The Top 10 Trends In Plant-Based Food In 2020 (And Where We’re Going In 2021)

Hindsight is 20/20, and 2020 is almost in hindsight – fortunately, if you ask most of us. But despite the considerable challenges we’ve faced together this past year, both economically and personally, it’s also been a year of tremendous strength and growth. Businesses have had to adapt to rapid changes in culture and lifestyle, local laws and regulations, and ideologies and social issues. 

And while 2020 sadly marked the closure of many businesses due to the pressures of COVID-19, especially small businesses, loss wasn’t all our industry experienced this year. Thanks to the right mixture of luck, circumstances, dedication, and ingenuity, we’ve seen new brands, products, trends, interests, and demands appear in the world of consumer food choices this year. 

What few can deny is that 2020 has been a pivotal, influential year in ways we likely don’t even realize yet, within the plant-based food space and far beyond. Here are some of the trends and changes we observed this year, and where we might see them go in 2021.

Brands are ditching plastic

While you may not immediately know it given the amount of shipping and single-serve packaging we’ve gone through this year with our various COVID-19 precautions, plastic is indeed still on its way out. As consumers have become more aware of the effects of plastic waste on the environment, companies that produce food and personal care items have been asked how their packaging plays into the issue. Consumers buying vegan food and cruelty-free cosmetics, for instance, likely already have a demonstrated interest in environmental issues, so it only follows that brands in those spaces can win consumers over with more sustainable packaging – which is itself expected to become a $412.7 billion industry by 2021, according to this recent article published by NASDAQ. 

Plastic has repeatedly been found to be the material least likely to be recycled, according to governmental data cited in the above report. So, some brands are ditching it completely in favor of paper-based packaging, at least as much as possible. The North Carolina-based vegan meat brand No Evil Foods, for instance, shrink-wraps their veggie meats for freshness, but uses a simple cardboard box for the outer packaging. Between consumer pressure and the support of environmentally-minded venture capitalists, it’s only a matter of time before many more of our favorite products are biodegradable.

Carbon labeling has become a reality

To some, it felt revolutionary when calorie counts became permanent fixtures on fast food menus in the early aughts. Now, some companies are practicing a new kind of radical transparency. Contemporary research as early as 2012, like this study published in Carbon Management Journal, has shown that shoppers in large markets are on the whole very interested in knowing more about the contents of their food and the kind of environmental impact it has. Much the way calories have become shorthand (sometimes useful, sometimes not) for how healthy a food is, carbon emission calculations have the potential to provide concise and actionable information for consumers. As brands in the vegetarian space continue to opt-in to carbon labeling, like Quorn and Oatly have done this year, we’ll see if that potential comes to fruition.

Eating In

According to the FMI Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization focusing on food, public health, and nutrition, 40{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of Americans reported cooking more than usual since the start of the pandemic. As restaurants around the country have faced restrictions and closures, cooking at home has become a practical (as well as, often, healthy and fun) solution for feeding the family while saving money in precarious economic times. That’s been an opportunity for meal kit delivery services, which make meal planning and prepping easier for busy folks. Blue Apron, one such service with vegetarian options, enjoyed a surge in stock value this spring as consumers realized the pandemic and no-brainer meals at home were a perfect pairing. In fact, the meal kit delivery service market is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 18{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} between now and 2024 – good news for other brands like HungryRoot and Sun Basket, which continue to expand their reach, menus, and notably, their vegan options.

…And Eating Out

All of that said, it’s hard to deny that Americans have been chomping at the bit to get back to pre-COVID-19 habits and luxuries like dining out at restaurants. It’s been an incredibly rough year for the restaurant industry, which has been subjected to mandatory closures, curfews, safety restrictions, and economic strife. It’s hard to know exactly what 2021 will look like for restaurants, and when exactly COVID-19 will truly be behind us, but at this rate all signs point to heightened demand when that time comes. For all of our renewed interest in cooking this year, as many as 55{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of Americans are experiencing “cooking fatigue” from whipping up meal after meal, day after day of living and working from home. When people finally feel safe enough to eat in restaurants again, we may see a surge in on-site food and beverage sales. 

2020 was the year of the (vegan) chicken. 2021 will be fish

Vegans and vegetarians have been making chicken substitutes out of wheat and soy for ages. But this year saw the introduction of some new premade, easy-to-work-with proteins that could make real chicken a thing of the past. Daring Foods released their 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} plant-based chicken pieces, and Simulate Foods released their Nuggs 2.0 vegan chick’n nuggets. California-based Alpha Foods makes a number of frozen prepared meals, but they also make chick’n nuggets, strips, and patties for quickly throwing some vegan protein into a meal. These products are easy to use by design, meant to provide a simple swap for those looking to opt out of supporting the poultry industry or just looking to reduce their cholesterol intake.

Next year, expect to see more development of vegan fish products. A few brands, like Good Catch and Sophie’s Kitchen, already have their fishless tuna and other products on grocery store shelves. Much like the chicken substitutes we saw succeed this year, these seafood alternatives are easy swaps for actual fish, making them familiar and intelligible to even non-vegan shoppers.

Egg alternatives will continue to expand

Much the way juicy, savory plant-based meat became the hottest product of 2019, by now working its way onto the menus of chain restaurants and mom-and-pop stands alike, vegan egg alternatives have exploded in 2020. From the makers of the highly popular JUST Mayo came JUST Egg, a plant-based food that comes in liquid form as well as premade, frozen patties. Within just months, JUST Egg became available at grocery stores around the country as well as in restaurants of all scales, and they’re already scaling up by building a $120 million facility in Singapore to meet the demand of the Asian market. But they’re not running uncontested: keep an eye on names like Noblegen from Canada, with its algae-based, powdered product “the egg,” as well as Israel’s Zero Egg, which is already planning its entry into the U.S. market. New research linking overconsumption of eggs to Type 2 diabetes is only the latest bit of information making the vegan egg market such a highly anticipated playing field right now.

More ingredients, more options

If you thought almond, oat, hemp, cashew, rice, and soy milks were enough to complete the milk alternative selection, think again. Chefs and food tech innovators continue to experiment with new and different ingredients for basic uses, like milks, and cooking oils too. If you haven’t already, expect to see new kinds of nut milk on the shelves of your local grocery store – like pistachio, for instance. Additionally, according to data released this month by Instacart, the high-fat keto diet is still popular and influential among Americans, which might explain why shoppers are enjoying so many plant-based oils. Coconut oil has become a hot product in the last few years, with avocado, hemp, macadamia, pumpkin seed, and other culinary blends hitting stores more recently.

Vitamin-enriched everything

This was the year that lots of food and wellness brands decided that adults deserve to take their vitamins in the form of candy, too. In fact, it was the year that vitamins became…fun? Trendy brands like Ritual and Hims have reimagined vitamins and supplements in sleek, minimalist packaging made to appeal to millennials. Nutrition brand Sakara took it a step further when they decided that probiotics could come in the form of chocolate bonbons. And Antidote Chocolate markets their high-cacao, low-sugar content chocolate bars as healthy, stress-relieving snacks. So too does Sourse, which infuses B-12 and plant-based collagen in its dark chocolates. Brands are learning that even grown-ups don’t want to choke down gross vitamins. And thanks to these and more forthcoming products, they don’t have to.

Adaptogens are the latest health craze

Feel like you’ve heard the word “adaptogen” before, but aren’t sure what it really means? You’re not alone, and now’s a good time to learn, because this trend is far from over. Adaptogens are substances that help counteract the effects of stress on the central nervous system by moving the body towards homeostasis, theoretically having antidepressant, anti-fatigue, and stimulating effects. The jury is still out on what, if any, health benefits adaptogens actually provide, but skepticism doesn’t seem to be slowing down the trend, as they are finding themselves in everything from coffee (like in Four Sigmatic) and protein bars (like in B.T.R. Bars).

As young adults continue to fuel the “sober curious” movement (it’s worth noting here that the non-alcoholic beverage market is expected to grow by 32{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} from 2018 to 2022), adaptogenic drinks have the chance to become the next big thing. Proponents of adaptogenic beverages, made by brands like Kin Euphorics and Proposition Cocktail Co., swear that the adaptogens offer a relaxing, sociable feeling without the many downsides of alcohol.

Regenerative agriculture is the new gold standard

After decades of public education about the effects of climate change, it’s little wonder that consumers have come to demand better products and practices from the companies to which they hand their money over. It’s not enough anymore for our food and other products to have a low environmental impact; nowadays, the goal is to have a positive environmental impact. Regenerative agriculture uses techniques that enrich soil rather than deplete it, like crop rotation and cover crops, making the land sustainably fertile. Around the world, governments and nonprofits are pouring their support into regenerative agriculture efforts in hopes that it will help mitigate the issues of climate change and feeding the world’s population, and companies like chocolate-maker Alter Eco and plant-based dairy purveyor milkadamia are backing them.

Looking ahead

Every year brings change, but 2020 in particular has made us rethink and rework so many aspects of our food systems, the restaurant industry, even what we put in our own bodies. It’s encouraging to see the shifts, big and small, that brands are committing to for the sake of the environment, animals, and workers. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what 2021 will bring.

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