Amid unsettled economic conditions exacerbated by the pandemic, supply chain issues and inflation, new data from the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), The Good Food Institute (GFI) and market research firm SPINS revealed that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 6.2% in 2021 on top of 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 surpassing their conventional counterparts. Meanwhile, the conventional protein market has experienced supply chain disruptions and rising inflation. 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 increases.
Plant-based milk dollar sales increased 4% and 33% in the past three years to hit $2.6 billion, while animal-based milk sales fell 2% in 2021. Now accounting for 16% of all retail milk dollar sales, plant-based milk 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. In the Natural Enhanced Channel, plant-based milk makes up 40% of all milk sold, up from 34% in 2018. Forty-two percent of households buy plant-based milk, and 76% of plant-based milk buyers bought it several times in 2021.
As the biggest category in the plant-based market, plant-based milk continues to benefit from product innovation, and greater merchandising space and assortment. Almond milk is the category leader, accounting for 59% of the total category, with oat milk the second-largest segment, having grown more than 44 times in the past three years to now make up 17% of category sales, up from just 0.5% in 2018. Plant-based milk is now the innovation leader in the milk category, backed by key advancements in ingredient diversification and product development to enhance taste, functionality and nutrition.
The success of plant-based milk has laid the groundwork for significant growth in other plant-based dairy products, which attained $2.1 billion in total sales in 2021. Categories such as ready-to-drink beverages, and plant-based creamers — which now has a 9% share of all creamers sold — saw rapid growth as plant-based milk consumers increasingly moved into these adjacent categories. Across the store, plant-based dairy dollar sales are growing more quickly than those of many conventional animal products. In 2021, plant-based yogurt dollar sales rose 9%, three times the rate of conventional yogurt, to a 4.5% dollar share. Plant-based cheese grew 7%, while conventional cheese decreased 2%, and plant-based ice cream and frozen desserts increased 31% over the past two years to reach $458 million. In the Natural Enhanced Channel, where retail trends start, dollar share of plant-based creamers rose to 33% of all creamers sold, while plant-based yogurt increased to a 21% share of all yogurt.
Following record growth in earlier years, 2021 plant-based meat dollar sales remain steady, delivering a repeat year of $1.4 billion in sales, and rising 74% over the past three years, nearly tripling the growth of conventional meat. The unit comparison is even more striking: While conventional meat unit sales have increased 8% in the past three years, plant-based meat unit sales have outpaced that by more than six times, rising 51% during the same period. Last year, 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. Each of these plant-based meat share numbers grew 19% over the past two years. Plant-based meat’s share of meat in the Natural Enhanced Channel is currently 14%. Nineteen percent of households bought plant-based meat in 2021, up from 18% in 2020, with 64% of buyers buying plant-based meat more than once during the year.
Plant-based burgers continue to be the top-selling product type in the plant-based meat category. At the same time, the industry is meeting consumer desire for more variety within the category, with the fastest-growing plant-based meat product types in 2021 plant-based meatballs, chicken nuggets, tenders and cutlets, and deli slices. In fact, plant-based chicken was a growth leader in 2021 as more products that approximate the taste, texture and appearance of animal-based chicken arrive in stores.
There’s a big ongoing opportunity in plant-based seafood, which grew 14% to $14 million, but accounts for just 1% of the plant-based meat market, versus conventional seafood comprising a fifth of total meat and seafood sales.