The demand for plant-based foods in the United States has been steadily rising in recent years. In 2019, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 11.4 percent from the year prior, according to data from wellness-focused retail analytics provider SPINS commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute. The pandemic has not slowed this heightened demand—in fact, plant-based food sales continued to ramp up after the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, even outpacing total food sales, according to data released by PBFA in late May.
Dairy alternatives were among the primary drivers of last year’s growth. Plant-based milks continue to gain market share, comprising 14 percent of the entire milk category in 2019. While cow’s milk sales flattened last year, the sale of plant-based milks increased 5 percent, according to PBFA retail sales data.
It’s not just plant-based milk products that are solidifying their position in the market—demand for plant-based creamers has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2018, plant-based creamer sales grew 40 percent to $226 million; the following year, they grew another 34 percent to nearly $300 million, according to PBFA. The appetite for creamer alternatives is so significant that recent market research from Technavio found that plant-based demand is driving growth for the entire coffee creamer market, which is expected to increase by $2.4 billion over the next four years as vendors respond to consumer demand for more plant-based products and flavors, adding to existing soy, almond, and coconut varieties by rolling out oat, flaxseed, quinoa, hemp, and chia seed options.
The factors driving consumers to plant-based milks and creamers are varied, explains PBFA’s Michael Robbins—from the desire to choose healthier options to the commitment to reducing one’s environmental impact. It’s not just vegans and vegetarians buying plant-based products; a growing number of “flexitarians” are actively trying to eat less meat and dairy. “There are many consumers who are incorporating increasing varieties and quantities of plant-based foods into their diets because they enjoy a diversity of foods, the taste, for health reasons, and because of the sustainability of plant-based foods,” Robbins says. “For younger generations, in particular, who focus most on climate change, the sustainability reason tends to be the leading factor driving consumer demand for plant-based foods.”
Plant-based milks and creamers are also gaining in popularity in the hospitality space thanks to the shelf-stable quality of many products on the market, which Robbins says provides greater flexibility for hotel operators. Finding a variety of shelf-stable offerings that accommodate a range of dietary preferences is becoming increasingly important in the current environment in which more hotels are turning to grab-and-go food and beverage as a socially distant and less labor-intensive alternative to in-person dining and room service.
In the future, Robbins expects consumer demand to prompt more innovation in plant-based foods, adding that it’s important for hotels to understand and accommodate these shifting preferences. “Consumers want choice,” he says. “It is important to meet them where they are.”