Saskatoon-based snack maker Three Farmers is looking to evolve the lentil-based snacks category outside the health aisle. “The health aisle can be a great start, but it’s restrictive to reaching the everyday consumer,” says the company’s co-founder and chief brand and innovation officer Elysia Vandenhurk. “Getting merchandised with endcaps and in aisles with regular snacks would accelerate growth.” Three Farmers is also having discussions with grocers about merchandising its new product, Crunchy Lentil Toppers, in produce departments alongside dried cranberries and refrigerated salad dressings, rather than with bacon bits, croutons and shelf-stable salad dressings in centre store. “The produce section is higher traffic and where shoppers make more impulse purchases,” says Vandenhurk.
Land of lentils
Canada is the world’s leading producer and exporter of lentils, with Saskatchewan growers producing much of the edible podded seed. In 2022, the province was responsible for 45% of the world’s lentil exports and produced 85% of Canada’s lentils. And that same year, according to Statista, farm cash receipts of lentils sold by farmers in Canada amounted to a little more than $1.6 billion, up from nearly $1.5 billion the year prior.
While lentils were once “seen as a bit bland [and] old-fashioned,” Monica Walker, head of food and grocery at Healthy Planet Canada, says product innovation has made the legume hip. Red lentil penne pasta from Bioitalia and a lentil mac and vegan cheese from Montreal-based GoGo Quinoa are both winners at Healthy Planet stores. “They’re seeing sales growth,” she says. Lentils have been around “forever,” but it’s the emerging formats that are grabbing consumers’ attention. Enjoy Life Foods launched lentil chips in Canada about eight years ago and in 2022 added two flavours to the lineup: Dairy Free Cheddar and Salt & Vinegar. “While it took some time to see a shift, we’re now experiencing double-digit growth,” says Courtney Stone, region manager, Canada at Enjoy Life, which is owned by Mondelēz International. Free from 14 food allergens, Stone says the brand’s lentil chips first gained popularity among consumers affected by food allergies. The appeal of lentils extends beyond packaged goods to become the star ingredient in some prepared meals. Summerhill Market makes a lentil soup, a lentil sundried tomato salad kit, and two types of lentil shepherd’s pie (one with mashed potatoes and another with sweet potato mash). “They’re super easy to prepare and replace many traditional sources of protein,” says Mari Loewen with the commissary team at the Toronto-area grocer. “Lentils are like tofu–they don’t taste like anything until given life by the flavours they’re cooked in.”
A cousin to chickpeas and soybeans, lentils are high in B vitamins and potassium, but why are they a pulse of popularity? “Canadians are prioritizing protein,” says Kathy Perrotta, vice-president of market strategy and understanding at Ipsos Canada. And lentils are packed with it. According to the Ipsos FIVE Consumption Tracking Service from August 2023, 53% of Canadians are getting their protein from plant-based sources such as legumes, up from 44.3% a year ago, while “meat substitutes lose share,” says Perrotta. Women, especially, are a target for lentil consumption. “We don’t absorb protein as well as men and lose muscle mass faster after age 40,” says Healthy Planet’s Walker. “Women need a lot more protein in their diet.” She also notes the incredible value of lentils over meat. A pasta dish with lentils instead of ground beef costs “about a third of the price,” she estimates. “It’s a really economical way to bolster your diet.”
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December 2023/January 2024 issue.