Plant-based foods and beverages aren’t dead. They’re evolving. That’s how The NPD Group, now known as Circana, summarized what it called “a small but expanding category” in a February 2023 report. 

Circana estimates about 25 million consumers eat plant-based beverages and foods occasionally or regularly as part of a meal or as an ingredient. About one in five consumers say that they want more plant-based foods in their diet. Interestingly, Circana’s insights show more consumers eat more plant-based meat, poultry, and seafood analogues from restaurants because these foods are prepared in the same way animal protein menu items are.

Volume sales of meat alternatives in the frozen aisle were down 3% from a year ago, with lunchmeat, meatball, and breakfast sausage alternatives the top decliners. Frozen meat alternative formats growing were wings, ingredient cuts, and nuggets. Fresh meat alternatives were down 15% compared to the prior year; breakfast sausage, meatball, and patty alternatives were the top declining categories. The growth formats in the fresh retail case during the period were wings, ingredient cuts, and nugget alternatives. 

“Retail is likely in a transition period, following fast expansion before and during the pandemic. As consumers are returning to their pre-pandemic habits and living with high inflationary prices, we are seeing slower velocity rates and a higher number of lost buyers than new buyers,” said Chris Dubois, Circana’s executive vice president, Americas Protein Practice Leader. “As long as the big plant-based companies continue to deliver taste, texture, and innovations while working toward price parity with other protein options, the category can thrive, especially in the frozen case where the strength and base are consistent.” 

Meat the New Options

Last year saw many companies make headlines in the retail plant-based meat category. They included Chile’s NotCo; Meati Foods, Boulder, Colo.; the United Kingdom’s Neat Food Co., and World Finer Foods, Bloomfield, N.J.

For its part, NotCo. continues branching out across plant-based categories and last summer brought the debut of NotBurger, made with blend of peas, rice and chia. For its part, Meati Foods uses mushroom root for its line of Meati offerings—including Classic Cutlets, Crispy Cutlets (chicken), Classic Steak and a Carne Asada steak (last November). Neat Food’s Neat Burger restaurant chain entered the New York City market and the company also announced retail packaged product plans. Not too far away is New Jersey’s World Finer Foods, which introduced a Cutting Vedge line of artichoke-based products, including Burgers, Sweet Italian Sliced Sausage, Crumbles and Meatballs.

Meati certainly isn’t the only one pursuing plant-based steak. Last October saw Beyond Meat Inc. extend its broad line with Beyond Steak to deliver the “juicy, tender and delicious bite of seared steak tips” with 21g of protein per serving. Last spring, Nasoya Foods USA LLC (Pulmuone) introduce Plantspired Steak meatless steak-like strips.

Companies large and small also targeted the sausage category. Larger brands included Impossible Foods (four Impossible Sausage Links) and Conagra Brands (Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Saus'ge Links and Patties). 

Others with entries were CHI Foods, Santa Barbara, Calif.; Hungry Planet Inc., St. Louis, and RollinGreens, Boulder, Colo. CHI Foods uses tropical sacha inchi nuts as the protein for its ground pork sausage (Original, Italian Herb, “Chirizo,” Maple Sage flavors). Hungry Planet launched soy protein-based Breakfast Sausage Patties. RollinGreens says it uses a proprietary protein blend (with no soy) for its plant-based Spicy Chorizo.

Plant-based meat offerings exploded with more options in every direction. New York City’s Plantcraft used the Plant Based World Expo to introduce Plant-Based Deli Slices (Bologna, Pepperoni). Korea’s Shinsegae Food Inc. founded Better Foods, San Francisco, and also used Plant Based World Expo to introduce a canned luncheon meat, in addition to plant-based cold cuts. This March saw Renegade Foods, Berkeley, Calif., introduced shelf-stable, plant-based artisan salamis in three varieties: Sweet Toscana, Spicy Chorizo and Smoky Soppressata. Yet another fun option involved two Chicago companies—Upton’s Naturals and the Buona sandwich restaurant chain. They teamed up to produce a retail Buona Plant-Based Chicago Italian Beef & Gravy using Upton’s thinly sliced and seasoned seitan. 

Still more interesting new products push flavor and texture. Nasoya used this year’s Natural Products Expo West to emphasize on-trend Korean flavors in a Plantspired Gochujang Steak and Plantspired Sweet Chili Toss'ables bite-sized, pre-baked tofu cubes marinated with a Korean sweet chili sauce. Also taking flavor in a new direction is the organic, direct-to-consumer specialist Daily Harvest Inc. Last spring saw it launch packaged Daily Harvest Crumbles meat alternative incorporating lentils, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Its initial varieties were Walnut + Thyme and French Lentil + Leek.

Elsewhere, Beyond Meat and PepsiCo leveraged a joint venture, called Planet Partnership LLC, to develop and introduce Beyond Meat’s first shelf-stable product: Beyond Meat Jerky. It’s made with peas and mung beans and debuted in three flavors: Original, Hot & Spicy and Teriyaki.

No Feathers Here

It’s not hard to see that plant-based poultry processors—those established and those entering the market—are taking a second- or third-generation approach to product form, flavor and texture. 

Category giant Beyond Meat Inc. went big for small offerings. After introducing Beyond Chicken Tenders, it came back last November with Nuggets as well as Popcorn Chicken. The offerings offer 14g of plant-based protein derived from a blend of faba bean and pea. They have 50% less saturated fat than a leading brand of traditional breaded chicken nuggets, 0mg of cholesterol, and no added antibiotics, hormones or soy, the company says.

Many more processors pushed flavor as much as form. Last fall saw Kellogg’s Morningstar Farms brand introduce Incogmeato Plant-Based Hot and Spicy Crispy Chik’n Filet. Conagra Brands, Chicago, extended its Gardein line with Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Chick’n Wings in Buffalo and BBQ flavors; as well as Chick'n Spicy Fillets. Everything Legendary, Hyattsville, Md., extended its plant-based line into chicken with boneless Dragon Wyngz (vegan nuggets) in three varieties, including Scorchin’ Bites. Also pushing flavor was fall was Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, Saddlebrook, N.J. It expanded its line with Perfect Chick’n Tenders, Perfect General Tso’s Chick’n, and Perfect Nashville Hot Chick’n. Another company taking an Asian angle was Daring Foods, Los Angeles, which expanded its line Daring Teriyaki Plant-Chicken Pieces.

Category newcomers came in all sizes. Last fall saw global powerhouse NotCo, New York, N.Y., expand with NotChicken Patties. It used this spring’s NatExpo West to sample new NotChicken Tenders (launching in April). Last spring, Atlantic Natural Foods, LLC, Nashville, N.C., said it introduced the first canned, 5oz plant-based meats with Loma Linda Chik'n in three varieties: Chik'n in Broth, Chik'n BBQ, and Chik'n Buffalo. 

Still more companies are targeting health and/or overall product improvement. Jackfruit processor Jack & Annie’s, Boulder, Colo., emphasized flavor, texture and health with three new offerings. Respectively, these were Buffalo Jack Patties, Crispy Jack Patties and Gluten-Free Jack Tenders. In a separate move, the company announced “Best Recipe Yet” product reformulation, which meant “crispier nuggets, wings, and patties, all with even more craveable flavor.” In other allergen-friendly move, Abbot’s Butcher, used last year’s NatExpo West to introduce a gluten free (and soy free) formulation for its plant-based Chick’n.

Making Waves

Some of the biggest news in frozen, plant-based seafood was just that—news. Co-founders and pioneering chefs Chad and Derek Sarno announced last fall that their global plant-based foods business, Wicked Kitchen, acquired Good Catch, their plant-based seafood brand. 

Others with new product news were Sophie’s Kitchen Foods Inc., Sebastopol, Calif., and The Plant Based Seafood Co. (“Mind Blown”), Gwynn’s Island, Va. Last spring saw Sophie’s Kitchen introduce six new plant-based burgers: Original Whitefish, Mango Jalapeno Whitefish, Mediterranean Whitefish, Original Salmon, Spicy Salmon and Miso Salmon. After developing its own plant-based shrimp and scallops, The Plant Based Seafood Co. extended its line to include 

Mind Blown Crab Cakes

How about new options in the popular canned meat aisle? Atlantic Natural Foods extended its TUNO brand with a flavorful Thai Sweet Chili and Pesto & Sun-Dried variety. Joining the market last summer was the Philippines’ Century Pacific Group Inc. It launched unMEAT fish-free tuna in three varieties: Tuna in Sunflower Oil, Tuna in Water and Tuna Hot & Spicy.