Food In Canada

Regulatory roadblocks and consumer preferences: Charting the future of plant-based foods in Canada

By Nithya Caleb   

Food Trends Plant-based foods Canadian Food Inspection Agency Editor pick Flow Health Canada Plant-Based Foods of Canada

In a time when the vast majority of food product sales are declining due to an affordability crisis in Canada, how can the plant-based food sector secure loyal consumers and build a favourable ecosystem in Canada? This question was the focus of Plant-Based Foods of Canada’s (PBFC’s) daylong annual conference held earlier this month at the Maple Leaf Think Food Centre in Mississauga, Ont.

A presentation by Francis Parisien, SVP sales-SMB Canada, Nielsen IQ, and Kristine Churchward, VP, marketing and e-commerce, BritOn Solutions Group, offered a candid summary of the current situation. “It’s a tough time for the plant-based sector,” said Parisien.

According to their presentation, 50 per cent of Canadians are sticking to buying essentials and 56 per cent of all units are being sold on promotion. Unit sales of plant-based beverages were down four per cent and the dollar value of sales for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives had declined by seven per cent YoY.

The presentation wasn’t all doom and gloom. Parisien and Churchward shared that 61 per cent of Canadians use at least some plant-based products. Additionally, 61 per cent of that group consumes plant-based food/beverage at once monthly. Millennials and Gen Z are the biggest consumers of plant-based foods. The most popular ones are plant-based beverages and snacks as well as tofu, which is evident in the high proliferation of plant-based snack products on the market.


Churchward added that consumers gravitated toward plant-based foods because of their perceived health benefits, environmental concerns, and personal preferences. However, ‘plant-based’ claim on packages wouldn’t necessarily translate into sales. A Nielson IQ survey found ‘reduced sugar’ or ‘reduced salt/sodium’ more appealing than plant-based, which ranked 20 on that list.

Parisien and Churchward felt innovation in the right product segments and target marketing to the brand’s most valuable consumers would accelerate sectoral growth.

Age of disruption

While Parisien and Churchward highlighted the need for a course correction in the sector, Joe Jackman, founder and CEO of Jackman and author of the Reinventionist Mindset, shared the ‘how’.

In his keynote presentation, Jackman spoke about the age of disruption. “It’s never been easier to pry consumers from a brand than now,” he said. “It’s a good time to find the wherewithal to establish oneself, find that unique consumer and keep them.”

He was optimistic about new investments into the sector. He strongly believed VCs and private equity firms will be back in the market looking for investment opportunities, and plant-based F&B companies will be the beneficiaries. He offered several reasons for this optimism:

  • consumes are increasingly incorporating their health priorities into decisions and consumption patterns;
  • Canadians are more likely to buy from brands with values that align with their own; and
  • Canadian universities, such as the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and Western University, are offering plant-based meals, thus creating more exposure among younger consumers.

Jackman asked participants to focus on their unique customer base; have a real strategy (e.g. Simply Protein which grew five times since 2020); be truly different (e.g. Field Roast with its unconventional flavour profiles); amplify your brand (e.g. Flow Beverage’s association with celebrities and influencers); and partner with retailers.

He also urged attendees to broaden the aperture; seek insights everywhere; embrace uncertainty; launch products as fast as possible like the tech industry; and clearly define the outcome and go toward it relentlessly.

Jackman’s optimism was shared by many of the conference panelists. But the optimism wasn’t naïve or blind to market realities. Panelists spoke about the need to educate consumers through collaborations with chefs, universities, and sampling sessions. They also stressed on the importance of taste and texture especially in meat analogs.

Regulatory modernization

A longstanding issue for this sector has been the inability of Canada’s regulatory bodies to keep up with market conditions. This merited a whole panel discussion at the conference. Representatives from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency explained the lengthy process and what information they’ll need to make changes, such as evidence-based studies on food consumption patterns. I’m sure PBFC and its members are already planning surveys to collect the required data.

I left the conference with the confidence that the plant-based food and beverage sector isn’t having an identity crisis. However, a course correction is required so that consumers better understand the products as well as have easy access to innovative, healthy, affordable, and tasty options.

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