Comment: Plant based still a thing despite COVID-19

Sales are still growing quickly in this relatively new market space

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

Think plant protein is just a passing fad? Think again.

People are buying. Despite the pandemic and the chaos surrounding containment and vaccination rules, consumers are quietly enjoying the 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 now.

Some may be surprised to learn that Beyond Meat, the “darling” of plant-based proteins, is far from dominating the market in Canada. Indeed, it is the American brand Yves by Hain Celestial Group, which 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 all tastes. In second place is Sunrise, then in third place is Gardein. Beyond Meat is only ranked fourth in the sales by brand of plant-based proteins.

There are now 20 brands in Canada that 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.

Consumers are interested in these products for three important reasons. First, animal welfare is a concern for all those who want local agriculture and who are concerned about animal exploitation.

There is 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 is trying 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 confirm that consumers are looking beyond the meat trifecta 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.

It is no coincidence that the Agropur co-operative just sold its yogurt division to the major French dairy group Lactalis.

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

Giving consumers more choice is critical. Livestock and dairy may feel threatened due to their stomach-share mentality, thinking food business is a zero-sum game.

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.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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