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Vasi Smith, left has lunch with her sons, Michael, front, and Alex, at Native Foods. Native Foods  has been serving 100% plant-based foods at its Boulder location since 2012.
Vasi Smith, left has lunch with her sons, Michael, front, and Alex, at Native Foods. Native Foods has been serving 100% plant-based foods at its Boulder location since 2012.

As the plant-based foods movement gathers momentum among consumers nationwide, Boulder continues to build upon its reputation as mecca of the food and beverage industry, attracting new companies in the plant-based foods sector.

Boulder has been the epicenter of natural and organic foods since the 1960s, said Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council. “It’s now a mature industry in Boulder. There’s a whole ecosystem that supports the food industry in general and natural foods in particular.”

Recently, Emergy Foods, a food company focused on “nutritious, clean, sustainable” plant-based protein, relocated from Chicago to Boulder after securing  $4.8 million in venture capital financing.

“We feel very fortunate to be establishing our company where the heart of the natural industry lives. The culture of Boulder brings us here” said Morgan Agho, company’s director of marketing.

It’s easier to hire top talent in Boulder and there’s a great support network, Agho said.

Emergy has developed a unique ingredient, which is different from pea and soy proteins in that its plant-based protein is more sustainable and more nutritious, she said.

The company plans to make products within the plant-based meat category in Boulder next year.

“Plant-based protein is a sustainable option to beef,” she said, citing its ability to help make the global food system sustainable, since raising cattle for food uses more natural resources and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent report from the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute states U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 11% last year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $4.5 billion. Since April 2017, total plant-based food sales have increased 31%. Additionally, plant-based foods unit sales are up 8.5%, compared to total U.S. food sales, which are flat, according to the report.

The nachos at Native Foods in Boulder.

The report further states, “the plant-based meat category alone is worth more than $800 million, with sales up 10% in the past year. Plant-based meat now accounts for 2% of retail packaged meat sales. Refrigerated plant-based meat is driving category growth with sales up an impressive 37%. In comparison, sales in the conventional meat category grew just 2% during the same period.”

“Boulder is home to the nation’s largest concentration of natural and organic products companies and has the highest per capita consumption of organic foods in North America according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

According to the 2011 Naturally Boulder Economic Impact Study done by CU-Boulder’s Business Research Division, member organizations of Naturally Boulder contribute to more than 8,200 jobs and $2.49 billion statewide. The study is being updated currently, said Arron Mansika, executive director of Naturally Boulder, an organic and natural products industry support group.

The plant-based foods and supplements industry has been growing as evidenced by the increased number of exhibitors at the natural products trade shows, said Harald, who regularly attends such shows.

Some of the innovation in plant-based protein is best reflected by the success of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the two companies that make products that mimic the taste and texture of real meat, he said.  Not just vegetarians and vegans are looking for alternatives to animal-based proteins, he said.

Plant-based protein is considered by many to be healthy, and a more environmentally-sustainable option, Harald said.

Plant-protein producers also are developing gluten-free options, as seen with the Impossible Burger 2.0 and Beyond Meat’s soy- and gluten-free products, states a recent Mintel report on plant-based proteins. (Mintel is a global market intelligence agency). Many consumers want to add more plant-based food to their diets, but “want the meat-like taste in processed meat substitutes,” the report states.

Fast-food chains have rushed to add meatless burgers to their menus, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.

Native Foods, a premier fast-casual vegan restaurant chain spanning coast to coast, is not worried by the new competition, said Sandra Maria Thum, director of marketing, Native Foods, serves 100% plant-based foods in its restaurants, including the one in Boulder.

Anna Roszell picks up an order at Native Foods on Thursday. Native Foods restaurant serves 100% plant-based foods.

“We have been in business for 25 years,” she said. “We developed a our protein, made from non-GMO ingredients.”

Native Foods introduced delicious plant-based foods when it was not considered to be indulgent and tasty, Thum said. Her company’s flavor profiles have remained popular because of their taste, she said.

The increased attention to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is helping make plant-based food more popular, she said. “It’s making more people try plant-based proteins. It’s helping us. Vegan foods taste better now than they have ever before.”

The plant-based food market, which initially developed as dairy alternative, continues to gain consumer traction as foods have become tastier and more flavorful, said Carlotta Mast, market leader at New Hope Network, which among other things, organizes natural products expos.

It’s also part of the larger consumer awakening, particularly consumers’ desire to know the source of their food, and their support for animal welfare, she said.

Companies are working to develop a broad consumer base, including people who want to eat less meat, Mast said. “I don’t see it as plant vs. meat issue. It’s about creating more culinary options.”

Companies in the plant-based food, beverage and supplement sectors, need to think of transparency, she said. Consumers want to know the ingredients that go into the products they consume or use, and accurate labels are essential for success, she said.

Mast said she thinks organizations like Naturally Boulder have created a conducive environment for entrepreneurs in Boulder. People in Boulder are willing to help each other by sharing their expertise, and it continues to be a big draw for food and beverage companies to locate in the city, she said.

In 2014, Good Karma Foods, known primarily as makers of flax-based milk (free of all major allergens) and other related products, moved its headquarters from California, where it was founded in 1996, to Boulder. It allows Good Karma Foods to be an active part of the local, thriving natural products community, said company’s CEO Doug Radi.

About 40% of U.S. households buy plant-based milk. They are doing so for multiple reasons, “be it for lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, environmental concerns, vegan/vegetarian lifestyle choice and/or for overall health and balance as they continue to trade out animal-based calories for plant-based calories,” Radi said.

Good Karma makes milk from flax seed, and yogurt from flax milk. Recently it began making dips from coconut oil.

The company follows an integrated approach to marketing its products that includes in-store promotions and shopper marketing, and digital and social media, particularly driving purchases on Amazon, Radi said. The key to a successful consumer engagement is delivering on taste and nutrition, he said.

Good Karma Foods recently launched a line of dips and sour cream made with coconut oil.

Annie Ryu, CEO and founder of The Jackfruit Co., is relying on the uniqueness of her signature product, jackfruit, to grow her company’s market share. It’s not plant-based, it’s the meatiest plant on the planet, she said, adding it’s different from processed proteins derived from plants. Her Boulder-based company has developed numerous jackfruit products since Ryu founded it in 2011.

Young jackfruit (before it’s ripe) has a texture similar to pulled pork and a neutral flavor, so it takes on the flavor of whatever sauce or seasoning it’s cooked with, according to the information on the company website. Younger generations are embracing plant-based foods more deeply, Ryu said. That’s why there’s a proliferation of such products, she said.

Ryu’s company has partnered with several local restaurants to offer jackfruit on the menu to help people get a taste of jackfruit. It’s nutritious, and is environmentally sustainable, she said. Her company sources jackfruit from India, helping save 70% of the jackfruit from being wasted. The Jackfruit Co. mission has provided economic opportunities for more than 1,000 farming families in India, according to the information on the company website.

Annie Ryu, CEO and founder of The Jackfruit Co., in India in 2019.