Remember when the phrase “vegan eating” only reminded you of your eccentric aunt’s annual Tofurky dinner? Those days are long gone.

By Betty Gold
February 05, 2021
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"Sometimes it's said that Trader Joe's customers are trendy," says Tara Miller, the marketing director for Trader Joe's, in its latest podcast episode.

Matt Sloan, the vice president of marketing product disagrees. "Trendy? Nah, I'd say that they're adventurous. That they enjoy the treasure hunt, discovering new flavors and new products from around the world or around the corner here in America. Case in point: New plants and flowers, new plant-based foods, and other new plant-based stuff."

And so the stage has been set for the episode that's aptly titled "Trader Joe's Seeds the Conversation About Plants and Plant-Based Products."

In our current climate, plant-based eating has grown to be more popular than ever before—and not just for those in search of veggie burgers and dairy-free milk alternatives. Vegan forms of seafood, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and desserts have grown tremendously popular in the Consumer Packaged Good (CPG) category in the past several years in every grocery store. According to the Good Food Institute, these next-generation plant-based products are increasingly competing with animal products on the key drivers of consumer choice: Taste, price, and accessibility. "As a result, a growing number of mainstream consumers are buying plant-based options. In fact, these products are a key driver of growth at grocery retailers nationwide, outpacing overall food growth by more than five times," the researchers report. And new SPINS retail sales data shows that grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have grown 29 percent in the past two years, making it a $5 billion (and growing) industry.

This wasn't always the case, however—especially with mainstream grocery store giants like Trader Joe's.

"I remember the time when, if you put the word vegan on a package, it could actually hurt its sales," Sloan says on the growing trend. Miller concurs: "I swear there are things that we put the word vegan on that afterwards we're like, 'Doh, why did we do that?' Because we killed it." (Killed the product's ability to sell, that is).

According to Sloan, the last five years—"and certainly more intensely in the last couple of years"—Trader Joe's has seen a tremendous increase in customer interest in plant-based foods.

To better express the TJ shopper's increased passion for plant-based eating, the duo sits down with Amy Gaston-Morales, a category manager of deli, fresh beverage, and meat, meatless, and seafood for Trader Joe's. According to Gaston-Morales, the rise in vegan food and beverage sales stems from the nation's growing focus on healthy eating and sustainability. That is, so long as it doesn't compromise the flavor of the products they purchase.

"There's been a huge growth in the meatless set. These new iterations of products are really going after the flexitarian customer. People are looking for ways to have a healthier lifestyle and improve their overall general health, but then a better impact to the environment or incorporating meat-free days [is also key]. There are Meatless Mondays, and those sorts of things. So these products really target customers that want the full meat experience, but just a better version of it," she explains.

Gaston-Morales says that Trader Joe's motivation to develop specific meatless protein alternatives stems from what excels in the 'real meat' aisle. "The new products that we're developing are a specific target to what does well in the meat or seafood set or chicken [department]… These days you see, especially at fast food chains and in restaurants, [products] like fried chicken that actually looks like chicken. Sausage that eats and tastes like sausage. It's gone beyond the burger to all those other food products that people normally crave."

But according to Gaston-Morales, nailing that perfectly meat-like mouthfeel and flavor is a lot more complicated than most people would assume. She explains how difficult it is to avoid a rubbery texture, for example, or achieve the richness of real meat. "That's been something to keep in mind: That some of the proteins remain raw-looking [so you can still perfect] the char on the grill so that you get that full experience, not just the flavor, but the texture and the presentation of it."

Clearly, the more popular plant-based eating becomes, the more high-quality products you'll find on the market. But the stakes are higher, too. "Now I feel like the products have changed to the point where, oftentimes, it's like, whoa, I wouldn't have known that was vegan if you didn't tell me," says Sloan. He deems this scenario The Holy Grail.

And they're not just referring to meatless alternatives—they're talking dairy substitutions, too. "The dips and dressings and whatnot with plant-based cream cheese, I mean, you would never know that you weren't eating a full cream cheese product," adds Gaston-Morales. "It tastes, it has the same mouthfeel, the same flavor profile."

Spoiler alert: The employees disclose that we can expect a non-dairy tzatziki and caramelized onion dip to launch in 2021. "I want to say everybody agreed that they actually tasted better or the same as the full dairy version," Gaston-Morales says. She explains that the store is currently working on developing meatless bacon and seafood. But her personal favorite meatless alternatives? The Meatless Meatballs and the Beefless Ground Beef, both of which make a delicious substitution in meaty pasta dishes.   

Whether or not you're vegan, these high-quality plant-based products are worth checking out. "You don't have to give up your burger to have something plant-based, right? You can still enjoy those comfort foods. You just eat less calories or less fat for that occasion. And you're doing something good for yourself and for the environment at the same time," Gaston-Morales affirms. We agree.