Considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device, Virginia Woolf, in her essay “A Room of One’s Own,” wrote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Today, with the growing consumer demand for sustainable offerings and simple, real ingredients, experts note that this “stream of consciousness” is boosting overall consumer interest in nuts, grains and other plant-based ingredients.
“The push for nutritious ingredients and sustainability created a demand for the ‘better-for-us’ trend,” says Loretta Kelly, director of strategic marketing for the global ingredients division at Blue Diamond, Sacramento.
This trend encourages consumers to opt for food and beverage formulations that are just as beneficial for their own health as they are for the well-being of the planet, she explains.
“In fact, a survey from Nielsen reported that 73% of millennials and 62% of Gen Z consumers prefer to buy from sustainable brands,” she says. “As a result, consumers are choosing to swap out less sustainable and healthy ingredients for non-dairy, plant-based alternatives that commonly include almonds, cashews, oats and barley.”
Additionally, alongside this rapidly growing consumer interest in “better-for-us,” is the increased demand for formulations that contain simple, recognizable ingredients, Kelly notes.
“The pandemic greatly increased consumer desire for a better understanding of what ingredients are used within the food and beverages they’re consuming,” she explains. “Like the clean-label trend, the growing focus on real ingredients highlights the need for a short list of simple ingredients rather than a long list of unrecognizable additives that cause uncertainty around how healthy a particular formulation might be.
“This increased focus on simple, real ingredients assists the growth of plant-based ingredients, like nuts and grains, due to the overall consumer recognition and appreciation of plant-based superfoods, such as almonds,” Kelly continues.
Chicago-based Mintel’s report titled “The Future of Dairy and Non-Dairy Drinks: 2022,” predicts that in five years and beyond, “better-for-us” will become “better-for-you” as tomorrow’s healthy diets will be those that also support the planet.
“The pandemic shows health is both a personal and a public health concern,” the report states. “The rapid spread of the virus around the world showed how one’s personal health can impact society as a whole.
“Looking forward, healthy diets will be used as a strategy to fight chronic diseases, giving new urgency to create low sugar, low sodium, nutrient-dense and plant-centric products,” it continues. “Sustainable ingredients, healthier products and nutrition equity are expected to go hand-in-hand for a better future.”
No signs of slowing
Experts note that with the growing plant-based trend, consumers now are able to select from a wide range of plant-based beverage offerings at convenience stores, restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops and more.
In its Walnut Community blog titled “Walnuts Provide Flavor, Texture to Plant-Based Food, Beverages,” Folsom, Calif.-based California Walnuts notes that plant-based foods and beverages are booming and show no signs of waning.
“Product development from food and beverage manufacturers has been rapid, and consumers in all demographics are choosing more plant-based diets, either going vegetarian or flexitarian,” it states. “Some consumers perceive a plant-based diet as healthier, while others are concerned with the ethical treatment of animals.
“Consumers even have an eye on the sustainability of the food supply when choosing a more plant-forward diet,” it continues. “Regardless of the reason, consumers are scanning supermarket shelves for plant-based options and food manufacturers are clamoring for space on those shelves.”
Blue Diamond's Kelly notes that beverage-makers across the globe are drawing on this growing plant-based trend.
“Tapping into the ever-growing plant-based beverage trend, global beverage-makers have launched nut and grain-based drink offerings that range from canned oat milk lattes to almond protein powder-infused shakes,” she says. “Instead of the traditional dairy-based beverages, formulators have adapted to these growing consumer trends from plant-based to ‘better-for-us’ and have incorporated healthy, natural, and sustainable alternatives like almond and soy.
“Plant-based milk makes up the largest portion of the plant-based category at 35%, and continues to grow year after year, increasing 20% in dollar sales in 2020,” she continues. “Within the plant-based milk market, almond-based products have remained the category leader for years, making up 60% of the market share.”
Although almond-based products are the clear favorite, oat-based products are growing exponentially within the past two years and have surpassed soy-based products, Kelly notes. Yet, despite the popularity of almond and oat-based beverage offerings, formulators continue to innovate new plant-based alternatives including cashew, walnut and barley-based beverages, she says.
As beverage formulators continue to innovate with nut-based alternatives, California Walnuts’ blog notes that walnuts provide unique nutritional value, as they are the only tree nut with a significant source of essential plant-based omega-3 ALA.
When used in plant-based alternatives, such as walnut milk, “manufacturers can promote the ALA omega-3 fatty acid content of a product and distinguish it from other products on the market,” the blog states. “One such walnut milk example comes from Elmhurst, a plant-based nut milk creator that brings us a shelf-stable walnut milk that needs no refrigeration until opened.
“This milk can blend nicely with smoothies, in iced coffee or cereal, and it contains 1,400 mg of omega-3 ALA per serving,” it continues. “It is dairy, gluten and carrageenan free, with no artificial flavors or added gums or emulsifiers.”
Blue Diamond’s Kelly adds that plant-based ingredients provide a long list of solutions for formulators.
“With 45% of consumers stating that they view plant-based products as the healthier option, popular plant-based ingredients are not only sustainable, they appeal to a health-conscious audience and are beneficial for consumers with allergies and intolerances,” she explains. “By incorporating plant-based ingredients within beverage offerings, producers can add an appealing list of health and wellness claims to the product that will draw in a wide range of consumers.”
With unlimited access to search engines and social media, consumer education and awareness of nut and grain-based beverages has skyrocketed during the past decade, Kelly notes.
“The University of Sunderland found that the ‘vegan’ hashtag has more than 61 million posts on Instagram, while Google reported searches for veganism spiked in recent years,” Kelly says. “As consumers continue to share how sustainable, healthy and delicious these plant-based beverage alternatives are through social media testimonials and recipe videos, the global consumer becomes more informed — and subsequently interested — in these nut and grain-based beverages.”
Moreover, the impact that nut and grain-based beverage offerings have on the beverage industry has yet to be fully realized, Kelly adds.
“Growth within all plant-based categories is only expected to expand, and we predict nuts and grains to play an essential role in the future of the beverage market as consumer interest in alternatives grows,” she says. “In fact, the plant-based beverage market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate [CAGR] of 14.3% from 2021 to 2028, and reach $66.52 billion by 2028.
“This growing consumer interest in plant-based beverages, including almond, oat, soy, coconut and cashew, will influence the beverage industry to increasingly shift to innovating plant-based beverages,” she concludes.