How the Plant-Based Phenomenon Will Expand in 2021

By | December 23, 2020

Get ready for microalgae and fava beans, pig-free pork rinds, and veggie-based spreads that are definitely not your grandmother’s tubs of margarine.

The future of plant-based food is now, according to industry experts, with marketers riding high on record-breaking sales during the Covid-19 crisis and planning to capitalize on the whetted consumer appetite for faux meat, nut milk, egg substitutes and vegan cheese.

“The growth hasn’t been linear. It’s been exponential,” said Zak Weston, food service and supply chain manager at the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “We’ve seen the importance of innovation this year, and we’re on the cusp of a lot of launches.”

The fake-burger boom is not over—it’s still raging at fast food restaurants, and grocery stores are full-to-bursting with brands like Impossible Foods, Kellogg’s Incogmeato and Beyond Meat.

But as they head into 2021, flexitarians can look forward to a wider range of plant-based food, revamped recipes that aim for better taste and more versatility and new core ingredients and processing methods. Fermentation and fungus, anyone? 

Fiercely competitive brands, investing more heavily in marketing, will lean further into health-conscious and environmental messages. And while in their nascent stages, “labriculture” (lab-grown meat) and cellular aquaculture (manufactured seafood) will get a foothold as the industry continues to upend the traditional animal-based food system and develop alternative sources of protein.

Beyond the Bun

Consumers can expect to see more faux chicken (nuggets, tenders and cutlets), various kinds of pig-free pork (like fake chorizo and bacon), and seafood substitutes next year. Plant-based lunch meat is emerging as a subcategory, as are other convenience foods and snacks like beef jerky made from mushrooms and koji, a fermented protein.

These products come on the heels of 2020’s sausage stampede, with Impossible launching a breakfast sandwich at 15,000 Starbucks locations and Beyond’s sausage-topped pizzas becoming the first to break ground at a national chain, Pizza Hut. (Beyond also expanded its chicken-less chicken at KFC). Meanwhile, both companies multiplied their product lines at retail to include meatballs, sausage links and patties, family-pack grounds and other non-burger items.

But the burger takeover, which started in earnest in 2019, is still happening at restaurants. McDonald’s will become the latest entry sometime in 2021 with its McPlant, a meatless burger developed with Beyond that’s reported to be the center of an upcoming plant-based line.

Diversity in dairy

As part of the lockdown baking surge, brands are focused on new plant-based eggs and butter, putting their energy behind fine-tuning the recipes of these multi-use products, said Julie Emmett, senior director, retail partnerships, Plant Based Foods Association. “There will be a lot of reformulations,” she said, “and those will be about improving taste or texture or both.”

Vegan-friendly cheese, ice cream and yogurt will continue to grow, Emmett predicted, as will the use of new core ingredients like algae, sesame seeds, chickpeas and pistachios.

Milk alternatives show no signs of slowing, now topping $2 billion and accounting for 40% of total plant-based food sales. One of the stars? Oat milk, which has surpassed an old standby, soy milk, with triple-digit gains recently. It’s expected to soon catch up to another established competitor, the long-time market leader almond milk.

Oat milk pioneer Oatly is reported to be considering an IPO in 2021.

An overabundance of brands

For every boutique startup hawking fish-free tuna and meatless bowls, there are heavyweights like Smithfield, Nestle, General Mills, Tyson and Danone aggressively pursuing the flexitarian consumer. Unilever recently announced a goal of increasing sales of its meat and dairy alternatives to $1.2 billion in five to seven years, a fivefold increase in current levels. The potential for a shakeout, accompanied by mergers and acquisitions, is high.