C-Store Food Trends: Plant-Based Proteins and Sweeteners

Many of the trends we’re seeing in convenience store food service come back to the same general theme – an increase in options and availability. A growing market for plant-based proteins and sweeteners, literally referred to “alternatives,” is another reflection of this trend. C-stores that lean into new data and offer an expanded product selection stand to gain revenue by connecting with new markets, and allowing customers to complete their shopping trips with one stop.

Plant-Based Alternatives in C-stores

One of the emerging segments in which we’re seeing a significant run-up, as far as number options and volume, is the plant-based alternative market. Plant-based alternatives to meats and proteins, as well as sweeteners are on the rise – both on their own and as components of other food products.

Utilizing plant-based alternatives to foods traditionally composed of animal products is a trend that has been around for quite some time. There are even some foods now commonly considered to be “plant-based alternatives” that have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years – like tofu, for instance.

Despite the fact that plant-based proteins have existed for millenia, and plant-based alternative meat brands have been on the market in the United States for about 20 years (Gardein launched in 2003), these products are finally catching on to a wider audience, which includes c-store shoppers.

Alternative Protein Sources
According to data from Polaris Market Research, worldwide sales of plant-based “meat” products are expected to more than double, from $12 billion in 2019, to over $30 billion in 2026. This already-hot market is not showing any signs of slowing down. And that’s just one segment of the plant-based alternative protein market.

Leaning into alternative meats – products made to look, feel, and taste like meat – as well as other varieties of plant-based proteins (whey, tofu, legumes, etc.) will allow c-stores to reach new markets. As c-stores expand both their ready-to-eat and grocery food service, this trend will present an opportunity to expand into new product lines.

With 52% of consumers now considering themselves to be “flexitarians” – open to utilizing meat, plant, and alternative protein sources in their diets – expect consumer demand for plant-based alternative meats, dairy products, and snacks to continue to grow in the coming years. Better make space in your reach-ins!

Naturally Occurring Sweeteners
In the c-store space, sweetened foods and drinks are always in-demand – from candy and soda, to honey biscuits and sweet tea. While this c-store sweet tooth doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, there is a new nuance for brands to consider.

Consumers are increasingly favoring naturally-occurring sweeteners in their food products. Customers are making this choice primarily for the perceived health benefits, or at least to mitigate the perceived downsides of traditional sweet treats. Plant-based, or naturally-occurring sweeteners present an opportunity to enjoy these snacks in a healthier, novel way.

Paired with some other trends that we’re seeing surge in the industry lately – like an explosion in locally-sourced ingredients, and a push for more “label-friendly” ingredients – you can expect to see a variety of plant-based and naturally-occurring sweeteners continuing to crop up across food categories. In particular, beet sugar is trending up faster than most other counterparts in 2023. Other sweeteners we’re seeing more of include coconut sugar and monk fruit extract.

Providing the Alternatives
The c-store industry overall continues to invest and expand to best serve their clientele, including by delivering novel, alternative products. Leaning into alternative sweeteners and protein choices are just two examples of the countless ways c-stores are harnessing research and data to deliver the right products to the right markets. Keeping consumers connected with the options and alternatives that they crave will allow c-stores to create long-term buying patterns, creating happy customers along the way.

2023-2024 Food Trends Guide: Now Available!

See our complete 2023-2024 Convenience Store Food Trends guide for more insights that can help you grow sales in your stores.

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