Understanding the plant-based protein trend

Fuller Landau team • February 11, 2020

Flexitarian. Mindful meat eater. If these words conjure images of a yoga class your friend wants you to attend, perhaps you need to read further. We are, of course, talking about the increasing popularity of plant-based foods as an alternative to more traditional animal-based protein.

A 2017 Nielsen survey found that 43% of Canadians are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets and plant-based eating has been identified as one of the top macro trends in the food and beverage industry.[1] This is clearly something that should be on the radar of business owners in the industry. Failure to understand what is driving this trend, and how you can adapt to take advantage of this growing market, could lead to an inability to effectively meet your customers’ wants and needs.

What is leading the market expansion?

Once a niche market, the demand for plant-based proteins is expanding rapidly as consumers look for new ways to get protein into their diets. While there doesn’t appear to be a significant rise in vegetarianism or veganism, there does seem to be an increase in flexitarians. These are consumers who are not looking to cut meat out entirely, but instead want to reduce their overall meat intake.

There are several reasons for this. The health-conscious consumer wants healthy, protein-rich food options that come from a variety of sources, not just meat and dairy. This may be attributed to recommendations in Canada’s Food Guide and research that recommends plant-based foods as a healthier alternative to a meat-centric diet. In fact, a recent Lancet study indicates that if the global population adopted a plant-based diet, it would prevent approximately 20% of adult deaths per year.[2]

There are consumers who share the traditional vegetarian and vegan outlook which expresses concern over the ethics of animal welfare, and we can also add worry about environmental degradation. People, millennials in particular, are becoming more informed and concerned about the demands raising livestock has on the environment, understanding that it takes far fewer resources to raise plants.[3] If you think that producing beef uses 20 times more land and generates 20 times more emissions compared to growing beans,[4] it is easy to understand why the environmentally conscious citizen would choose the veggie burger over the beef.

Today’s landscape

Currently, producers in the plant-based protein industry are witnessing a surge in popularity for their products. They have moved from simply focusing on vegetarians and vegans to expanding their marketing to a much wider segment of the population. This new reality is altering both the farming and food and beverage industries in the country.

Canadian farmers, businesses, and investors are stepping up their research and investments to find innovative ways to feed people and keep up with the increased demand for plant-based foods. In 2018, a federal government program earmarked $150 million for research into finding better farming methods, improved and sustainable crop production, value-added processing, and export development. Understanding the value in these efforts, the private sector provided an additional $400 million.[5]

Homegrown companies like Maple Leaf Foods recognize the opportunities this new market brings and are choosing to proactively participate in it. In the past few years, Maple Leaf has invested $600 million in the plant-based protein market and plans are underway to build a plant-based protein facility where up to 30% of the space will be devoted to product innovation. This is likely not an innovate or perish scenario but decisionmakers at Maple Leaf indicate that they believe growth opportunities for meat in North America are very limited. So much so that they have moved away from referring to the business as a packaged meat company, instead calling it a protein company.[6]

Increasingly, Torontonians have access to a wide variety of local, plant-based protein foods as more businesses strive to get into this growing market. You need not look far to find non-dairy beverages and plant-based entrees and snacks from the Village Juicery given it has three storefront locations and over thirty distributors across the city. Plant-based butcher, YamChops, recently opened its second location in Toronto under its Grown, not Raised slogan offering consumers meat-like “steak, chick*n, and pork” options.

Looking to the future

With the $13 billion global plant-based protein market expected to increase by as much as 98% by 2050[7] and the North American market anticipating double-digit growth going forward,[8] it is clear that the demand for plant-based proteins is creating a monumental shift in the food and beverage industry worldwide. Along with this shift comes opportunities for food producers, suppliers, and restaurants to find inventive solutions to meet consumer demand. This year, A&W’s Beyond Meat Burger sold out in restaurants across Canada just weeks after hitting the grills[9], indicating that Canadians are definitely hungry for meat alternatives, even at traditional burger chains. The question now becomes, how prepared is your business for the plant-based protein revolution that is upon us?

[1] Stuckey, Barb, 10 Macro Trends Impacting Food and Beverage Innovation in 2019. Forbes, January 8, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/barbstuckey/2019/01/08/10-macro-trends-impacting-food-beverage-innovation-in-2019/#687a16342f7d.

[2] Willet, Walter, et al., Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancer Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, The Lancet, v.393, issue 10170, pp 447-492, February 2, 2019.

[3] Buckner, Dianne, Business gets on board with plant-based protein train, CBC News, May, 8, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/meat-free-alternatives-go-mainstream-1.5126079.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bickis, Ian, Canadian farmer, companies invest in plant-based protein amid growing demand, The Globe and Mail, February 25, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadian-farmers-companies-invest-in-plant-based-protein-amid-growing-demand/article38105245/.

[6] Stephenson, Amanda, Beyond a fad: Meat and dairy rush to be part of plant-based food movement, Calgary Herald, June 6, 2019, https://calgaryherald.com/business/local-business/plant-based-eating-not-a-fad-conference-told-meat-dairy-companies-rush-to-be-part-of-veggie-based-movement.

[7] Bickis, Ian, Canadian farmer, companies invest in plant-based protein amid growing demand, The Globe and Mail, February 25, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadian-farmers-companies-invest-in-plant-based-protein-amid-growing-demand/article38105245/.

[8] CBC News, Maple Leaf pivots to plant-based proteins with new U.S. factory, CBC Business News, April 8, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/maple-leaf-plant-protein-1.5088761.

[9] Canada loved the Beyond Meat Burger; now A&W is trying out a vegan sausage patty on its breakfast sandwich, National Post, March 4, 2019, https://nationalpost.com/life/food/canada-loved-the-beyond-meat-burger-now-aw-is-trying-out-a-vegan-sausage-patty-on-its-breakfast-sandwich.


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