This year’s Plant Based World Expo, held Sept. 8-9 in New York, showcased the challenges facing manufacturers. Many of the conversations during several presentations focused on the simple fact that taste reigns when it comes to plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, and that over processing, complicated labels, a lack of adequate nutrition — particularly around quality protein content — and not enough variety are all deterrents to purchase.

“Plant based,” as defined by market research firm SPINS, Chicago, refers to vegan alternatives to animal-based products. And while there were many such concepts on the exhibition floor at this year’s show, there were also numerous inherently plant-based products benefiting from the movement, everything from nut butters to vegetable oils to grain-based snacks.

Missing were many of the big-name plant-based meat and dairy players, as well as the more than a dozen processors that showcased plant-based versions of chicken nuggets at the 2021 expo. This observation was noted by speakers such as Meghan Barton, director of frozen for Kroger, Cincinnati, who said, “Duplication among brands is something to be mindful of.”

Rather than duplicates, the plant-based consumer, which currently is mostly flexitarians who also eat animal products, is looking for variety.

Kate Holmstrom, director-business acceleration consulting for 84.51, Kroger’s research business unit, said consumers don’t want to be bored with more plant-based options of the same product. She also said Kroger’s research showed shoppers who have increased their purchase of plant-based foods have not eliminated animal-based products. It’s mostly incremental growth for the stores.

Barton explained that plant-based milks are here to stay. They are part of every retailer’s lineup and “are a point of entry for consumers into plant-based eating.” She also said that over time, with improvements in plant-based meats, she expects sales growth will mirror plant-based milks.

The expectation is plant-based meat sales will come in the form of prepared foods, where a plant-based protein substitute for the ground beef in lasagna, the chicken strips in alfredo and the pork cubes in teriyaki. Further, the prepared products may not be vegan. Real dairy cheese, for example, may be part of the formulation.   

Rodd Willis, director of natural and specialty for Dot Foods, Mount Sterling, Ill., said if he was an innovator wanting to get into the plant-based space, he would do it in frozen, convenience meals.

Barton concurred, adding that she would like to see more vegetable-forward options.

“I want to see the vegetables,” she said.  

While an abundance of plant-based chicken nuggets may have been missing from the expo floor, the presence of luncheon-style plant-based meats was apparent. Better Foods, Sacramento, Calif., introduced its Better Meat brand of plant-based meats, which included a sliceable canned version of SPAM. The brand also has a range of plant-based cold cuts formulated to mimic everything from bologna to ham, as well as meat-type balls and patties. Like SPAM, the canned luncheon meat product is fully cooked and shelf stable.

New York-based Mighty Yum made its debut at the expo. Created by two health and fitness entrepreneurs inspired to transform how families eat on the go, Mighty Yum is the vegan form of kids’ lunch kits. Varieties include plant-based versions of turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, and pepperoni pizza.  

Crepini, Brooklyn, NY, exhibited its new no-carbohydrate eggless wrap. Crepini partnered with JUST Egg, a plant-based egg alternative that contains no cholesterol and 5 grams of plant-based protein per serving, to make an eggless wrap that is vegan, low in calories and rich in protein, as well as sustainably produced.

“Since our inception here at Crepini, we’ve been looking for ways to disrupt the carb-free category with keto-friendly options that aren’t only easy to eat anywhere but are delicious and versatile for every meal,” said Paula Rimer, founder. “With the launch of our first eggless wrap, we’ve innovated a way to make eating well easy for people of all different dietary preferences, from gluten-free to keto to vegan.”

Numerous processors from abroad, namely from the United Kingdom, where vegan lifestyles are much more prevalent than in the United States, trekked across the pond for the expo. One such company, Planet Organic Ltd., London, sampled its Fable brand of meat substitutes. Made predominantly from shiitake mushrooms, the product has a slow-cooked beef-like meaty texture and umami flavor. It comes in patty and pulled formats with a simple ingredient statement that includes coconut oil, soy protein isolate and tapioca flour.