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Plant-based market growth know-how

Plant-Based Foods of Canada’s Leslie Ewing speaking with Rob Mikulec, national merchandising director for meat at Sobeys

While plant-based foods demand has softened in Canada, consumers continue to seek out value-based better-for-your foods, which presents opportunities to expand the plant-based food category, say industry leaders who spoke at Plant Forward, an international conference for the plant-based foods market,  April 16-18 at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto.

The event, organized by Plant-Based Foods of Canada, has grown since its inception in 2022. More than 200 hundred delegates from Canada, the U.S. and abroad attended the three-day conference, which provided updates on food ingredient and product development,  shopper insights, a retailer perspective and an insider’s look at how government and industry organizations are working to position the country as a leader in plant-based protein.

Despite the challenges the market has faced, consumers are looking for plant-based foods and the latest data shows that 61 per cent of Canadians regularly purchase plant-based foods, says Leslie Ewing, executive director of Plant-Based Foods of Canada.

“We’ve faced many challenges the last few years with supply chain disruptions and inflationary pressures, but despite this, there is lots of innovation going on in the category and the industry is worth an estimated $1 billion.”

Ewing’s comments are supported by data from Innova Market Insights, which says consumer attitudes towards meat and dairy alternatives are changing. According to Sophie Côté, client success manager with Innova, 16 per cent of global consumers see dairy alternatives as their preferred protein source (15 per cent say the same for meat alternatives) and 32 per cent believe diary alternatives (35 per cent for meat alternatives) are healthier than dairy products, and consumer purchases are driven by the perceived health benefits of these products.

A retailer’s perspective

For Sobeys, any initiatives it undertakes in the plant-base category starts with the customer, says Rob Mikulec, national merchandising director for meat at Sobeys who in previous merchandising roles at the banner managed the plant-based protein category.

The banner is experimenting with different approaches to build the category including a variety of merchandising tests, playing with marketing signage at shelf, partnering with suppliers and others on marketing at different time frames when customers are more willing to trial something new and “constantly doing category evaluations to understand how customers are interacting with products and evaluating new opportunities in sub-categories such as appetizers, comfort foods and meals-to-go.”

When it comes to launching new products, taste is number one says Mikulec.

“If you market a product on its nutritional value, you don’t get much of an increase in consumption. When you market it on a taste profile, you see a big increase…taste for us is the number one priority.”

Although the market is somewhat soft, Mikulec expects this to change as market consolidation ends, brands that have built strong relationships with customers begin to innovate and the pressure on customer wallets begin to ease.

“We’ve also seen an adjustment in the state of merchandising and seeing a shift from refrigerated to frozen and from our perspective this is good because it removes food waste.”

As for the evolution in the category, Mikulec says there will be opportunities around large pack sized products that can be built into customers’ weekly shop and the emergence of innovative cross-cultural products reflecting the cuisines of Canada’s diverse population.

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