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Growing a trend: Plant-based foods taking root at major Canadian grocery stores

Here's why your Vancouver big box grocery store's shelves now hold so many more vegan products
Shoppers at major Canadian grocery stores are finding an increasing number of plant-based foods to help them go vegan or simply swap out a little meat and dairy

There was a time not too long ago when the pursuit of vegan food products meant a trip to a specialty grocery store, even in a city like Vancouver. But the old tropes of the funky co-op staffed by hippies and bean sprout enthusiasts is very old news. In fact, even the term "vegan" has fallen by the wayside, having become somewhat of a pejorative, replaced by the more gentle "plant-based."

And plant-based products are becoming increasingly more mainstream.

Now more than ever, the shelves of major Canadian grocery stores hold a staggering array of animal-free foods, many of which are made to emulate the flavour and texture of its equivalent in the non-vegan world. Plant-based dairy alternatives include not only "milks" and "creams" but also all manner of "cheese," yogurt, and frozen treats. You'll find ready-to-cook plant-based patties to sub out for beef burgers, "crumble" to stand in for ground meat, and all sorts of frozen faux chicken and fish products, along with sausages, dips, spreads, and desserts.

From jackfruit to jerky, shoppers at major Vancouver grocery chains can easily flex their flexitarian - or full-on vegan - muscles with ease these days.

Going beyond Beyond Meat and more

Many of the products are made by high-profile global brands that have tapped into the Canadian market have secured positioning on grocery store shelves here in B.C., often starting with a single product, like Beyond Meat's burger, before adding to the line-up. Beyond Meat has made its ground meat substitute and larger savoury sausages available, and has just added the company's Beyond Breakfast Sausage Links.

“With the launch of our first retail breakfast product, we’re enabling Canadians to enjoy Beyond Meat products any time of day, satiating the growing appetite for plant-based protein in the country," said Heena Verma, Marketing Director for Canada, Beyond Meat.

Nudging up against Beyond Meat in the packaged meat section of your local major grocery store is Impossible Foods, another U.S.-based company making a name for itself in the industry. Other global brands you'll also readily spot in mainstream grocery stores include California's Earth Island (which began in the 70s as indie vegetarian market Follow Your Heart in Los Angeles) and Greece's Violife, which makes several kinds of vegan "cheese" products. 

Metro Vancouver-based businesses take root in mainstream plant-based product sector

Conversely, Port Moody's Noble Jerky - which began as a business making meaty beef jerky - has gone all-vegan, and has entered the U.S. and Australian markets, in addition to now being sold at behemoth grocer Walmart Canada.

The company's switch to being all plant-based marks what Noble sees as an inevitable shift in the market: "With so many large meat companies shifting towards offering vegan options, the growing demand for plant-based products, and the rise of health and environment trends, the prospect of our food industry is clear – the future of meat is vegan," explains the company.

When it comes to the boutique brands, including many that got off the ground as one-person endeavours here in Metro Vancouver, several small plant-based businesses have grown into major multi-national enterprises while Canadian grocery chains have expanded their lines of in-house plant-based products, tapping into a broadening sector of the consumer market.

Burnaby-based Earth's Own rose to prominence in the milk alternative sector with its line of oat beverages - non-dairy milk alternatives cannot legally use the word "milk" in their product names - and is now a fixture in the dairy case at major Vancouver grocery stores, as well as independent ones. The company subsequently expanded its line to include nut-based milk alternatives, followed by a duo of cream-style products made with oats - one made for use in coffee and the other as a "culinary" or cooking cream substitute.

Now Earth's Own is expanding again with products like a spreadable plant-based butter, non-dairy "cream cheese spread" and "sour cream," and a ranch-flavoured dip. 

Those products will be sharing shelf-space with other Vancouver-based plant-based brands that have grown exponentially, like Spread'em Kitchen, which started out making dairy-free dips and spreads before expanding to add "cheese" and other products to its roster. Spread'em got its start in the home kitchen of its founder, who was making the products and selling them at Vancouver farmers' markets as a weekend side hustle. 

Canadian grocers making more plant-based items themselves

When it comes to longtime innovators in the Canadian grocery sector, it's hard to beat Loblaw, which has tapped into trends in ingredients, eating habits, and the like for decades. Now Loblaw Companies Limited's President's Choice (PC) in-house label features an ever-expanding array of plant-based items, available for sale in Vancouver in stores like The Real Canadian Superstore, City Market, and No Frills. 

The product line-up recently saw a boost in items, including things like oat-based yogurts, ready-to-cook sausages, and more frozen heat-and-serve items like breaded "chicken" strips. 

For Loblaw, creating these items became a matter of meeting the consumer demand for products that could easily assist them in removing some, not necessarily all of the meat from their diet. 

“Canadians have been embracing a flexitarian mindset for a while now, looking to include more plant-based products in their weekly meals," Kathlyne Ross, Vice President, Product and Innovation, Loblaw Companies Limited tells Vancouver Is Awesome. "With that in mind, our team has developed over 80 PC Plant Based products to offer Canadians more meat and dairy alternatives that are full of flavour, providing the plant-based solutions we know they’re looking for.”

Often shoppers are looking for simple subs and swaps to solve the "what's the dinner?" problem while at the same time making an effort to consume fewer animal products. For some shoppers, that's by going vegetarian or plant-based one night a week for "Meatless Monday," while for others it's a little more. "If you want to easily swap in a groundless beef alternative to your family Taco Tuesday meal, we’ve got you covered," says Ross, of the robust PC Plant Based product line-up.

Those customers are what Loblaw calls "plant curious."

Ross says giving consumers plenty of choice at the grocery store is key, too, as is convenience. "For those plant curious Canadians, our goal is to help them welcome a wider variety of delicious plant-based alternatives into their everyday diet, in a way that is easy and convenient for them," adds Ross.

For those who consider themselves plant curious, flexitarian, or entirely plant-based, take note: your nearest big box grocery store is definitely paying attention.