U.S. sales of plant-based foods grew 11% last year as retailers increasingly put them on shelves next to their animal-based counterpart.

The annual numbers show where the plant-based market has matured, such as alternative milks, and where it is just getting started, like plant-based eggs. The sales update, published by Good Food Institute (GFI) and Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), two interest groups advancing plant-based foods, offers a yearly glimpse into this burgeoning market that reached $4.5 billion in the last year, ending in April 2019.

Plant-based foods are no longer hyper-niche products relegated to small sections of a grocery store aisle. There has also been an uptick in innovation, leading to new products that are appealing to more than just vegans and vegetarians.

"We are seeing these numbers grow as retailers make these merchandising shifts and taking them out of the sad vegetarians corners," said Caroline Bushnell, GFI's associate director of corporate engagement.

In previous years, the groups commissioned Nielsen to compile the data, but this year switched to Spins, a Chicago-based research firm that catalogs its data at a more granular level for natural and wellness-focused products.

Bushnell said food companies purchasing data with plant-based criteria were often buying their data from Spins. "This ensures consistency. We are basically talking the same language," she said.

Dairy alternatives are the most popular animal substitutes, accounting for more than two-thirds of the entire plant-based market. The less-developed alternative categories, like plant-based ice cream or yogurt, have a lot of ground to make up and are growing the fastest, at 26.5% and 39.1% year-over-year growth, respectively. Meanwhile, the plant-based hero, milk, is moderating at 5.6% growth as more consumers have already incorporated these products, like almond, soy and oat milk, into their daily lives.

That's still a much better rate than traditional dairy milk, which declined more than 3% during the same period. Plant-based milk now accounts for 13% of the entire fluid milk category.

The plant-based meat category drew more attention following Beyond Meat Inc.'s meteoric debut on the stock market in May and the anticipation that its prime competitor, Impossible Foods Inc., will soon follow.

Both companies have announced retail expansion plans that should bolster the category's sales numbers in coming years.

Plant-based meat grew less than 10% last year, which outpaced traditional meat's 2.2% growth, but was far below the previous year's growth rate of 25%.

"With plant-based meat, 10% is really healthy growth, but we expect to see that really grow over the next few years as several other plant-based meats, specifically burgers, launch in retail over the coming year — some with a lot of fanfare already," Bushnell said.

By placing Beyond Meat's or Impossible Foods' refrigerated burger patties in the meat case, stores are encouraging people who aren't vegans or vegetarians to give these alternatives a try.

Overall, U.S. retail-food sales grew 2% last year, including both animal- and plant-based segments.

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767