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Expo West: The Plant-Based Playbook Pt 1
This year’s Natural Products Expo West brought more than 80,000 attendees together to experience and accelerate the growth of the natural products industry – and the number of plant-based companies on the show floor was inspiring. 


To envision the scene, imagine visiting a mid-size city where every single person was participating in a high-stakes farmer’s market. 


This event provides an unprecedented opportunity to meet with key players in every part of the plant-based industry – from ingredient suppliers and product brokers to emerging startups and massive food conglomerates. I’ll be elaborating on GFI’s insights from this Expo in Part 2, but to start, I’ll address the most pressing questions: 

How did it all taste? And how is the entrepreneurial landscape for plant-based replacements for meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood evolving? 

Please join me as I relive the experience of eating my way through the Expo and tracking the trends and opportunities in this rapidly expanding industry! 

Plant Meat Market 

Plant-based meats are not for plant-based eaters. At least, not entirely: In marketing, product type, and taste, plant-based meat companies are vying for conventionally produced meat’s market share, from the cafeteria to your next tailgate. And they’re doing a remarkable job replicating and competing with their animal-based counterparts! 

Beyond Meat 

I expected Beyond Meat’s newest product to be good. I didn’t expect it to be slap-your-coworker good. (Sorry team.) The work Beyond Meat put into perfecting its Beyond Burger has obviously paid off: The Beyond Sausage is among the most realistic plant-based meats I’ve sampled to date in both taste and mouthfeel. The uniform juiciness of each sausage in combination with the snap from its algae-based casing was particularly impressive. The sausages even left red-tinted grease in the “butcher” case. After questioning whether we accidentally ate animal-based sausage, our team got back in line for seconds.


Special thanks to GFI intern Gibb Annela, who happened to be working the Beyond Meat booth!


Improved Nature 

After trying Improved Nature’s chicken nuggets, I had to shake myself out of a reverie where I was back in my childhood home, scarfing down dinner before tackling Lego construction projects. The nostalgia was intense. Given that Improved Nature is helmed in part by the brains behind Lunchables and Slim Jims, it’s not surprising that this team knows the way straight to the heart of a 90s kid. Improved Nature’s chicken nuggets aren’t on the market yet, but when they are, expect them to become ubiquitous in short order: This low-cost, simple-label, high-fidelity plant-based meat could just make its way into every cafeteria in the country.


Field Roast 

Why did I not have Field Roast’s Fruffalo Wings in time to celebrate the SuperBowl? These wings are yet another homerun for Field Roast, which finds its sweet spot not just in replicating animal meat, but in one-upping it with superior flavors while maintaining the same hearty, comforting meal experience. Buffalo Wild Wings, take note.

 
Fun fact: Field Roast is also releasing a line of sauces and dressings!


Alpha Foods 

Alpha’s burritos are everything you want in an indulgent grab-and-go item: they’re crave-able, convenient, and oh-so cheesy (I especially recommend the Chick’n Fajita). Alpha’s not trying to compete with a whole-foods, plant-based alternative. It’s competing with your dormmate’s favorite late-night meal. And if the lines were any indication, it’s going to win. Alpha is making plant-based eating accessible everywhere – a much-needed approach in this still young industry. Check here to see if Alpha is available at a Walmart, Safeway, or other stores near you!


Upton’s Naturals 

Sometimes, nature provides meat-mimics in unexpected places – like a fruit from the mulberry family. The team at Upton’s makes this fruit (the jackfruit) taste like a tender and smoky-sweet plate of pulled pork from a days-long roast at your local barbecue joint. We wouldn’t be surprised to see pulled “pork” tacos a-la Upton’s popping up on national menus in the future, especially since jackfruit is a healthy and shelf-stable replacement for an animal product that is neither of those things. Until then, you can (and should) buy their barbecue jackfruit and bacon mac and cheese at your local grocery store!


No Evil Foods 

This Asheville, NC, company is breaking onto the national scene and winning hearts and mouths in the process. No Evil Foods is right in the middle of scaling up its eye-catching brand after opening a new production facility, and it certainly made a splash with its joint event at the Miyoko’s Kitchen booth, where I sampled many sausage and cheese panini bites for research purposes. Follow No Evil Foods online to keep up with their rapid expansion – and tell your friends! 


Now, speaking of Miyoko’s Kitchen… 

Dairy Downlow 

Plant-based dairy – especially plant-based milk – is prolific. But the fresh wave of products exhibited at Expo West address untapped market opportunities and specific functional and nutritional hurdles in the space. 

Violife 

Violife slots nicely into an underserved niche in plant-based dairy: the world of specialty hard cheeses like parmersan. While the company also has delicious slices, their expertise shines in novel products like its new feta, which is as salty and tangy as one could hope, and it bleu cheese (just wow on this one). Violife’s parmesan grates and melts with the same consistency of the original dairy option. Snacking on some shreds, I imagined buying plant-based cheeses by weight in the same section of the grocery store where dairy cheeses crowd the shelves (and spending a fortune). 


Miyoko’s Kitchen 

Bring Miyoko’s cheeses to a wine dinner (I suggest the Vesuvian Black Ash or the Aged Farmhouse) and you can’t go wrong. But now you can take Miyoko's to the beer garden as well with their new line of Roadhouse pub cheeses. Team GFI found the new cheddar to be particularly impressive, though we tried every option multiple times to ensure quality and consistency. One has to be thorough. 

Curious about the name Roadhouse? It turns out that a dairy company owns the rights to the name “pub cheese,” forcing Miyoko’s to find a new moniker for this product line. If you’re new to the plant-based dairy naming debate, you can find some background here, and then read up on how GFI is taking action here


Oatly 

I maintain that my approval cannot be bought, but if it could, Oatly would have made a tempting bid. The company’s baristas graciously prepared me more capp"oat"cinnos than I reasonably should have consumed in one day. As a bit of a third-wave coffee nerd, it was gratifying to experience the remarkable foaming ability of oat milk in combination with some killer espresso. While I love all plant-based milks (soy, almond, walnut, flax – bring it on), I’m particularly bullish on oat milk for its functionality, taste, and low rates of allergenicity. Next time a barista complains to you about the frothing capabilities of non-dairy milk, plop a carton of Oatly in front of them and wait for the #wownocow response. 

                            The team that samples together, stays together.

Yooga + Lavva 

Plant-based yogurts are in the middle of a renaissance. Follow Your Heart, Good Karma, Kite Hill, and many others have recently debuted great new options in this category. I’ve chosen to highlight two newcomers on the market – Yooga and Lavva – for their unique approaches. Yooga’s creamy, coconut-based options answer consumer demand for a low-sugar, clean label option with novel flavors. This isn’t just an option that will win over plant-based eaters seeking a yogurt replacement, it’s an approach that could poach consumers that choose dairy yogurt for its perceived health benefits. 

Lavva also plays in the lower-sugar space, but with a twist: The company is using the pili bean as its primary ingredient. At GFI, we have a thing for novel plant sources, and even more so when they come with significant sustainability and environmental benefits. By diversifying the plant sources used to create replacements for animal products, we can build robust supply chains that support farmers around the globe, bring new health benefits to consumers, and improve taste, texture, and functionality of end products. As an eco-friendly, high-nutrient ingredient, the pili is ripe for further exploration. 


Feeling inspired? Do you have a product or idea that you think would have stolen the show at Expo West? Tell us about it and join our GFIdeas Entrepreneur Group to make it a reality! 

We’ll see you on the show floor next year. 

Stay tuned for Expo West Part 2: Stats and Strategies.

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