After a pandemic-related delay of more than a year, the Plant Based World Conference & Expo was back at the Javits Center in New York City earlier this month, with more than 3,100 attendees, 200 exhibitors and sponsors and a focus on the business of feeding the world with a sustainable plant-based food system.
Benjamin Davis was already eating a plant-based diet when he and his father’s company, JD Events, began looking for areas to grow into. Big trade shows like Natural Products Expo and the Fancy Food Show drew crowds and featured an array of plant-based products and brands, but plant-based food wasn’t the main focus, Davis said in an interview during the show.
The Plant Based World Conference & Expo was created to fill that niche. The first show launched in the summer of 2019 in New York City, drawing crowds looking to sample the latest in vegan foods and hear from a lineup of entrepreneurs, plant-based physicians and other experts.
The pandemic postponed the planned second show last year and the event returned this month with a more laserlike focus on the business of plant-based foods. Conference sessions addressed business trends and stories from startups and established companies sharing their insights to help others succeed in the industry.
Buyers from retail and foodservice made contact with plant-based brands at all stages of development, from startups like UK-based VFC, which aims to bring its vegan fried chicken nuggets to US frozen-food sections, to big players with new products like liquid mozzarella from Miyoko’s Creamery.
Retail sales of plant-based foods grew 27% last year and they’re still racking up double-digit increases this year, as the pandemic has spurred consumers to eat more plants and fewer animal products, Plant Based Foods Association CEO Rachel Dreskin said during a panel.
Consumers’ concerns about health have been the top driver of growth in the category. Taste comes in second, Dreskin said, highlighting the innovation in the category that keeps refining recipes and production techniques to improve the flavor and mouthfeel of plant-based alternatives to meat, cheese and other animal products.
And a growing awareness of the benefits to the environment is also increasingly affecting consumers’ decisions to eat a more plant-based diet, especially among younger people, Dreskin said.
Melding mission and commerce
Companies participating in the plant-based food industry are often driven by a social mission, but they’re also businesses that see the financial opportunities and growth potential, Davis said.
Those involved in the industry spoke about their missions and the growing global awareness of the need for a shift away from Western-style animal agriculture to combat the effects of climate change. They also shared practical insights and information for growing a business focused on carrying out those missions.
One company that illustrates the intersection of mission and money is Infinite Foods, a platform that’s helping plant-based food brands connect with businesses and consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Developing countries around the world have traditionally traded plant-centric diets for meat-heavy Western-style diets as they’ve grown more affluent. Infinite Foods aims to leapfrog that step and help countries in Sub-Saharan Africa make the transition to more sustainable plant-based versions of many Western-style favorites, co-founder and CEO Michelle Adelman said during a panel.
The company now distributes a growing number of brands in the region, including Oatly, Beyond Meat, Just Egg, Upton’s Naturals and plant-based seafood maker Good Catch.
As in other parts of the world, the pandemic fueled off-premises dining trends and drove the rise of ghost kitchens, takeout meals and demand for plant-based options, Adelman said.
The company also recently opened its first Infinite Cafe in Cape Town, South Africa, with a 100% plant-based menu featuring products from many of the platform’s brands.
Affordability is a hot topic as the plant-based industry seeks to grow in more foodservice niches, retail outlets and geographical markets, speakers said.
Traditional companies producing food from animals benefit from government subsidies, starting with the plants grown to feed their animals, and those subsidies fuel demand by keeping prices for their products lower than they would be without subsidies.
Younger plant-based businesses don’t benefit from those same subsidies, and they also often need to make significant upfront investments in technology and manufacturing systems to scale up and get enough products to market, all of which means plant-based versions often come with higher price tags.
A key focus of the industry, many speakers said, is working toward price parity, through both changes in subsidies and maturing to the point where production costs come down.
Competition drives innovation
Consumers continue to increase their interest in where their food comes from and just what’s in the products they buy and, because health is a key focus, companies are continually focused on recipe innovation with an eye on creating cleaner ingredient lists, said Kroger executive Marcellus Harris.
That focus will become increasingly important as more brands enter the market, show organizer Davis said.
In the more than two years since the first show, the field of plant-based brands has grown exponentially. This month’s expo floor featured more choices than ever before for consumers seeking plant-based chicken nuggets, burgers, cheeses and milks.
Given that health concerns are a key driver encouraging consumers to try plant-based alternatives to traditional meat, dairy and eggs, the growing array of options is likely to have consumers looking more closely at labels.
“Once there are 15 burgers on the market, people will start asking which is healthiest,” Davis said.
Competition will fuel continued innovation, resulting in increasingly cleaner ingredients lists and healthier options, Davis said.
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