Tofu sales skyrocket during the pandemic as consumers search for affordable meat alternatives

Kristen Hartke

THE WASHINGTON POST – American grocery store shoppers became accustomed to limits on certain household staples during the first half of 2020. The quest for toilet paper, ground beef and hand sanitiser sparked panic buying and supermarket aisle scuffles, while overzealous bread bakers desperately searched for flour and a drop in carbon dioxide supply threatened the soda industry.

But the biggest surprise of the covid-19 public health crisis may be a sudden outpouring of love for tofu.

Since the United States (US) coronavirus shutdowns began in mid-March, tofu shortages were reported from Seattle to Washington, with manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand even as grocery stores rationed sales to customers. Nielsen data shows tofu sales 40 per cent higher in the first half of 2020 as compared to last year, while Pulmuone Brands – owner of Nasoya, the nation’s number one tofu brand – was forced to ship an additional one million packs from South Korea, the world’s biggest consumer of tofu, to the US this summer while their American plants caught up with demand.

“We’ve struggled for years to figure out how to get more tofu into people’s mouths in the US,” Pulmone Executive Vice President of Sales Jay Toscano said. “In the past, if we had two per cent growth in sales from one year to the next, we’d be high-fiving each other. This year we’re seeing 20 per cent growth, and we could easily have grown 50 per cent if we could keep up with production.”

Why the increase? Several makers attributed the spike to an interest in healthy, affordable proteins as the economy suffered.

Google searches for tofu recipes doubled since March – and is it any wonder that New Yorkers appear to have been frantic to find General Tso’s tofu recipes in the early spring when their favourite restaurants were shut down?

Tofu products have been in high demand since the United States coronavirus shutdowns began in mid-March. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

At Allrecipes, a recipe database for home cooks owned by Meredith Corp, the jump in tofu recipe searches over the past few months has been eye-popping: Leading up to the pandemic, such searches had been steadily declining year over year. But in April, Allrecipes said those searches surged 266 per cent, with views of recipes that used tofu as an ingredient reaching their highest level ever in July – and outpacing interest in recipes featuring beef or chicken.

“I was surprised because, within the last couple of years, we’ve seen an increased focus on vegan, flexitarian and vegetarian diets, but not on recipes with tofu or tempeh,” Allrecipes Vice President of predictive trends Esmee Williams said.

“Now, tofu appears to be the prospective star of the plate for a growing audience of Allrecipes users, who have been gravitating toward recipes for crispy fried tofu, tofu breakfast burritos and a Korean-inspired soft tofu stew. Minh Tsai, CEO of Hodo Foods, which turns some 10 million pounds of soybeans into tofu products each year, sees cost as a factor that helped drive tofu sales. “For those who have gotten interested in the plant-based trend over the last few years,” he said, “tofu is a lot cheaper. You have a segment of people, the traditionalists, who consumed tofu all their lives, and then a population that was introduced through products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, but ended up trying tofu as a less processed and more economical option.”

Often clocking in at about USD2 a pound, water-packed tofu can be significantly cheaper than meat and only slightly more expensive than dried beans, while also being a rich source of protein. “A third of our audience says their incomes have been impacted by the pandemic,” said Williams, “so it makes sense that there’s been interest in tofu.”

In the small building in Camden, Maine, where Heiwa Tofu produces 8,000 pounds of tofu a week with a staff of seven, the covid-19 roller-coaster ride has been real, to the point that friends and family were pulled in to help keep up with orders that doubled and tripled throughout the spring.

“It’s been a complex year for tofu,” owner Jeff Wolovitz said. And with food service shut down at most universities, which are key customers for American tofu companies such as Heiwa, he is not sure what the fall will bring.

“It’s almost hard to see where the trends are going for tofu,” said Wolovitz, “because it still continues to fluctuate. It’s definitely continuing to grow, but it’s also a balancing act.”

At Kroger, the parent company of over 2,700 supermarkets across 35 states and the District, sales of tofu have gone up 30 per cent since May versus the same period in 2019, according to Kroger’s data science and analytics firm. That trend seems to be common across other grocers. Increased online shopping habits made tofu a product that consumers have the time to consider while browsing for groceries.

“Shopping online is more leisurely,” noted Toscano. “A consumer looks at a shelf in the grocery store for three seconds before moving on, but when they are sitting at a computer, they can look at items and recipes easily at the same time. Retailers are finding that when a shopper places tofu in their online basket, then they add rice, vegetables, soy sauce and additional items to make their meal. It can double the price of their basket, so stores are able to see the impact that tofu can have.”

At Pulmuone, the numbers are telling an encouraging story about the demystification of tofu. Just two years ago, the tofu giant was seeing its products in just five per cent of American households. Adding baked tofu to the Nasoya lineup increased that penetration to seven per cent, and now, six months into the pandemic, the number soared to over 16 per cent. “We’re finding that consumers have increased confidence in cooking with tofu,” said Toscano.

Still, traditional tofu packed in water is a harder sell, and it is the baked and other ready-to-eat options that are making the most headway at Nasoya and Hodo, with a growing focus on middle America and enticing flavours, such as Mexican and Moroccan.

“As we’ve moved into the convenience space with marinated cubes, nuggets and burgers,” said Tsai, “we’ve seen very steady growth. People don’t think of these products as tofu per se anymore, just as interesting-flavoured plant-based foods.”

Pulmuone, too, is placing an emphasis on convenience products, with plans to launch a variety of new options over the next 18 months, while also seeing the need to educate the public on how to cook traditional tofu to cure their “tofobia”. “You’ve got to give tofu some love,” Toscano said. “You wouldn’t eat fresh pasta right out of the package without seasoning it and cooking it.”

And in the end, said Williams, demographics may be what push tofu into the mainstream. “People pursuing meatless diets are usually what we call the ‘bookends’,” she said, “younger folks and boomers. For the older generation, it’s typically about healthy food options, while Gen Z, where we’re seeing the most dramatic growth, is more accustomed to eating outside of the home. Now that they’re forced to cook for themselves, they’re re-creating the dishes they miss and maybe just experimenting more.”

With nearly 50 per cent of the US population, it looks like it is our oldest and youngest consumers combined who finally put the joy in soy.