Wait a Minute, Aren’t We the Plant-Based Diet?

By Anne-Marie Roerink

Life has been a rollercoaster ride for more than two years. At the onset of the pandemic, consumers focused on comfort food, but immunity and healthful eating quickly took a front seat. When you type in “healthy” in any one of the search engines, then click images, every picture that pops up is that of fresh produce. There’s a natural association between fresh produce and “healthy,” and that’s a good thing, but it can also hurt us for no other reason than everybody wants a piece of our healthful image.

When walking down the snack, beverage, freezer or dairy aisles, the word “plant-based” pops out on just about every other package. I just spent a few days at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the Sweets & Snacks Expo. At NRA, the sea of plant-based meat, seafood and dairy alternatives was overwhelming and you had to look hard to find real meat. At Sweets & Snacks Expo, items from gummies to chocolate to tomato jerky were calling out their plant-based nature. Even items like potato chips, which have long been plant-based, are now pointing out that they belong in the popular kid club, too.

Beverages, in particular, were early movers in this space. Long before the start of the pandemic, functional beverages started growing in number and in sales. Many prominently show brightly colored fruit and veggies on the label and call out that you can take care of your five-a-day with the ease and convenient consumption of said beverage.

In many cases, such as potato chips, I doubt these callouts are generating many new dollars. In other cases, they are a fraction of total sales. For instance, plant-based meat alternatives are less than 1% of total meat sales. Yet, I would argue we need to step up our game and take back our space as the original, and most effective, plant-based diet. Why? Because of the danger of the shortcut.

All these plant-based callouts around the store can create the impression that consumers can have their five a day without ever setting foot in the produce department. No waste, minimal effort. And that, in my mind, is a dangerous development.

Additionally, many of these items, beverages and shots in particular, do a tremendous job in linking the feature to the benefit, with specific solutions for things like “energy” or “immunity.” When the nation’s eye turned to immunity at the onset of the pandemic, we saw big and sustained increases in the sales of oranges and other citrus fruits. But why did we not see the same types of an increase in the sales of bell peppers? The answer is that many consumers don’t know the superior delivery of Vitamin C in bell peppers.

In a survey just a few weeks ago, I asked a question about the types of food that people associated with immunity. Citrus, unsurprisingly, was by far the most common association, at 72%. Bell peppers garnered a miserable 27% of consumers associating them with immunity.

These results tell me there is a lot to gain by continuing to provide tips and going back to the old wisdoms about the goodness that comes from consuming specific types of fresh produce. In other words, rise above our natural health image and point out specific health benefits. Have more of the “bananas for potassium” and “spinach for iron” knowledge in the marketplace.

As more fresh produce is becoming packaged, we have mini billboards to leverage for more and effective messaging. People want to hear about the nutrition, but also about the specific benefits those nutritional components bring. That’s what all those beverages, frozen food and plant-based alternatives do so effectively. So, let’s connect the dots: mushrooms for Vitamin B and D…Vitamin B and D for immunity. The more we are known as delicious and healthy, but also “how” we are healthy, the more reasons consumers have to explore the produce aisle instead of just center store.

At the same time, it is important to point out that health isn’t just about physical health. About 90% of consumers believe that emotional wellbeing, the way you feel, is interconnected to physical health. And that’s where some of the more indulgent items come in. This is also why you see consumers focus on extreme value in part of their basket and splurge a little on others. These may be fun, new items that caught their eye or items that are part of family traditions or good memories. And who better to deliver the combination of physical health and emotional wellbeing than the beautiful and delicious fresh produce department as the original plant-based diet.

Anne-Marie Roerink is the president of 210 Analytics, a research firm specializing in food retailing. Working closely with retailers, wholesalers, grower/shippers and trade associations, she has developed an excellent perspective on the ever-changing wants and needs of the consumer in a one-size-fits-no-one world. She understands the challenges and opportunities in the food and produce businesses today as well as the drivers of success tomorrow.

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Produce Must Fight To Star On The Plate

By Jim Prevor

Who can possibly be opposed to educating consumers regarding the nutritional qualities of fresh produce? Not me. And, it infuriates me to see lots of packaged and processed products playing on a connection with produce in their marketing when, of course, their use of produce is minimal. Also, any produce they do use is often a processed powder from China and has little to do with helping U.S. farmers prosper.

Here is a secret about produce most people don’t know: All claims of dramatic increases in consumption of produce items in the short term are not, and cannot, be true.

Very little quality produce gets thrown away in the production cycle. In general, the vast majority of costs in producing produce items are sunk costs — land, planting, fertilizing, irrigating and maintaining the field, etc.

Let us take citrus, which was in great demand during the pandemic because of the immunity-boosting properties, including Vitamin C, one associates with citrus.

But it takes years following the planting of a citrus tree before it can begin producing commercial quantities of citrus. So, if there was virtually no citrus left in the field because there was no demand, and there was no possibility of quickly planting trees or using other techniques to boost production — what can it possibly mean that sales of citrus increased during the pandemic? There are really only two possibilities:

One: That there was increased demand and steady volume — so supply and demand caused the price of citrus to increase. Thus, sales of citrus might be up in dollars, but flat in pounds.

Two: Volume available for sale in the United States did increase because America is a rich country, and if we really want this product, we will bid up the price and redirect citrus coming from other countries — say South Africa — to the U.S., when, had we been unwilling to bid up the prices, the citrus would have gone elsewhere. Of course, note that in the short term, this is a zero sum game. Every additional pound that America woos with higher prices is a pound not being sold in another country — again, because we cannot plant instantly producing citrus trees.

This also applies to U.S. exports of citrus. If Americans want to bid higher, to get more citrus, U.S. exports could fall as the U.S. grown crop would be used to serve domestic demand. Of course, if this happens, pound for pound, every pound not exported would increase domestic consumption, but decrease international consumption.

Eating habits are hard to change, but increased fruit and vegetable consumption has to come through dietary change.

The bottom line is that on fresh product, per capita consumption virtually always matches total production divided by the population. In fact, most of the statistics you see published on per capita consumption are actually figured in just this way, as authorities have no real way of knowing what people buy, much less actually eat.

Even products that may grow in a few weeks and become hot with retailers, restaurants and consumers rarely lead to increases in total produce consumption. Growing produce is difficult and requires many inputs: appropriate land, water, workers, etc. So, when we have seen a boom in demand for a particular product, say kale a few years back, we have two issues.

First, on the buy side, the increase in demand is usually offset. So if kale is getting hot press, trendy restaurants may add kale as a side dish to a protein or introduce a kale salad. But, almost always, the new kale side dish replaces an old side dish, say spinach. And the new kale salad supplants some other salad on the menu. So product demand fluctuates, but total produce demand rarely increases at all beyond population increase.

Second, on the sell side, increasing production is not easy. Where are growers supposed to find all this extra quality land located in the right location, and if they did, would it have water and even if they had land and water, where are the workers who are going to suddenly appear to plant and harvest?

Eating habits are hard to change. Sure, during a pandemic getting people to increase consumption of a snack fruit, such as clementines or navel oranges, thought boost immunity, is relatively easy if the fruit is available. But how would people eat more bell peppers even if they wanted to? In fact, the big increase in pepper consumption has been a consequence of the introduction of super sweet, small snacking packs — which people can easily use by seeing peppers as a substitute for chips or less healthy snacking alternatives.

The truth is consumption increase has to come through dietary change. We need to persuade people they can enjoy a stir fry where vegetables are the star and protein just a little flavoring. As long as the model is a giant piece of protein, a mountain of mashed potatoes to fill the plate and the stomach cheaply and two spears of asparagus and a cherry tomato to add color — it is not going to be easy to increase produce consumption.