Next time you shop, you might not recognize the grocery aisles

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When you step into your local grocery store, you know exactly where everything on your list is — the milk in the back, your favorite snacks in aisle four. But have you noticed the growing presence of plant-based products? 

Woman looking confused while shopping in a grocery store aisle.
Hold onto your grocery bags and prepare for a product revolution. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Consumers are showing a greater interest in animal-free options, and retailers are responding to the demand. Learn how and why grocery stores are changing so you know what to expect in your future shopping trips.

Plant-based products take center stage

Plant-based products are taking the food category by storm. The Plant-Based Foods Association reported a 79% increase in U.S. product sales from 2019 to 2021, with sustained growth in recent years. It’s clear that major grocery retailers have been expanding their plant-based sections to keep up with consumer demand.

A desire for a healthy and environmentally friendly diet is driving this market growth. Research done by The Permanente Journal has shown that plant-based diets can effectively reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. The potential health benefits of this lifestyle are influencing people to look for more plant alternatives in the grocery store.

Concerns about the ethical and environmental impact of animal-based diets are also pushing people to look toward plant-based options. The carbon footprint of eating meat is significant — Oxford researchers found that a global switch to more plant-based diets can cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.

The positive impact of animal-free products can be seen through the increasing online discussions about this topic. As the spending power of these younger consumers increases, the plant-based market has no issue maintaining its growth.

Understanding the plant-based surge

As the industry thrives, it’s important for you to understand the concept of plant-based products and explore the diverse options available in the market. These foods are made primarily from plant sources, often created as a counterpart to traditional animal-based products. There’s almost an alternative to anything you can think of, from dairy to meat and even eggs. 

Plant milk takes the crown

When you think of plant-based foods, milk alternatives probably come to mind first, and that’s for a good reason. Plant milk is the largest category in the plant-based market. According to the Plant-Based Foods Association, it’s becoming a staple for many families, with a 40.6% household penetration in the U.S. There are a ton of different options to choose from, such as almond, oat, coconut, rice and pea — it seems like anything can be made into plant milk.

Plant-based dairy is gaining ground

The other plant-based dairy category includes butter, cheese, creamer, ice cream and yogurt. This category reached $2.1 billion in sales in 2021 and is still on a growth trajectory, particularly in creamers. Brands are driving the popularity behind creamers by introducing fun flavors like crème brule and dark chocolate truffle. 

All of the up-and-coming animal-free dairy options make cooking vegan recipes a lot easier.  

Want to eat mac and cheese, but dairy causes you to break out? You can use plant-based cheese as a substitute and still enjoy a rich and creamy meal. Or, if you’re baking a cake for a vegan friend, you can use plant-based butter that’s readily available at your local grocery store.

Fast-food jumps on the plant-based meat bandwagon

For a long time, meatless patties defined the plant-based meat category. These patties are usually made from soy, peas and black beans. With these alternatives, vegans and vegetarians are free to enjoy meat-free burgers. 

Chickpea burgers are a popular choice for their ease of preparation and a great source of protein and fiber. Or, if you’re craving chicken, try making vegan chicken nuggets instead. There are plenty of recipes that allow you to substitute traditional dishes for healthier and animal-free ingredients.

In recent years, major food chains have been hopping on the trend and releasing plant-based burgers. McDonalds introduced the McPlant while Burger King has the Impossible Whopper. These burger patties were created in collaboration with leading meat alternative producers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who have been driving product development in this category.

Plant-based meat is no longer just burgers but can also be seen in meatballs, deli slices, chicken nuggets tenders and cutlets. Recipes are constantly being tweaked based on customer feedback to better match the taste and texture of real meat. 

Innovation at its finest

Product innovation is not just occurring in plant-based meat but throughout the industry, as brands strive to replicate their animal-based counterpart as closely as possible. Some interesting innovations include Crafty Counter’s vegan hard-boiled egg made from nuts that have been said to look, feel and taste like normal eggs. Aqua Cultured Foods is making waves with its fish-free seafood. Having started as a restaurant, Aqua Cultured Foods is working on commercializing its offerings to other restaurants and beyond.

The evolving grocery landscape

NielsenIQ reports that grocery retailer websites have received 691,000 consumer searches for plant-based products in 2022 alone. With strong consumer interest in this category, retailers are making changes in their stores to reflect the market demand.

The Plant-Based Foods Association recommends that retailers put plant-based products next to, but not integrated with, their animal-based counterparts. Grocery stores like Kroger have been following this advice while using signage and shelf tags to draw attention to these newer items and placements. This allows merchandisers to tell a story with their store layout — that plant-based is a different category and has a unique edge over traditional animal-based products.

The widespread transition to a plant-centric lifestyle may lead retailers to adopt in-store vertical farming. This is where plants grow directly in stores within small units that local farmers help manage. With vertical farming, retailers can provide fresh produce directly to their customers, making a plant-based diet more sustainable. 

Challenges and controversies

Traditional meat and dairy industries have been declining due to the growth of plant-based products, and they’re not going down without a fight. The DAIRY PRIDE Act is a bill proposed in the U.S. to restrict the usage of dairy terms like milk and yogurt on labels if they do not contain dairy ingredients. The claim here is that these labels are misleading consumers into thinking that the plant alternatives contain the same nutrient content as dairy milk. 

The act was shot down several times but was recently introduced again in 2023. If the bill passes, however, it will likely not significantly damage the sales of plant-based products. After Europe enforced a similar regulation, European sales of plant milk alternatives continued to increase despite the label restriction.

The quiet revolution

The plant-based industry is putting up serious competition to the traditional food categories as people are looking for healthier and environmentally friendly options. More and more animal-free products will occupy the shelves as retailers catch up to consumer demand. The next time you go to the grocery store, see if you can catch these changes from this quiet revolution.

Mandy Applegate is the enthusiastic creator of the vegetarian website Splash of Taste; she makes meat-free cooking fun and easy. When Mandy’s not cooking and writing, you’ll find her traveling, exploring countries and cuisines and spending time with her chihuahua. 

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