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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: 10 Companies Bringing Plant-Based Protein Mainstream

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

The rise of plant-based protein may be one of the biggest stories the food industry will see this decade. The U.S. plant-based food sector generated a staggering $4.9 billion in revenues last year, a growth rate of 3.4 percent over 2015.

As plant-based companies gobble up market share, their portfolio of innovative proteins has grown in kind. Hemp? Beet juice? Pea protein? They're all on the menu for America's leading plant-based brands. And these pioneering companies are quickly bringing the trend into the mainstream -- landing space on grocery giants' shelves and winning acclaim from vegans and non-vegans alike.

1. Impossible Foods

Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods made a splash in the plant-based protein industry with a vegan burger that 'bleeds.' Thanks to a unique biochemical process, the Impossible Burger is red when raw and turns brown when cooked, just like the real thing.

After unveiling the burger in 2014, Impossible Foods showed off its entire portfolio of creations -- including vegan tartar and vegan cheeses -- at a side event during the COP21 climate talks in Paris. A few months later, the Impossible Burger made its debut in the New York City food scene -- and was met with the time-honored 'lines around the block' stamp of approval.

The burgers are now available at two restaurants in San Francisco -- Jardinière and Cockscomb -- as well as Momofuku Nishi in New York and Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. The startup is taking things slow for now but eventually plans a nationwide rollout.

2. Daiya Foods

“When we hear something can’t be done, that’s when we start getting excited because we know that the consumers want a product like this and there isn’t one offered,” Andre Kroecher, who co-founded Daiya Foods with Greg Blake in 2008, told Food Business News last year.

Daiya is a relative veteran in the plant-based biz, launching two non-dairy shredded cheeses in 2009. Since then, the company expanded its portfolio to include more non-dairy cheese selections, such as sliced varieties, 'cream cheeze' and a vegan mac-n-cheese substitute. And last year, the company did the unthinkable: created the world's first pepperoni pizza without meat, dairy, gluten or soy.

Daiya products were sold in over 22,000 stores as of last year, and many restaurants and sandwich shops now offer Daiya-branded cheeses as vegan options on their menus.

3. Ripple

This plant-based milk startup comes from two familiar names in the sustainability industry: Method co-founder Adam Lowry and Amyris co-founder Dr. Neil Renninger. The two aimed to shake up the milk industry with their plant-based alternative made mostly from pea protein, which carries a much smaller water footprint than other picks like the popular almond milk.

The founders used their name recognition to launch with the big boys -- rolling out their suggestively-branded milk (does that say nipple?) at Whole Foods and Target stores nationwide in April of last year.

We first caught a glimpse of this new milk innovation at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, a few months later. Now that it has four milk flavors on the market, the company’s goal is to create even more healthy, plant-based food products under the Ripple Foods brand.

4. Good Karma Foods

Good Karma Foods burst onto the plant-based protein scene in 2012 with the world's first non-dairy beverage made from flaxseed.

After raking in revenues with its varied flavors of flaxmilk, the company launched a flax-based, non-dairy yogurt at the end of last year -- aiming to stake its claim in the plant-based yogurt industry, which the company says is growing by 50 percent annually.

Good Karma's products can be found in mainstream grocers such as Target, Wegmans and Giant.

5. Dr. McDougall's Right Foods

Named for Dr. John McDougall, who the company calls "one of the founding fathers of natural wellness," this plant-based brand has been around for nearly 20 years. The team at Dr. McDougall's Right Foods aims to make organic, gluten-free and plant-based foods available to everyone -- a mantra it sticks to with its ready-made, single-serve product portfolio.

Veg-curious diners can find vegan and organic versions of on-the-go favorites like ramen, ready-made oatmeal and pasta salad (with quinoa, of course).

These plant-based and healthy alternatives to the perennial cup-of-soup proved to be a hit with shoppers, and the company's products are now available at dozens of mainstream stores nationwide, including Target, Kroger, ShopRite and Safeway.

6. Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat hit the headlines when its plant-based chicken strips and burgers started flying off Whole Foods shelves in 2012. In addition to its soy- and pea-based Beyond Chicken Strips, the analog meat purveyor now includes a collection of single-serve vegan meals as part of its portfolio. The company even broke down its flagship coconut oil and beet juice Beyond Burger into a vegan ground beef substitute for recipes like tacos and lasagna. Its products can now be found in mainstream stores like Target and Walmart, as well as most large grocers.

In October of last year, the multinational animal protein company Tyson Foods purchased a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, which remains a private company, for an undisclosed sum. While some Beyond Meat fans were wary, Wall Street quickly took notice -- and both companies said the deal gives them a chance to learn from one another, so it may prove to be a win after all.

7. Pacific Foods

Based in Oregon, Pacific Foods takes both plant-based food and sustainability seriously. Since 1997, the company has verified the origin of every ingredient through its Certified to the Source program. "Even the smallest lentil is held to some mighty tough standards," the company says on its website. It also boasts a heartwarming social mission and hit the headlines in 2013 by committing monthly production time at its Tualatin, Oregon, factory to make soup exclusively for local food banks.

When it comes to food, Pacific's portfolio is not entirely plant-based. But it is arguably one of the leaders in plant-based milks -- offering an astoundingly diverse portfolio including proteins like hemp, almond and hazelnut. The company also offers a hefty selection of vegan soups, as well as plant-based meats, gravies and ready-made meals.

Pacific's products can be found in nearly all mainstream grocers, and its annual revenues are estimated to exceed $90 million.

8. Califia Farms

Califia Farms' stylishly-packaged, plant-based milks include almond and coconut varieties, as well as protein-enhanced milks, coffee creamers and ready-made cold brew coffees.

The brand attracted $50 million in seed funding from a private equity firm in 2015 and has grown steadily ever since. You can now find its products at mainstream grocers nationwide, including Target and Giant.

9. Hampton Creek

The plant-based protein biz is no stranger to controversy. It's not uncommon for conventional food producers to take issue with alternatives bearing names too similar to the standard.

Such a controversy turned out to be Hampton Creek's claim to fame: After launching a hit with its plant-based Just Mayo in 2015, Hampton Creek really made the big time when the Unilever brand Hellmann's sued the company for using the term "mayo" for an eggless substitute. Hellmann's eventually dropped the suit, but not before creating a heap of unintended publicity for Hampton Creek.

A year later, the company was taking over shelf space at Walmart and Target with not only Just Mayo, but also its eggless answers to pancake and cake mixes, salad dressings, and breakfast scrambles.

But the egg-free startup's glory quickly fizzled when a Bloomberg investigation revealed it may have been cooking its books, over-inflating data about products’ environmental footprint and, in the end, possibly defrauding investors. The company's board, which claims it knew nothing of the activity, was none too pleased -- and launched an investigation into the accusations at the end of last year that is still ongoing. With all of this legitimate growth in the plant-based sector, the Hampton Creek allegations -- if true -- will prove yet again that running an authentic brand is the way to go in the long-term.

10. Follow Your Heart

Save for a few vets, most of these plant-based food companies blew up quickly with revolutionary products that made investors stand up and take notice. But the privately-held Follow Your Heart has been quietly selling vegan and plant-based foods for more than 40 years.

The company experienced its fair share of ups and downs -- including a heated dispute between partners, one of whom went on to found Whole Foods, and a salmonella-related recall that cost the company one of its largest clients.

Now, the company that launched the original 'Vegenaise' in the 1970s has come out the other side, and while its distribution remains fairly small -- it is still found mostly in natural foods stores -- it estimated around $50 million in revenues last year, Fortune reported.

Image credit: Hampton Creek

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni