It’s hard to miss the fact that everything that peaked in the early 2000s is hitting us baby, one more time. As the demand for products that feel nostalgic to Millennials gets bigger than the moat of maple syrup you used to drown your Eggo waffles in, plant-based versions of packaged foods that many people ate growing up are flooding the market; think grown-up, glowed-up, and vegan versions of boxed mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, colorful cereal, ramen, and more.
“Brands are tapping into the meaningful history and nostalgia that foods many Millennials ate as kids can invoke, while also providing some new benefit or value in the present,” says Max Elder, CEO and founder of Nowadays, a plant-based nugget company that launched in 2021. “There is a noticeable demand for products that put a modern twist on classic favorites.” In 2023, you’ll see foods you once relished with (aptly) childlike affection for their taste, convenience, and ease being made with entirely plant-based ingredients, shorter ingredient lists, and a solid side of comfort—cartoon mascot not included.
“Nostalgia has been booming both in the culinary world and on grocery shelves globally…In fact, 71 percent of U.S. consumers enjoy things that remind them of their childhood, from throwback flavors reminiscent of happy times to vintage product reintroductions and more,” says a 2021 FONA International research report. This October, Whole Foods Market included “Retro Remix” in its list of 2023 Food Trends. According to Rachel Bukowski, senior team leader of product development and trends council member at Whole Foods Market, “Our trends council is seeing many of these nostalgic products being reinvented for the wellness-conscious customer, creating the ultimate mash-up of throwback [packaged foods] with [fewer] ingredients and special diets in mind, including plant-based.”
Prime examples of said nostalgic products, Bukowski says, include frosted and fruity cereals, dairy-free chocolate sandwich cookies, and almond-milk-based funfetti ice cream. Thrive Market, an e-commerce membership-based retailer offering natural and organic food products, has identified a similar rise in sales of throwback foods: “Year-to-date sales of nostalgia goods have doubled versus last year,” says James Ren, head of food merchandising at Thrive Market.
Emily Elyse Miller
Founder and CEO, OffLimits Foods
“The [OffLimits] brand and its creative lend themselves to the time—as well as the need—to stop taking everything so seriously. People really need to treat food as a playful, fun, exciting thing. It's one of the few things that bring joy."
Numerous new brands have launched amid this spike. “I started Nowadays to create a delicious, nourishing, and affordable vegan protein source that breaks into the mainstream by giving consumers something familiar and approachable: nuggets,” says Elder about Nowadays’s pea-protein-based nuggets, which are made with just seven ingredients and taste, well, like chicken. There’s also GOODLES, a boxed mac and cheese company that launched in 2021 with flavors like Shella Good and Vegan Is Believin’. A single serving of the brand’s pasta (some, but not all, of which are plant-based) is deliciously reminiscent of the Kraft mac many savored in their youth, yet it packs 12 grams of protein and seven grams of fiber (thanks to ingredients like chickpeas, broccoli, and nutritional yeast) and is made with no artificial flavors or preservatives. “Adults are excited to both re-enter the boxed macaroni category and feel great about it,” says Paul Earle, co-founder and board director of GOODLES.
Meanwhile, Emily Elyse Miller, CEO and founder of OffLimits Cereal (which launched in 2020) and a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor, says she was inspired to start the brand after realizing that many of her favorite childhood breakfast cereals weren’t friendly for those who stick to a plant-based diet. “It was super surprising for me to find out that a lot of the cereal that we grow with or grew up with aren’t actually vegan—Lucky Charms obviously has marshmallows, for instance, which contain animal products,” she says. Today, OffLimits offers four types of plant-based cereals, including a gluten-free coffee cereal made in partnership with Chamberlain Coffee that looks (and tastes) like a grown-up version of Cocoa Puffs.
In October, Partake Foods, an allergy-friendly snack food company founded in 2016, raised $11.5 million in a Series B funding to support continued growth in the coming year. And just in time for the holidays, the brand released two new Christmas cookie flavors. There’s also Immi, a plant-based instant ramen noodle company that successfully raised $3.8 million in seed funding ahead of its 2021 launch and sold over a million bowls worth of ramen this year alone, according to Kevin Lee, a co-founder of the brand. Immi’s line of vegan ramen packets includes options like Black Garlic “Chicken,” Spicy “Beef,” and Tom Yum “Shrimp,” all of which pack 22 grams of plant-based protein per serving.
When asked why products that evoke nostalgia continue to rise in popularity, particularly among Millennials, many brand founders point to a consumer longing for warm-and-fuzzy feelings in the face of an ever-challenging political, social, and economic climate. “Since the pandemic, consumers have turned to comfort, whether that be with food or other products that bring them happiness, and this typically is rooted in nostalgia," says Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills, a food company focused on nutritious products, such as Nut Butter Stuffed Sandwich Cookies.
Explore More Food Trends
Energy Drinks Are Getting a Jolt of the Wellness Treatment
Snackable Supplements Are Going Beyond the Gummy
Tin-to-Table Dining Will Make a Splash
“Honestly, we’re still living in the ‘uncertain times’ with inflation, weather disasters, supply chain issues, and so on,” says Carla King, director of marketing at Mary's Gone Crackers, which makes plant-based cookies and crackers. “Nostalgic comfort foods can help recall a time when life was a bit simpler.” Right down to the perky, poppy, kid-like packaging, all of these nourishing throwback products have become a welcome reprieve from life's challenges. “Bright colors don't necessarily have to mean unhealthy ingredients,” Miller says.
Expect the list of new nostalgic snacks you’ll find on the market in 2023 to run longer than a roll of Bubble Tape. For starters, Nowadays is set to release two new products this December: plant-based chicken tenders and cutlets made from pea protein. In January 2023, Miller says OffLimits Cereal will officially launch in 1,332 new brick-and-mortar retail stores nationwide. Meanwhile, Veronica Garza, co-founder, president, and chief innovation officer of Siete Family Foods, a grain-free, plant-based Mexican-American food brand, hints at new “sentimental product options” coming next year. “Nostalgia definitely plays a big role in the upcoming products we will be sharing with you,” Garza says. “We look forward to helping people have access to old favorites that suit their lifestyle.” Emily Groden, founder of frozen, plant-forward waffle company Evergreen, says that she will be launching three new waffle flavors in early 2023 that “blend nostalgia with modern appeal,” including gingerbread and apple cinnamon.
“Brands always balance future innovation with an acknowledgment of the past—this creates an immediate moment of joy, comfort, and familiarity,” Elder says. And between the comfort, convenience, and vegan-friendly factor that the new wave of nostalgia foods is bringing to the table, it’s easy to see why so many consumers think they’re “Grrrreat!” “The most important aspect of food is taste and enjoyment, so it’s no surprise that nostalgia-inducing packaged plant-based food brands are on the rise. I anticipate the growth of these brands to continue—as long as they taste good,” says Ren. ✙
Shop Nostalgia-Inducing, Plant-Based Snacks
Photography by Tim Gibson, Art Direction by Jenna Gibson for Well+Good
More Wellness Trends 2023