Betting on the booming plant protein food market

Many consumers are revisiting their relationship with animal proteins, both at the meat counter and in the dairy products section

Sylvain CharleboisThink plant protein is just a passing fad?

Think again.

You likely noticed that the plant-based counter at your favourite grocery store is growing. There’s good reason: people are buying.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos surrounding containment and vaccination rules, consumers are quietly enjoying products made from plant proteins and milk alternatives.

According to recent data offered by Nielsen, since the start of 2020 sales of vegetable protein products have increased by 31 per cent.

At the retail level, the market for plant-based protein substitutes is worth almost $300 million in Canada. That’s an impressive figure considering where the category was a few years ago. By 2025, along with food service, this market could easily exceed $1 billion.

Some may be surprised to learn that Beyond Meat, the ‘darling’ of plant-based proteins, is far from dominating the market in Canada. Indeed, American brand Yves de Hain Celestial Group is most popular in Canada. The Yves brand has existed since 1985 and stands out for its innovative product development. The company offers all kinds of products for a variety of tastes.

In second place is Sunrise and in third place is Gardein. Beyond Meat is ranked fourth in sales by brand of plant-based proteins.

Twenty brands in Canada have generated sales exceeding $3 million in the past 52 weeks. Several large companies like Maple Leaf and Kellogg now offer products without animal meats. So there’s a lot of traffic in an area that remains relatively new.

Consumers are interested in these products for three important reasons.

First, animal welfare is a concern for all those who support local agriculture and who are concerned about animal exploitation.

There’s also health. Several studies suggest that plant protein products are a better choice from a nutritional perspective, although some of these studies are heavily disputed by the livestock industry.

Finally, the environment. More consumers see the planet on their dinner plate and claim that animal production emits too many greenhouse gases. The livestock sector also disputes such claims as it tries to change practices to become a greener sector. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a good example.

These factors appear to be motivating consumers and Nielsen’s sales numbers confirm that consumers are looking beyond meat for sources of proteins.

Of course, some may believe the movement towards plant proteins is disrupting traditional sectors such as cattle and dairy. Even though these sectors provide consumers with high-quality, all-natural products, the threat is certainly real.

Its no coincidence that Agropur Dairy Co-operative just sold its yogurt division to the major French dairy group Lactalis. But given what’s going on with the pandemic and American politics, the announcement was largely unnoticed.

Many consumers are revisiting their relationship with animal proteins, both at the meat counter and in the dairy products section. But the Agropur dairy farmers’ co-operative was never ready or willing to make the switch to plants. So the dairy sector in Quebec is moving on, with a good portion of its dairy processing capacity going foreign.

Giving consumers more choice is critical.

Livestock and dairy producers may feel threatened, thinking food business is a zero-sum game. Some win and some lose. And it may have been like this for years but since consumers are looking for value, everyone has a place and role to play.

Animal and vegetable proteins are complementary. With a more sophisticated consumer looking for novelty, and value, companies must bet on a growing market and not the other way around. This is what Agropur never wanted to do and paid the price.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois

Dr. Charlebois conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety. He has written four books and many peer-reviewed and scientific articles—over 500 during his career. His research has been featured in newspapers that include The Economist, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Globe & Mail, National Post and Toronto Star.

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