi, product development chef for The Fresh Food Group.

At PMA, Lombardi prepared a tasty quinoa chili from a convenient meal kit that includes a fresh veggie blend, cooked quinoa and beans, a chili base and cheddar cheese.

“Celery and onion add a dimension of texture to the final product,” he said. “Using fresh produce, you get a crunchy texture.”

Doug Burris, executive vice president of sales and procurement for The Fresh Food Group, posed the question: If the U.S. food system were to convert 25% of proteins to produce-based protein replacements, “imagine what that would do to health and wellness in this country? There are a lot of great tailwinds, for sure.

“It’s all about making it convenient,” he continued. “Snacking. Hospitality. Travel. Breakfast in the car.”

Scores of PMA exhibitors showed that momentum is most certainly building.

Renaissance Food Group, part of the Calavo family, introduced a re-branded line called "Chef Veggie Starters," perfect for soups and meals. You can choose a protein to add, or not.

Dole showcased creative flavors of Fresh Takes Salads including grilled chicken and quinoa.

Ready Pac Foods featured multiple types of Ready Snax, as part of the healthy convenience trend.

Pero Family Farms introduced Butternut Squash Crinkles, a healthier alternative to french fries.


Connecting to consumer need states

Produce must target the emotional needs of consumers to grow consumption, said Cathy Burns, PMA’s chief executive officer, in her “State of the Industry” address.

“Consumers are reducing their time online and cutting down on their social engagements to reconnect with themselves and rejuvenate their mental well-being,” Burns said. “Research by the World Economic Forum found that increases in fruit and vegetable consumption are linked to increases in self-reported mental well-being and life satisfaction over a 5-year period.”

An expert panel including Garland Perkins of Oppy, Dan'l Mackey Almy of DMA Solutions and Jacob Krempel of HelloFresh examined key consumer trends impacting the future of fresh food.

“You still have to have a great product. You can’t drive change unless you have a brand or product that people desire,” said Krempel, who is senior director of procurement for HelloFresh, which has shifted to a home delivery meal system that is based entirely on consumers’ dietary plans. “It’s all about teaching people to eat healthier. Produce can be at the forefront of this.”

The plant-based movement does not include a lot of produce as of yet, noted Perkins, Oppy’s senior manager of insights and innovation, “and we need to be part of it.”

Robert Schueller, director of media relations for World Variety Produce, Inc., Los Angeles, cited two factors — education and convenience — as critical to bigger growth ahead for the fresh produce department. The company showcased numerous innovations, such as preconditioned mangoes that ripen more quickly and Melissa’s EZ Open sweet young coconut with a pop-up straw.

“Now you don’t have to take a coconut home and turn it into a science experiment,” Schueller said. “This is a way to enjoy coconut water right out of the coconut.”

In addition, World Variety Produce was among numerous exhibitors to feature plant-based recipes; they sampled jackfruit “pulled pork” tacos prepared with Melissa’s new single-serve fresh jackfruit pods and Melissa’s jicama wraps.

Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Salinas, California, featured a veggie recipe with celery slaw, super sweet corn and siracha honey sauces.

“We are trying to inspire new uses,” says Nichole Towell, senior director of marketing for Duda. “We are here to remind people that celery is what’s giving distinct flavor to many sauces and soups.”


Have a plant

The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) recently hit the road to engage with more than 11,000 food and nutrition professionals, including registered dietitians, at the Oct. 27-29 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Philadelphia —the world’s largest meeting of its kind.

There, PBH introduced its new consumer call to action, Have A Plant, for the first time to dietitians through an in-booth photo experience, featuring member products including those from Del Monte Fresh, Seneca, Stemilt Growers, and Sun-Maid Growers of California.

“This group of professional influencers are exceptionally important because, in most cases, they are on the front line, recommending products directly to consumers in their day-to-day interactions—in person and online,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN, president and CEO of PBH. “We need this group on board to embrace a less prescriptive approach when it comes to suggesting eating more fruits and vegetables. At the end of the day, we don’t have to convince dietitians that fruits and veggies are healthy and nutritious. Rather, they are craving our tools to help them communicate with their audiences that fruits and veggies can have more of an immediate payoff—boosting your health, and maybe even your mood.”