The International Year of the Pulses was celebrated in 2016, but 2020 will be remembered as the true inflection point for the industry, according to an expert on consumer behaviour.
“The global pulse industry is finally coming out from beneath a rock,” said Matt Tripodi, global account director at Euromonitor International, the world’s largest independent strategic consumer insight company.
“I’m not sure everybody recognizes the enormity of what is happening.”
In a video interview with the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC), Tripodi said pulses are experiencing billions of dollars worth of growth in annual demand.
Pulse flour sales alone are forecast to grow by US$1.7 to $4.2 billion in 2020. That is jaw-dropping growth for a single pulse ingredient.
“These are really big numbers,” he said.
Tripodi attributed the growth in part to the explosion in demand for plant-based meat alternative products, a market that is expected to grow by $3 billion over the next five years.
He also mentioned the rise in veganism, where two to 14 percent of the population are vegan in many markets around the world.
“This wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” said Tripodi.
Julianne Curran, vice-president of market innovation with Pulse Canada, agrees that a convergence of market factors is fueling an unprecedented growth in pulse demand.
“I have been in the industry since 2005 and I feel like we’re really crossing the line and moving from a niche type of ingredient into something becoming mainstream,” she said.
There is soaring demand for pea protein, loads of opportunities for pulse flour and companies scrambling to incorporate sustainable ingredients in their formulations.
Food manufacturers are creating new categories of products and repositioning old ones to capitalize on the growing demand for healthy, nutritious and sustainably produced food products.
“That’s where we see opportunities to insert pulse ingredients,” said Curran. “This is helping us move the needle.”
Tripodi said COVID-19 has become another unanticipated source of new demand for the pulse industry.
Grocery store sales of shelf-stable, staple food ingredients such as beans and chickpeas have been phenomenal. Nielsen reports that weekly dry bean sales in the United States soared 231 percent in the week ending March 14, while chickpea sales were up 157 percent. There are similar reports in other markets.
“What this has effectively done is reintroduce pulses to the world,” Tripodi told the GPC.
He believes sales of such products will eventually plateau as hoarding subsides, but there will be lingering impacts.
“It is resetting the base level of demand,” he said.
There was already a certain level of distrust about meat products in markets such as China, and that is going to grow with reports linking the origins of COVID-19 to the consumption of animal products.
That is expected to accelerate demand for plant-based meat alternatives in China, a market that already consumes about $10 billion worth of such products. Tripodi thinks demand could easily grow by another 50 to 100 percent.
Curran said rising demand for shelf-stable pulses such as canned beans and chickpeas is an unexpected shot in the arm for the sector ,but it is not likely going to be a big market factor for Canada’s pea and lentil farmers.
Pulse Canada remains focused on expanding demand in the pulse ingredient market. In 2017, the association set a target to develop new markets for 25 percent of Canadian pulse production by 2025.
That amounts to two million tonnes of pulses, including 1.1 million tonnes of peas and 625,000 tonnes of lentils.
The key to meeting those targets is expanding sales of pulse ingredients to food manufacturers, she said.
The sector is off to a good start in that regard, partly because of expanding demand from vegans and the alternative meat sector.
“All of this is putting us in a really great position to be able to meet those targets,” said Curran.
However, she said plenty of market development work still needs to be done and stressed that the strategy needs to be diversified. It can’t be focused on one ingredient, one product category or one region of the world.
Tripodi thinks the industry needs to set its sights on future generations. One-third of the world’s anticipated population in 2050 haven’t been born yet.
He said the industry should make pulses part of their daily lives before they arrive.
“The pulse industry needs to be embedding itself into the lifestyle of consumers today. COVID-19 is helping, but more can be done,” said Tripodi.
Most of the population growth is going to occur in Asia, spilling over into the Middle East and North Africa, so those should be target markets for increasing pulse consumption.