Interest in plant-based diets continues to sprout, giving food manufacturers and retailers a chance to cultivate shopper engagement and grow sales, Chicago-based research firm IRI says.
In a recent blog post, John Crawford, IRI’s v.p. of client insights - dairy, and Tim Grzebinski, client insights principal, noted that demand for plant-based foods has expanded over the last few years, thanks to focus on higher-protein diets, celebrity adoption and social media.
“It’s clear that consumers across the board have a growing interest in plant-based foods, including plant-based protein – and they are buying more of these items,” Crawford and Grzebinski wrote. “It’s important to note, however, that the specific types of products they are most interested in is constantly shifting due to continually-evolving diet trends and their openness to trying new products.”
Citing research from Mintel, Crawford and Grzebinski reported 60 percent of American consumers are interested in consuming less meat and about a third are having meatless days. Another third plan to buy more plant-based foods.
A new study from IRI that looked 15 product categories, including refrigerated milk, butter, yogurt and ice cream, and found that plant-based dollar sales are trending upward across most categories compared to a year ago. 
Plant-based mayonnaise was the only category to see a small decrease in 2018, but that segment, along with milk, ice cream, yogurt, creamer, meat substitutes, protein bars and supplements, and frozen meals, earned more than $100 million in annual plant-based dollar sales.
The milk category has been the most affected by growing interest in plant-based foods. Crawford and Grzebinski noted almost one in five Americans say they are drinking less dairy milk for health concerns. Plant-based milks now have 10.2 percent dollar share in the category. 
While almond, coconut and soy milks are the most popular, newer varieties such as flax, quinoa and oat are gaining faster growth. Also, more households are buying both dairy and plant-based milk — dairy milk for flavor and family appeal and plant-based milk for health and wellness and social consciousness.
Plant-based foods are now in 53 percent of households, and that’s expected to increase, particularly among Millennials and consumers with higher incomes.
“In general, younger consumers have a far more positive view of the health aspects of plant-based milks than older generations,” Crawford and Grzebinski wrote.
Developing plant-based products, and making them readily available to consumers now, will only serve manufacturers and retailers in the long run. Candy makers are already capitalizing on the trend by playing up their non-dairy status or by removing milk from chocolate and substituting plant milks in caramels.
A few come to mind. Colorado-based JJ’s Sweets makes caramels with coconut milk, and last year, Askinosie Chocolate launched its first milk chocolate bar made with coconut milk. Alter Eco recently unveiled its Superdark Truffles, made with coconut oil instead of dairy.
Grocers, mass retailers and convenience stores stand to gain from catering to vegan, vegetarian and occasionally meat-free shoppers, but there are plenty of opportunities for foodservice, too. Earlier this year, Carl’s Jr. announced it would introduce the Beyond Meat meatless patty at 1,100 stores, and Burger King announced this week it would roll out the Impossible Burger nationwide.
These moves likely wouldn’t surprise Crawford and Grzebinski.
“Innovators in this space who focus more on the changing diets and health needs of consumers, and less on traditional categories or occasions, will be able to capture both attention and sales,” Crawford and Grzebinski wrote.