U.S. Plant-Based Food Retail Sales Reach $7.4 Billion, 6.2% Growth in 2021

Amidst turbulent economic conditions amplified by the pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation, new data released by the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA), The Good Food Institute (GFI), and SPINS show U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 6.2% in 2021 over a record year of growth in 2020, bringing the total plant-based market value to an all-time high of $7.4 billion.

Overall, plant-based food retail sales grew three times faster than total food retail sales, with most plant-based categories outpacing their conventional counterparts.

Meanwhile, the conventional protein market has been rocked by supply chain disruptions and escalating inflation, according to the PBFA. Conventional meat dollar sales grew three times faster than its unit sales over the past three years, indicating that the apparent growth is driven solely by price hikes.

“The sustained rise in the market share of plant-based foods is remarkable and makes it clear that this shift is here to stay. More and more consumers are turning to plant-based options that align with their values and desire to impact personal and planetary health positively. The data shows that, despite the challenges of the past two years, retailers and foodservice providers are meeting consumers where they are by partnering with brands across the entire store to expand space, increase assortment, and make it easier than ever to find and purchase plant-based foods,” said Julie Emmett, PBFA Senior Director of Retail Partnerships.

Plant-based Milk’s Share Continues to Grow

Plant-based milk dollar sales grew 4% and 33% in the past three years to reach $2.6 billion, while animal-based milk sales declined 2% in 2021. Plant-based milk, which now accounts for 16% of all retail milk dollar sales, is the growth engine of the milk category, contributing $105 million in growth, while animal-based milk’s decline equated to a loss of $264 million, said SPINS, a wellness-focused data company and advocate for the Natural Products Industry.

Plant-based milk represents 40% of all milk sold in the Natural Enhanced Channel, up from 34% in 2018. Forty-two percent of households purchase plant-based milk, and 76% of plant-based milk buyers bought it multiple times in 2021.

As the largest category in the plant-based market, plant-based milk continued to benefit from product innovation and expanded merchandising space and assortment.

Almond milk is the category leader, accounting for 59% of the total category. Oat milk growth is the second-largest segment, growing more than 44 times in the past three years, making up 17% of category sales, up from only 0.5% in 2018.

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Plant-based milk now serves as the innovation leader in the milk category, supported by crucial advancements in ingredient diversification and product development to improve taste, functionality, and nutrition.

The success of plant-based milk has laid the groundwork for significant growth in other plant-based dairy products, which reached $2.1 billion in total sales in 2021. Categories like ready-to-drink beverages and plant-based creamers—which now has a 9% share of all creamers sold— experienced rapid growth as plant-based milk consumers increasingly entered these adjacent categories.

Across the store, plant-based dairy dollar sales are growing faster than those of many conventional animal products. In 2021, plant-based yogurt dollar sales grew 9%, three times the rate of traditional yogurt, to a 4.5%-dollar share. Plant-based cheese grew 7%, while conventional cheese declined 2%, and plant-based ice cream and frozen desserts grew 31% over the past two years to reach $458 million. In the Natural Enhanced Channel—where retail trends start—the dollar share of plant-based creamers grew to 33% of all creamers sold, while plant-based yogurt grew to a 21% share of all yogurts.

According to Karen Formanski, GFI Research and Analysis Manager, “product innovation is critical for plant-based categories to earn a larger market share. Getting more consumers to eat plant-based foods more often requires improved taste and texture to compete with animal products, more product diversity, and greater affordability and accessibility. As businesses recognize the staying power of plant-based foods, the food industry must seize these opportunities to maximize the vast potential of plant-based alternatives to compete with animal products.”

Plant-Based Meat Laps a Record Year

The new data released by the three organizations also revealed that after record growth in years prior, 2021 plant-based meat dollar sales remain strong, delivering a repeat year of $1.4 billion in sales and growing 74% in the past three years, outpacing conventional meat by almost three times.

The unit comparison is even more striking—while conventional meat unit sales have grown 8% in the past three years, plant-based meat unit sales have outpaced that by more than six times, growing 51% during the same period.

In 2021, plant-based meat’s dollar share was 2.7% of retail packaged meat sales or 1.4% of the total meat category (including random weight meat). These plant-based meat share numbers increased 19% over the last two years.

Plant-based meat’s share of meat in the Natural Enhanced Channel is now 14%. Nineteen percent of households purchased plant-based meat in 2021, up from 18% in 2020, with 64% of buyers purchasing plant-based meat more than once throughout the year.

Plant-based burgers continue to lead the plant-based meat category as the top-selling product type. At the same time, the industry is responding to consumer desire for more variety within the meat category.

The fastest-growing plant-based meat product types in 2021 were plant-based meatballs, chicken nuggets, tenders, cutlets, and deli slices. The plant-based chicken was a growth leader in 2021 as more products that match the taste, texture, and appearance of animal-based chicken hit retail shelves.

Plant-Based Eggs Continue Rapid Growth

The plant-based egg category also snowballed in 2021 with a 42% increase in dollar sales. Plant-based egg dollar sales have grown more than 1000% in the past three years. And with conventional egg dollar sales declining by 4% in 2021, plant-based eggs have increased to earn a nearly 0.6% share of the total egg market, compared to a 0.05% share three years ago, making plant-based eggs a growth driver of the category.

High Demand for Plant-Based Food From Consumers With Increasing Purchasing Power

Sixty-two percent or 79 million U.S. households are now buying plant-based products. This is an increase from 61% (77 million in 2020). Increased repeat rates in plant-based foods across numerous record-breaking years illustrate strong consumer commitment and interest—the percentage of consumers purchasing multiple times within the plant-based category grew from 78% in 2020 to 79% in 2021.

Millennials and Gen Z, which compose 47% of the population and will continue to grow in their spending power, have a particularly high demand for plant-based foods. These generations are also increasing their e-commerce spending the most—and e-commerce sales of total plant-based foods grew 47% in the last year to $351 million, up from $240 million in 2020.

Consumers, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, are motivated by an interest in foods that are better for their health and deliver on positive environmental impact and social responsibility. Plant-based foods are uniquely positioned to meet these consumer needs, and brands and retailers swiftly respond to these trends and offer innovative new products and solutions.

“Just when retailers were getting ahead of challenges from the pandemic and supply chain issues, record inflation is causing them to look at alternatives to help consumers manage their shopping and wellness journeys. SPINS data shows that plant-based products appear to manage the U.S.’s economic issues better than many traditional retail products. This is a trend we expect to continue throughout this year and encourage retailers to look to expand shelf space for all plant-based products,” concluded SPINS Chief Commercial Officer Jay Lovelace.