Atlantic Natural Foods seeks to disrupt sleepy shelf-stable plant-based protein category

Atlantic Natural Foods unveils new microwaveable plant protein pouches

The shelf-stable plant-based protein market is ripe for disruption, says Atlantic Natural Foods (ANF), which is hoping to bring incremental growth to the segment with a category-first: fully prepared vegetarian and vegan microwaveable meals in “healthy, portable, and affordable” pouches.

The new meal pouches – the result of a collaboration with Thailand-based Pataya Food Group – will be rolling out to stores in September, and should be in 10,000+ doors within two years, predicted ANF chairman Doug Hines, who is also preparing to roll out a new line of bean-based baking mixes under the neat brand in October.

The North Carolina-based company – which makes products under the Loma Linda (wheat- and soy-based meat-free meals/sides), neat (garbanzo bean based baking mixes and meat alternatives), and Kaffree Roma brands (barley-based hot beverages) – is on course to generate revenues “north of $25m” in 2017 and is forecasting revenues in the $45-50m range within three years if the new pouches are a hit, chairman Doug Hines told FoodNavigator-USA.

 “We’re really excited about this launch. We’ve done extensive testing with consumers and our customers to perfect the concept before bringing it to market, and some of them will put the pouches next to the canned protein section, while others will put them in the section where they have grain-based meal solutions and products from brands such as Uncle Ben’s.  

“As we have continued to test the products at shows such as Expo West, the response has been tremendous.

“We’ve also been contacted by distributors in France and Belgium that want to bring these products in, although we’ve had to put them off for a year [while the company initially focuses on the North American market].”

Microwaveable pouches are more convenient than cans

While the canned plant-based protein segment (in which ANF is the market leader) is relatively flat, ANF has “seen some resurgence in the flavored ready to eat segments which we are focused in,” he said.

However, consumers of all ages are looking for greater convenience, whether from pouches or other packaging formats, added Hines, who says the potential market he is targeting - the shelf stable plant-based protein market (including canned goods, pouches, and dry products) in North America, Europe, Australia, and select Asian markets, is around $500m.

“We see growth opportunities for cans in some other markets, but in North America, Gen Xers and Millennials are just not warming to cans.”

Quick and convenient

The target audience for the new pouches – which are ready in 60 seconds with options including Spicy Pad Thai, Thai Sweet Chili, Italian Bolognese, Southwest Chunky Stew, and more with an MSRP of $2.99-$3.49 (serves two) – is pretty broad, meanwhile:“[We’re targeting] everyone from millennials to people over 50, all of which are searching for healthy, convenient ways to eat better and reduce the amount of meat in their diet," said Hines.

“It’s also a response to meal occasions when busy working families want to provide a dinner for their entire family that checks all of the boxes – healthy, convenient, easy to prepare, great value and tastes great.”

While a lot of the column inches devoted to plant-based foods and beverages have tended to focus on chilled or frozen brands such as Lightlife Foods, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, microwaveable shelf-stable pouches offer consumers – especially students and those on a budget – something a little more affordable and convenient, claimed Hines.

“We’re offering portably, healthy and affordable meals that are ready in 60 seconds.”

Garbanzo beans

And while the percentage of Americans following a strict vegetarian diet has remained fairly steady over the years, more consumers are now eating a variety of animal and plant-based proteins, while 20% of all college students claim to be vegetarian when they register, claimed Hines.

The pouches are produced in Thailand and in the US, said Hines, who has been working with Kasetsart University’s Institute of Food Research and Product Development in Thailand to support new product development.

“We’re particularly excited about the potential of garbanzo beans [the core ingredient in the neat brand, acquired in late 2015],” he added, noting that peas – used by some of the high profile recent entrants to the plant-based market such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Ripple Foods – still present some flavor issues that you don’t get with garbanzo beans [chickpeas].

Neat baking mixes hitting stores in October

The neat ‘egg’ -  a combination of ground chia seeds and garbanzo beans consumers can mix with water and use to replace egg in everything from cookies to pancakes - has now been incorporated into both the neat original burger/taco mixes and a new line of neat baking mixes, so consumers just have to add water, he said.

“We want to make it simple for consumers to use our products, ease of preparation and convenience is key.”

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