A deeper dive into plant-based meat sales in 2021

How market challenges and noise impacted everything from ingredients to innovation, and the critical path ahead for plant-based meat
Plant-based buffalo wings on plate

Plant-based meat sales

Over the past few years, plant-based foods have been a key driver of retail growth—and they continue to be. New U.S. retail data commissioned by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association from SPINS shows that plant-based food dollar sales grew six percent in 2021, three times faster than overall food sales, bringing the total market to $7.4 billion. In the past three years, total plant-based foods have consistently outpaced total foods in both dollar and unit sales growth. 

How has the plant-based meat category performed? After posting an impressive 45 percent increase in dollar sales in 2020 and catapulting the category past the billion-dollar mark, plant-based meat sales remained steady in 2021—dollar sales were flat, falling short of industry expectations for continued rapid growth. While some might stop there and claim this indicates that the plant-based meat industry has hit its peak, we’re going to dig into the nuances and complexities of the past few years—including impacts from the pandemic, inflation, supply chain disruptions, and changes in velocity—for a deeper understanding of plant-based meat’s sales performance and future opportunities. With this additional context, it is clear that this is not the end of the story, the category deceleration appears to be transitory, and opportunities for further growth abound.

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Retail sales data: Plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, dairy

Explore 2021 U.S. retail sales data for plant-based meat, seafood, egg, and dairy products. Our report presents key category insights and purchase dynamics for the plant-based industry.

Executive summary

  • Dollar sales of plant-based meat were flat in 2021 over 2020, which was a record year of growth. 
  • Pandemic impacts created noise in retail sales data and led to unusually high category growth in 2020—making it a tough year to compare sales against. This highlights the need to look at longer-term trends and compare performance to 2019 for a clearer picture.
  • In the long term, plant-based meat continues to be a growth proposition, and is likely to return to stable long-term growth similar to that seen in other emerging categories, such as natural and organic.
  • Inflation in meat prices skewed comparisons to conventional meat sales performance. Conventional meat sales actually declined more rapidly than plant-based meat sales did on a unit basis. Conventional meat’s dollar sales growth was driven entirely by higher prices, not by an increase in consumer demand.
  • Ingredient and supply chain disruptions further complicated the picture, and out-of-stock items were not uncommon across plant-based categories (and across the meat department).
  • Velocity declined in 2021, signaling opportunities to strengthen consumer engagement with the plant-based meat category. 
  • Despite the growth seen in the last decade, the success of the plant-based meat category is not inevitable. More investment and innovation are needed to ensure plant-based proteins can compete with conventional products on the key drivers of consumer choice: taste, price, and accessibility.

Plant-based meat and seafood dollar sales, U.S. retail, 2018-2021

Plant based meat graph

Pandemic impacts

To contextualize the sales performance of plant-based categories in 2021, it is important to note that 2020 was an unusual year with particularly strong growth—not only across the food market, but especially for plant-based categories—given the above-average activity the retail sector saw due to pandemic impacts. 

  • Plant-based meat dollar sales grew 45 percent from 2019 to 2020. Lapping such a high-growth year with significant noise in the data from the retail impacts of the pandemic makes comparisons challenging. It may be particularly difficult for an emerging industry that is still scaling production capacity to lap such a strong year of growth.
  • Given that 2020 is a difficult year to compare against, it’s helpful to zoom out and look at the long-term trend, which shows that plant-based meat dollar sales have grown 74 percent over the past three years, up from $800 million in 2018, and have outpaced animal-based meat dollar sales growth by almost three times.
  • The unit comparison is even more striking. While conventional meat unit sales have grown eight percent in the past three years, plant-based meat unit sales have outpaced that by more than six times, growing 51 percent during the same period to 281 million units.

Inflation

Plant-based meat category activity should be contextualized within the broader meat market, where inflation has been a large story. 

  • When considering sales metrics, examining dollar sales and dollar sales growth alone can lead to the conflation of increased consumer demand and increased sales prices.
  • Unit sales and average price per unit can help tell a more complete story. 
  • Despite experiencing slightly lower dollar sales growth than total food and conventional meat, plant-based meat saw comparable—or less—unit sales declines, and markedly more modest price increases.

In other words, inflation in meat prices skews comparisons to conventional meat sales performance. Conventional meat sales actually declined more rapidly than plant-based meat sales did on a unit basis. Conventional meat’s dollar sales growth (the number most commonly reported) was driven entirely by higher prices, not by an increase in consumer demand.

Dollar sales, unit sales, and average price per unit, 2020 to 2021

CategoryDollar sales,
1-year change
Unit sales,
1-year change
Average price per unit,
1-year change
Total food2%-3%+5%
Frozen & refridgerated conventional meat*1%-4%+6%
Plant-based meat0%-3%+3%
*Note: Throughout most of GFI’s U.S. retail market insights report, plant-based meat products (including refrigerated, frozen, and shelf stable types) are compared to the total conventional category (which had 0% dollar sales growth). Based on limited data availability for shelf stable conventional meat units, this table compares plant-based meat to a conventional meat category that does not include shelf-stable products.
Note: The data presented in this graph is based on custom GFI and PBFA plant-based categories that were created by refining standard SPINS categories. Due to the custom nature of these categories, the presented data will not align with standard SPINS categories. Source: SPINS Natural Enhanced Channel, SPINS Conventional Multi Outlet Channel (powered by IRI) | 52 Weeks Ending 12-26-2021

Conventional meat’s dollar sales growth (the number most commonly reported) was driven entirely by higher prices, not by an increase in consumer demand.

Ingredient shortages and supply chain disruptions

Ingredient and supply chain disruptions further complicated the picture, and out-of-stock items were not uncommon in both plant-based and conventional meat categories.

As one notable example, Canada, the largest producer of yellow peas (commonly used in plant-based meat products) in the world, recorded a 45 percent decrease in yellow pea production as of September 2021 after a record-setting summer of drought. Similarly, the pea protein market in France experienced low yields due to unusually wet weather. Because of the relatively small size of plant-based categories, even modest supply chain issues like these could contribute to declines in growth. 

  • Plant-based meat’s supply chain vulnerability, which stems from its position as an emerging industry that is largely not operating at scale or with the purchasing power of more developed categories, is distinct from conventional meat’s supply chain vulnerability, which stems from high concentration of capacity, inherent dependency on animals, and inflexible timing sensitivities
  • According to FMI’s The Power of Meat 2022, 38 percent of consumers reported seeing increases in out-of-stocks in the meat department in 2021. Market conditions resulted in changed meat and poultry purchasing patterns for 58 percent of consumers.
  • Once plant-based meat supply chains are scaled, they should have a lower risk of disruption than conventional meat supply chains given the inherent vulnerability of supply chains dependent on animals.

Velocity

Velocity measures how fast a product turns on the shelf. Plant-based meat’s units SPM (sales per million), a standard velocity metric, decreased 14% in 2021. 

  • Category velocity in 2021 was comparable to that in 2018 and 2019, which again points to a particularly noisy 2020 driven by pandemic impacts—indicating that the decline in velocity appears to be a transitory issue. 
  • There are indications that this decrease is driven by lower purchasing from light and medium buyers of plant-based meat, while dedicated buyer purchasing remains strong according to consumer panel insights shared with GFI. This indicates the need for products that appeal to the broader consumer groups now purchasing in the plant-based meat category. 
  • Overall, we see this as a signal that significant opportunities remain to strengthen consumer engagement with the plant-based meat category by successfully delivering on consumer needs of taste and value.
  • There may also be opportunities to hone category management practices to ensure that the plant-based meat products that best meet consumer needs are merchandised where consumers can easily access them.

2022 and beyond

Consumers are continuing to show interest in plant-based meat products—the percentage of households purchasing plant-based meat increased slightly from 18 to 19 percent in 2021 and repeat rates stayed constant, at 64 percent. That said, there is evidence in the last few months that plant-based meat continues to experience flat or declining dollar and unit sales (although short-term data is subject to noise and natural fluctuations).

It’s clear that despite the remarkable growth seen in the last several years, the success of the plant-based meat category is not inevitable. To maximize the category’s potential, plant-based meat must compete with conventional meat products on the table stakes of consumer choice—taste, price, and accessibility—and there is work to do on all of these fronts.

Cor21033 spins callout

Spotlight: Opportunities in taste and price

Taste and price remain major drivers of—and barriers to—plant-based meat consumption. 

  • Data from UBS Evidence Lab shows that taste curiosity is the primary driver behind trial in the U.S. and Europe—71% of consumers say they’re interested in trying plant-based meat because of taste. 
  • But only 30% of consumers believe that plant-based meat tastes as good as or better than conventional meat. Of consumers who plan to buy plant-based meat less often, 64% say it’s because they prefer the taste of conventional meat. 
  • Meanwhile, price parity with conventional meat remains a significant opportunity, as plant-based meat, on average, is twice as expensive per pound (according to GFI’s analysis of The Power of Meat 2022).

This is only the beginning

To successfully capture the massive opportunity that alternative proteins present, greater R&D investments from both the private and public sectors will be needed. Global demand for meat is rising—by 2050, meat consumption is estimated to increase by 70 to 100 percent over 2005 levels. Investments in plant-based meat can ensure we realize the potential alternative proteins provide to help sustainably and efficiently feed billions of people, protect public health and lessen the risk of future pandemics, and mitigate the global climate impact of meat production—all while giving consumers more options for tasty, affordable proteins. 

So no, this isn’t the peak, it’s only the beginning of a critically needed global protein transition that gets us on a path toward a more sustainable, secure, and just food future.

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Read the new report

These insights are a sampling of the kinds of information in GFI’s new resource, 2021 U.S. retail market insights: Plant-based foods, which provides analysis of 2021 U.S. retail sales data for plant-based meat, seafood, egg, and dairy categories. The report presents key sales metrics, category insights, and purchase dynamics for the plant-based industry.

Food spread with plant-based feta cheese

Join us for a deeper discussion on this data 

Register for our upcoming webinar with special guests from the Plant Based Foods Association and SPINS for an overview of the U.S. retail market for plant-based foods.

Note: The data used in this analysis is based on SPINS plant-based positioned attribution, with the additional inclusion of plant-based private label and a custom plant-based eggs category. Due to the custom nature of these categories, the presented data may not align with standard SPINS categories. Read more about our methodology in the full report.

Author

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Emma Ignaszewski CORPORATE ENGAGEMENT PROJECT MANAGER

Emma Ignaszewski manages projects to catalyze corporate innovation that will radically transform the food system and deliver alternative protein products that compete on the key drivers of consumer choice: taste, price, and convenience. Areas of expertise: retail, strategy, marketing, communications.