CHICAGO — Sales of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are up 8% over the previous year.
Produce companies should ask themselves if this is a trend they should partner or support. For most, I’d advise against it.
United Fresh hosted a session titled “Join the Plant-based Foods Revolution” at its FreshMkt education program June 25 during its annual meeting.
What I heard was an appeal to a small niche market of consumers who want to avoid and punish the animal food industry, and very little enthusiasm for increasing produce consumption.
I believe for fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to rise to recommended levels, it will have to replace something in most consumers’ diets. But I think it’s a bad idea for most produce companies to try to replace meat and dairy for several reasons.
1. Go after the least-healthy food: The produce industry justifiably celebrated the government dietary guidelines that show fruits and vegetables should make up half the plate. What about the other half? It’s split between protein and grains, with a side of dairy.
There are many less-healthy foods that don’t make “the plate” that fruits and vegetables ought to replace. I’m looking at you, Pop Tarts, Doritos, Pepsi and Snickers.
2. Focus on produce-based alternatives: When people are too heavy on protein in their diets, encourage them to cut back by eating less meat and adding more fruits and vegetables. Most plant-based meat alternatives are not produce-based.
Too heavy on grains? That’s where cauliflower crumbles and veggie noodles are making a huge mark. There was very little mention during the workshop about carb alternatives, which feature produce, as opposed to the mostly non-produce-based meat and dairy alternatives.
3. There’s no reason to take on the animal food industry: The plant-based association is clear that its mission is to encourage replacing animal food in our diets.
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, and panel moderator, said at the session, “Whatever you choose, it’s going to be better than coming from an animal.” Nonsense. More and more studies show the past 50 years of low-fat nutrition policy is wrong. Dietary fat in moderation is not unhealthy, especially compared to sugar. Plus, consumers like beef, pork, chicken and fish, and fruits and vegetables pair very nicely with all of them.
4. The market is small: What about all the vegetarians, or, even better, the flexitarians?
Simon said her group worked with Nielsen on some sales figures and found that growth in the channel was up 8.1% from 2016-17. However, most studies show vegetarians make up only about 2% of the U.S. population and 0.5% are vegans.
Panelist Dan Curtain, president of Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Green Meat Co., said meat and dairy alternative household penetration is only about 4%.
Fresh fruit and vegetable marketers need to make the case that their products are a normal and routine part of the American diet. Partnering with “meat alternatives” would send the opposite message to most consumers.
Greg Johnson is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].