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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Tabanji

EXPO WEST 2019: Top Brands & Trends In Plant-Based Innovation

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Morgan Keim is CEO of Sprouted Ventures, a market strategy collective that helps emerging plant-based meat and dairy brands go to market by driving velocity, scaling distribution and finding funding.

Whew! With the hurricane-force energy of Expo West 2019 finally over, overflowing sample tote bags emptied and a full detox in progress, we finally had a little time to celebrate and reflect on what a terrific show it was.

Trends were alive in the natural channel, with CBD everywhere, monk fruit-sweetened products, Paleo and protein everything and an ongoing emphasis on gut health.

But no trend was more front and center than “plant-based.” The term was emblazoned on the front of booths, on package labels and sell sheets as far as the eye could see. Clean Label and products made with alternative protein gained prominence, but most inspiring was the repositioning of several mainstream (animal-based) brands into the plant-based category, with the rising Flexitarian consumer to thank for this.

There were some incredible plant-based brand presences at Expo West 2019. Below, is a resource guide we created that highlights a few of our favorites in plant-based meat, milk, seafood, cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Be sure to tell us in the comments which ones you liked best!

Plant-based Meat

Plant-based meat has been a darling of the space for a couple years now, given the interest from Flexitarian and Carnivorous consumers, who are actively (and often unknowingly) reducing their meat and dairy consumption.

Impossible Foods was a clear stand-out in their first-ever Expo West showing. Their mini-commercial kitchen cooked up fresh burgers and tacos using their reformulated ‘Impossible 2.0’ beef. This was a pleasant versatility-focused improvement, showing their strategy to expand beyond the burger category and showcase other applications of beef as they prepare to launch into US retail later this year.

Beyond Meat swung for the fences and crushed it with a new retail ready ground beef pack. Their new package resembles high-end beef packaging similar to something the meat industry might produce. Meat consumers might just grab it by accident thinking the product is beef, and won’t think twice once they taste it. Further, Beyond Meat sampled up their breakfast sausage line, which has been well-received at Canada’s A&W chain.

Lightlife was a surprising contender with a refreshed, Flexitarian-forward positioning effort that could convince even the most diehard carnivores that they were serving meat. Their new line of sweet and savory “Harvest Apple Smart Sausages” delivers just over 16g of protein per serving, as well as a line of plant-based burger patties, served right out of their vegan butcher’s counter at the Expo.

Last, we want to give an honorable mention to Dr. Praeger’s. For the first time, they entered the plant-based meat category with surprisingly delicious “Chick’n” Tenders, made of pea protein and a mix of carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and black beans. The clean label offerings are offered as frozen retail SKUs in Classic, Buffalo and BBQ flavors. They complement Dr. Praeger’s new line of veggie burgers, meatless sausage and veggie nuggets.

Plant-based Milk

The Non-Dairy Milk category is on fire. Our friends at The Guardian affectionately call plant-based milk, “White Gold.”

Some of the biggest trends we saw in plant-based milk were using multiple protein bases (i.e. Almond with Coconut and Cashew), clean labels and alignment to complementary industries, like coffee. Quite a few brands brought in baristas to serve up coffee and espresso drinks with their brands’ plant-based milk. This was a hit, especially given ingredient innovations in creating better frothiness and fat content.

Our favorite milk for coffee application is Ripple, one of Sprouted Ventures’ long-time favorite “best in class” brands in the category. Their new barista blend showcased pea protein and sunflower oil, which helps the milk foam and froth like creamy dairy milk. Ripple is one of the most highly-funded (and most innovative) companies at the forefront of non-dairy innovation, so we’re definitely keeping an eye out for what might come from them next.

We also celebrated Silk’s rebranding effort. The company made a splash with their creative take on nutrition fortification, shown in their Almond and Cashew Milk with 10g of added pea protein per serving. These rebranding efforts have positioned them strongly to continue rolling out other alternative options, including their new Oat Yeah! oat milk line, which delivers the more creamy, heavier mouthfeel of oats that we particularly like for baking and cream applications.

Milkadamia also delivered a great, clean label product. An Australian-owned company, their Unsweetened Vanilla is light and crisp, with a nice, subtle mouthfeel at the end. We like to drink this one straight-up or mixed into chai tea.

Finally, we’d like to give La Colombe an honorable mention for their wonderful, “accidentally vegan” Coconut Draft Latte coffee offering that got us pretty excited. While the brand also has dairy offerings, this SKU is entirely vegan and delivers a creamy, frothy mouthfeel just like dairy. They served it from a nitrous tap, similar to Guinness beer, with air bubbles cascading from the bottom of your glass, an innovation they replicate in their retail can SKUs. It’s heaven in a cup.

Plant-based Seafood

The plant-based seafood category has among most room for growth and innovation. With 85% of fish stocks classified as overfished or in danger of collapse, this is also a major category for huge impact.

In the very early growth stage category, Good Catch released an incredible series of new seafood-inspired delicacies. With an all-star team, including the world-renowned vegan chefs, the Sarno brothers, Good Catch’s plant-based tuna pouches made a splash earlier this year, launching nationally in Whole Foods and Thrive Market. We sampled their delectable crab cakes, closely reminiscent of the Baltimore favorite, which will be showing up in the frozen section of Whole Foods and other retailers later this year.

We were also impressed with Sophie’s Kitchen, who is offering smoked salmon, crab cakes and tuna for those looking to enjoy their seafood favorites with a plant-based twist. The tuna was moist and had just the right amount of fishy flavor, and the crab cakes were filling and palatable. In some of their formulations, they combine konjac, a fibrous root traditionally used in Japanese cuisine, with several types of seaweed creating the iconic sea flavor. Look out for their products in the retail channel.

We are looking forward to a huge amount of innovation coming out of this category in the coming years.

Plant-based Cheese

Violife, a Greek company that is relatively new to the US scene, got our attention in this category. Following the trend of positioning as “accidentally vegan,” we felt their Parmesan plant-based cheese was particularly appealing. It looks like a regular, imported chunk of hard cheese, straight from Italy. Particularly in this category, where many vegan cheeses are only for soft, spreadable applications, we felt that this was refreshingly familiar to mainstream taste and appeal.

Miyoko’s forever has our heart and has been a terrific driver in the cheese category for years. Famed for her cashew and coconut cheeses, this year, her line of nut-free cheeses made of legumes, seeds and potatoes was a much welcome innovation for those dietarily restricted (or not!).

There’s a lot of innovation happening in the plant-based cheese space, and it is a category that Sprouted Ventures is following closely. We’re hoping to see Spero Foods and Aixa Trade’s Mondarella at a future Expo!

Ok, one last one. Maybe this doesn’t quite count as “cheese” but we also want to give an honorable mention to Kite Hill, for their new dips -- and in particular, their French Onion dip. Founded by vegan chef Tal Ronnen, cheesemaker Monte Casino and Impossible Foods’ Pat Brown, Kite Hill has been pioneering almond-based cheeses for years. This new product line is no exception, as it delivers savory roasted onion flavor with creamy cheese notes. It is definitely worth a try.

Plant-based Yogurt

Yogurt innovations are also heating up. Many large food developers have been eyeing this space for growth, but the space is full of upstarts who are taking market share from the bigger dairy brands.

From a taste perspective, we love Lavva. The taste is creamy and taste is tangy. Their products have a super clean label, with probiotics and prebiotics, and no added sugars. Their exotic ingredients list includes pili nuts, coconut, cassava and young plantains. In our opinion, this is one of the most premium yogurts on the market, and it is priced as such (at least in our local Whole Foods). We highly recommend the mango and raspberry -- they are other-worldly and decadent.

This year, we saw Greek yogurt giant Chobani enter the plant-based space with non-dairy yogurt cups and drinks. They use a coconut base and 25% less sugar than their regular line. Given Chobani’s market dominance and influence on the category, we wouldn’t doubt that a strong, mainstream marketing push will follow the launch to craft out their niche.

Last, we liked Australian brand COYO, as they took a different approach. Their yogurt has an extremely tangy mouthfeel and is made of organic coconut milk, vegan cultures that pack the product with probiotics. Perhaps most impressive was that they had just 1.7g of sugar in their natural SKU. Their vanilla bean flavor was our favorite, and we walked away feeling healthy and light and refreshed -- sometimes, a rarity at Expo West!

Plant-based Ice Cream (yes, that’s a thing!)

Ice cream has been around since 200 BC, when ice men froze a mixture of milk and rice in the snow in order to fulfill their leader’s request for something different for lunch that day. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that it became a symbol of family, love, and fun. With 65% of the world’s population being lactose intolerant, it only made sense for new and innovative brands to create delicious dairy-free offerings in the space.

Daiya shined with one of our favorite booths at the Expo, recreating the old 1950s and serving cool, crisp, coconut cream dessert bars. The Americana feel of their brand presence can’t help but transport you back in time and put a smile on your face.

So Delicious, a dairy-free flagship brand with coconut, almond, and cashew milk lines, also swooped into the scene with something new, an oat milk ice cream. Our top flavor was the Raspberry Peanut Butter, with the Oatmeal Cookie and Caramel Apple Crumble close behind. Oat milk brings a heavier, creamier consistency that beautifully emulates the decadence of a traditional (animal-based) ice cream you would have enjoyed as your 10-year-old self.

Our ice cream honorable mentions go to Van Leeuwen and CoolHaus for innovating on vegan ice cream flavors and re-aligning their (somewhat traditionally positioned) dairy brands to capture growth of the plant-based consumer market.

Let us know which ones you liked at Natural Products Expo West 2019 in the comments section below, and don’t forget to share and follow @SproutedVentures on Instagram!




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