The popularity of and interest in plant-based meats have increased dramatically in the last year as companies are creating products that taste more like “real” meat and the stigma once associated with alternative meats is dissipating.   

While most early plant-based meats utilized soy, peas or wheat as their main ingredient, many companies are innovating with other products as a meat alternative.  

For example, Prime Roots uses a Japanese Koji “super protein” which mimics the natural taste and texture of meat, and relies on mycelium—mushroom roots, as a core ingredient.   

“We’ve been seeing a lot of companies are prioritizing marketing over substance,” said Kimberlie Le, co-founder of the Berkeley, Calif.-based company. “There’s some really interesting work going on in using algae and fungi as meat alternatives.”   

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods launched its Happy Little Plants brand last year, a new plant-forward, protein portfolio created as part of the company’s first project under its Cultivated Foods umbrella. 

Robbie Koons, brand manager for Happy Little Plants, noted plant-based meat alternatives have been around for decades but have recently surged into a more mainstream space like the fresh meat case.   

“In the last year or so, that spark in interest and availability hit and everything started to catch on,” he said. “The key point is that a product has to taste good. This drives curiosity and demand into other meat alternative spaces and our job as manufacturers is to continue to strive to meet that demand and continue to exceed taste expectations.  

The Happy Little Plants brand has responded by looking to fill need states in this arena with thoughtful and great tasting innovation.  

“We like to say that plants can taste good and be good for you, so we’re always trying to use that lens as we consider innovation,” Koons said. “In this arena, we launched our flagship 16 oz ground and will be launching two plant-based patties, one ‘original’ patty and one vegetable blend patty, and a plant-based pepperoni style pizza topping in the near term as we continue to develop more innovation in the space.”  

Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill has developed new private label plant-based patties and ground products, which hit retailers in late April. These plant-based protein products were developed through culinary insight, extensive consumer research and innovation.  

Elizabeth Gutschenritter, Cargill North America managing director, alternative protein, said there are big market opportunities for the company’s newly introduced patties and ground products in two important places.  

“First, there’s the projection that global protein demand will increase by 70% over the next 30 years. That means we’ll need both animal protein and alternative proteins to meet demand,” she said. “Second, consumers are telling us they want choice for a broad range of reasons. Our recent studies show most consumers aren’t buying animal- or plant-based proteins exclusively; they purchase a combination of the two.” 

Gutschenritter feels this is a natural next step in Cargill’s inclusive approach to the future of protein—advancing both animal and alternative protein to meet growing global demand.  

 “We are bringing something to our customers around the world that addresses unmet needs—in reach, supply chain efficiencies, private label options and rapid ingredient innovation,” she said.  

“Consumers are motivated to purchase plant-based protein products by health reasons, an eagerness to try something new and sustainability concerns. But as consumer tastes and experiences become more refined, new barriers are emerging, such as price, total nutrition and protein source.” 

Dan Curtin, president of Greenleaf Foods SPC, based in Elmhurst, Ill., noted the plant-based category is growing exponentially and is expected to reach $20 billion by 2029.   

“More and more people are interested in introducing new protein options onto their plates,” he said. “For many people, we know it’s all about balance, so our consumers include both those who are devoted vegans and people who are experimenting with a flexitarian diet.”  

Greenleaf Foods’ brands Lightlife and Field Roast Grain Meat Co. are experiencing tremendous growth on its base business, with innovation items adding to category growth.  

“Across our two brands’ product lines, we have more than 40 retail products across nine key categories and enjoy the No. 2 share in US refrigerated retail,” Curtin said. “Our portfolio of products includes plant-based burgers, sausages, bacon, hot dogs, deli slices, tempeh, chicken, roasts, ground, appetizers and entrees.”  

The company recently introduced new products under both brands to its retail and foodservice customers. For example, earlier this year, it reinvigorated the plant-based breakfast space with a plant-based sausage patty from Lightlife and a fully cooked breakfast sausage patty seasoned with sage, black pepper and rosemary from Field Roast. 

 Blended on the Rise 

According to March 2019 data from Nielsen, 98% of alternative protein buyers in America also purchase meat products, and 21% of U.S. meat buyers also purchase meat alternatives.  

“Consumers desire a combination of animal- and plant-based proteins, rather than one or the other exclusively,” Gutschenritter said.  

In fact, the industry has seen an increased interest in blended products of meat and plant-based meats, with more consumers wanting to decrease their meat intake, but not give it up completely.  

“Psychologically, it may be easier to self-identify as a flexitarian by eating both types of products, but when you are eating blended products it feels like you are always eating meat,” Le said. 

Michael Forrest, chief executive officer at Thomas Foods International, USA, a Swedesboro, NJ-based meat distributor, noted the state of the industry has evolved with a lot of attention today being placed on creating products that have a stronger health focus.  

Thomas Foods USA has developed a Flexitarian Ground Beef product that contains approximately 70% meat and 30% vegetables, including carrots, broccoli and cabbage.  

“The rise of the 100% plant-based products has contributed to the need for more innovation within this category. However, consumers who are not interested in eliminating meat see meat-blended products as an ideal substitute,” Forrest said. “Suppliers and retailers are working together to introduce meat-blended products that would appeal to both meat eaters and those that are reducing their daily meat consumption.”  

Koons noted consumers want options and variety and will continue to look for something that fits their individual needs and taste preferences. In the case of blended products, there are consumers that simply want to decrease their meat consumption and enjoy the benefits that plants can bring.  

Applegate Farms, a division of Hormel and manufacturers of all-natural and organic meat products, has introduced a new blended line designed to satisfy consumers who are being mindful of their meat intake and its nutritional, ethical and environmental impact.  

“We are seeing more and more meat alternative products in response to consumers looking to reduce their meat consumption. However, we are also seeing that a lot of these products are falling short when it comes to taste or quality, leaving consumers unsatisfied,” said Moy Aras, Applegate’s innovation brand manager. “Some product downfalls for consumers include: they don’t taste very good, they are highly processed, and it’s hard to tell what they’re made of.” 

 Applegate did some consumer research to understand the current relationship between consumers and meat and learned that those who were reducing their meat intake were largely doing so for health or environmental reasons.  

In April, Applegate launched a new line of chef-crafted blended products designed to satisfy conscientious consumers called Applegate Well Carved, which blends Applegate humanely raised meat with whole organic vegetables, legumes and grains. It features two blended burger varieties and two blended meatball varieties that provide up to 1/3 cup of vegetables per serving. 

“Blended products allow consumers to enjoy the meat they crave, while also increasing their intake of vegetables that promote health and a healthier planet,” Aras said.  

Marketing and Merchandising Tips 

Many believe retailers can do a better job selling alternative meats in stores by experimenting with product placement in the store. Additionally, retailers can leverage trial driving activities and appropriate schematic support. 

“The section usually reserved for vegan meats in the grocery store is often hidden in the center of the store and doesn’t see a lot of traffic from people who might convert as they simply aren’t visiting that area of the store,” Le said. “I think placing the products near complimentary items that you could make a meal with could lead to an increase in sales.”  

Another option is to place the plant-based meat products near its meat counterparts, which could give people pause and make a conscious decision about what type of meat (plant-based or not) to buy.   

Gutschenritter noted Cargill looks to help its customers succeed and is excited to help them grow with private label alternative protein products. That’s why its foodservice and retail customers can count on an experienced global partner with the supply chain, scale and formulation capabilities to deliver the solutions they need. 

“While we are focused on leading in our markets, we are also interested in driving industry innovation to fill the growing global protein gap,” she said. “Cargill’s deep knowledge of plant proteins, combined with our expertise in R&D, product development and production helped us create a product that consumers will love. This is an important next step in bringing more protein options to retail stores, cafeterias, fast food outlets, restaurants and other global locations.” 

PJ Connor, group vice president and president of Hormel Foods Consumer Product Sales, said each retailer’s customer base may be at different conversion levels with plant-based products, so it’s critical to make sure the sets are aligned and have the attention on them in the stores to gain more consumer exposure. 

Forrest noted retailers can use their existing communication channels to educate and engage shoppers on the benefits of these new products, and collecting feedback is also critical for the development of future products. 

“Partnership marketing programs with retailers have had a lot of success for our company,” he said. “We work with our retail partners on activities that include seasonal communications, shopper engagement and loyalty programs.”  

Koons believes the company’s retail partners have taken on this trend with open minds and are doing a nice job of embracing consumer trends and having products placed where curious consumers can easily find them.  

“In addition, the plant-based meat category and the meat category are not one to one and function differently,” he said. “As the manufacturer, we can continue to drive awareness and drive trial within the category and can work collaboratively with our retail partners to navigate this fast-paced space.”  

Since the blended category is so new, one way retailers could help sell blended products is by helping to explain to consumers what “blended” really means.   

“Since tasting is believing, we also plan to collaborate with retailers on digital coupon and loyalty programs to help build trial and awareness,” Aras said. “And when we get through COVID-19, we hope to work with retailers again on sampling products instore.” 

Greenleaf Foods listens closely to its more than 30,000 retail partners to ensure it understands their needs and can deliver what best suits them.  

“Our goal is to put our products in front of consumers in the parts of the store where they’re looking for protein,” Curtain said. “This means we intentionally show up in both the fresh meat, refrigerated and frozen aisles, and we offer a breadth and depth of products in those spaces to deliver the variety consumer seek. As our category and space is evolving quickly, retailers are continuously learning how to adapt to and embrace that evolution.”