Look at any trending food news and you’ll see an abundance of information about plant-based diets. This nutritional movement encompasses more than just vegan or vegetarian, and includes a broader segment called “flexitarians.”
These consumers are looking to cut back on meat occasions, rather than completely eliminating meat. We already see the power of this trend with the increase in nut-based milk options (almond milk), veggie burgers and other meat alternatives.
Mintel, a major food and beverage research company, named plant-powered eating as one of the fastest growing global food trends. According to Nielsen, nearly 40% of Americans are trying to eat more plant-based foods, and Mintel found 58% reported desiring less meat in diets. This statistic is even higher for Millennials at 67%.
Sounds positive for produce right? After all, produce is the original plant-based diet. But it’s not so simple. The packaged foods industry has really capitalized on this opportunity, promoting processed plant-based options such as nut-milks, meat alternatives and beans. Accordingly, consumer attention is shifting to plant-based processed foods. Consumers are also confused over health benefits and how plant-based diets can nourish everyone from athletes to families. As we see growth in this area, it’s crucial for the produce industry to not only be part of the conversation, but to own this trend.
As the current situation stands, I don’t believe produce is getting credit for this shift, even though we have the most authentic claim to be the leader. So, how do we reposition our products so consumers think of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts in the same space as processed plant-based products? We must find a way to lead this segment and in some ways disrupt ourselves. We must look for new ways to use merchandising and signage techniques to reposition produce in consumers’ minds.
Several produce efforts are already in sync with this concept. At The Wonderful Company, we work with dietitians across the country to tout key health benefits of products, such as POM Wonderful fresh pomegranates and juice, to the health community. Leveraging retail dietitians to communicate healthy messages helps consumers understand how produce fits into the plant-based trend. Every February, we work with registered dietitian teams at local retailers for American Heart Month to share heart-healthy snacking ideas, including Wonderful Pistachios, for the Big Game. Avocados from Mexico’s Avocado University equips chefs, dietitians and foodservice professionals to develop and promote plant-based options and heath benefits.
Retailers can also use in-store POS displays in produce and outside the department to remind consumers how produce fits into health goals. Especially promoting produce as a plant-based option outside the produce department will gain more exposure with shoppers. We experience noteworthy success when our Wonderful Halos Grove of Goodness high-graphic bins are merchandised in other parts of the store.
We also must get outside the industry and connect with food thought leaders. The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has been working to insert produce into the general cultural movement of food. PMA’s chief marketing officer, Lauren M. Scott, was a panelist at this year’s South by Southwest event alongside Lisa Cork of Fresh Produce Marketing and myself. This allowed us to discuss healthier choices through produce with a greater audience. Additionally, the first Plant-Based Nutrition Leadership Symposium, held in April in Los Angeles, and made possible by Wonderful Pistachios, was created to empower credible nutrition experts with insights around the benefits of plant-based nutrition and help shift consumer behavior toward healthier eating patterns.
Our industry needs to come together to shift consumer thinking around what it means to be plant-based. People generally know fruits, vegetables and nuts are healthy, and the produce department certainly occupies a sizeable footprint in the store. However, if we don’t energize the department, we’re not going to have continued share of this segment. We must evolve with consumer eating patterns. It’s not just about gleaning more sales; it’s about shifting the perception of how consumers relate to produce.
At the South by Southwest conference, I presented the analogy of playing in a sandbox, where the sandbox is the competitive frame of reference. Your strategy depends a lot on what sandbox you find yourself in. For example, pistachios can be in the nut sandbox, the snacking sandbox or the produce sandbox. Fruits, vegetables and nuts can be in the produce sandbox, or we can be in the plant-based nutrition sandbox. This second sandbox allows us to expand our coverage and competition to other parts of the store and capture more eating occasions.
Our industry faces many challenging headwinds on a daily basis, including weather and food safety. This is our opportunity to harness a strong tailwind to propel us forward. The more closed-in you are in terms of your scope, the more closed-in your opportunities will be. By broadening the sandbox, it widens our thinking and helps us compete in a greater market, and in the end, inspire healthier eating choices.
Adam Cooper is senior vice president of marketing for The Wonderful Company in Los Angeles