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U.S. plant-based food retail sales jumped 27% in 2020

Pandemic helped propel growth, research from Plant Based Foods Association and Good Food Institute says

The growth rate for the U.S. plant-based food market more than doubled in 2020, as sales surged 27% to $7 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute (GFI).

Plant-based food sales rose nearly twice as much as overall U.S. retail food sales, which climbed 15% in 2020 as COVID-19 lockdowns nationwide forced temporary closures of restaurants and spurred consumers to stock up on groceries, PBFA and GFI said Tuesday. What’s more, dollar sales growth for plant-based foods proved to be consistent across the country, with the market posting gains of over 25% in all U.S. census regions.

In 2019, U.S. plant-based food sales reached the $5 billion mark with year-over-year growth of 11.4%, compared with 2.2% growth for total U.S. retail food sales. The gain was a bit higher than in 2018, when sales of plant-based foods rose 11% to $4.5 billion versus 2% growth for the overall food retail market.

Last year, 57% of households bought plant-based foods, up from 53% in 2019.

“The data tells us unequivocally that we are experiencing a fundamental shift, as an ever-growing number of consumers are choosing foods that taste good and boost their health by incorporating plant-based foods into their diet,” PBFA Senior Director of Retail Partnerships Julie Emmett said in a statement on the 2020 market performance. “As this industry surpasses the $7 billion threshold, PBFA is excited to continue our work to help build a sustainable infrastructure, including domestic ingredients sourcing, for this growing demand to expand access to plant-based foods.”

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Two categories now account for over $1 billion in sales: plant-based milk at $2.5 billion and plant-based meat at $1.4 billion, representing 35% and 20% of the total plant-based food market, respectively. Other plant-based dairy — including segments such as butter, creamer, cheese, yogurt and ice cream — totaled $1.9 billion in sales for 2020, up 28% year over year and accounting for 27% of the plant-based food market.

Of the billion-dollar categories, plant-based meat saw the largest growth in 2020, with sales up 45% from $962 million in 2019. PBFA and GFI noted that plant-based meat sales growth doubled that of conventional meat and now represents 2.7% of all retail packaged meat sales.

Eighteen percent of U.S. households purchased plant-based meat last year, up from 14% in 2019. Frequent purchasers accounted for much of the growth, as 63% of shoppers were high-repeat customers. Refrigerated plant-based meat sales rose 75% in 2020, with in-store placement of the products near conventional meat providing a sales catalyst, PBFA and GFI said. In addition, refrigerated plant-based meat sales grew more than twice as fast as frozen plant-based meat sales, which gained 30% in 2020, 10 times faster than in 2019. 

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Plant-based milk, the largest plant-based food category, posted a 20% dollar sales gain in 2020, up from 5% in 2019, and doubled the growth rate of cow’s milk, PBFA and GFI reported. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. households now buy plant-based milk.

Almond milk represents about two-thirds of plant-based milk dollar sales, followed by oat milk, which saw sales more than triple in 2020 and surge 25-fold since 2018. In terms of total share among dairy categories, including conventional offerings, plant-based milk now makes up 15% of the milk segment, plant-based butter 7% of the butter segment, and plant-based creamer 6% of the creamer segment. In natural food stores, plant-based milk holds a 45% share of overall milk sales. 

“2020 was a breakout year for plant-based foods across the store. The incredible growth we saw in plant-based foods overall, particularly plant-based meat, surpassed our expectations and is a clear sign of where consumer appetites are heading,” GFI Research Analyst Kyle Gaan observed. “Almost 40% of households now have plant-based milk in their fridge, and at this rate, it won’t be long until we see just as many households purchasing plant-based meat.”  

PBFA and GFI noted that plant-based milk’s widening acceptance among consumers is lifting other plant-based dairy product segments, which in some cases are seeing growth faster than conventional animal products. In 2020, plant-based yogurt sales rose 20%, almost seven times that of conventional yogurt; plant-based cheese sales were up 42%, nearly twice that conventional cheese; and plant-based eggs sales grew 168%, almost 10 times the rate of conventional eggs. Since 2018, sales in the plant-based egg segments are up over 700%, 100 times the rate of conventional eggs.

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The coronavirus pandemic boosted retail sales of plant-based foods at a time of increased consumer focus on personal health, sustainability, food safety and animal welfare, PBFA and GFI added. During the peak panic-buying period, plant-based food sales soared by 90%, about 25% higher than the growth for overall food sales. Shoppers' rush to stock up emptied store shelves and cases in a range of staple food categories, including meat, dairy and frozens.

Citing findings from market researcher Mintel, PBFA and GFI said 35% of U.S. consumers agree with the statement, “The COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic proves that humans need to eat fewer animals.” In turn, plant-based product claims on-pack climbed 116% among U.S. food and drink introductions between 2018 and 2020.

Market data for the PBFA and GFI report was commissioned from wellness-focused data and retail analytics firm SPINS. The figures reflect natural, specialty gourmet and conventional grocery multi-outlet retail sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products — including meat, seafood, eggs, dairy and meals containing plant-based alternatives — for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 2020. For the same time period, SPINS also provided shopper data from the National Consumer Panel, a Nielsen/IRI joint venture encompassing about 100,000 households.

“The plant-based category has evolved to the point that retailers can’t limit who they consider the plant-based shopper. They should now assume everyone is a potential plant-based buyer and educate them enough to see the possibilities,” SPINS Head of Retail Dawn Valandingham commented. “Between the innovation in plant-based products and the gradual return to less restrictive shopping measures, 2021 offers many opportunities for retailers to appeal to more customers and expand their plant-based offerings.”

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