Suppliers step up to the challenge of delivering plant-based products for the growing flexitarian market
DEMAND FOR PLANT-BASED FOODS is on the rise among Australian diners – more than 2.5 million Aussie adults already choosing a meat-free diet, and this being complemented by the growing trend for people to adopt ‘flexitarian’ dietary habits – replacing some of the meat in their diet with plant-based proteins.
The growing consumer demand for more plant-based meals is spurring on the creation of innovative products and ingredients from foodservice suppliers – in recognition of the fact that they are no longer catering for a niche market of vegetarians and vegans. Flavour profiles which deliver on taste and presentation that’s designed to appeal to meat-eaters have become key selling points, as foodservice operators increasingly seek to add such meals to the menu.
“I think it’s probably the fastest-growing food trend we have at the moment,” says Gary Johnson, Executive Chef at ALH Group which operates more than 300 licensed venues across Australia and serves over 60,000 meals a day.
“The products now available in plant-based proteins and meat substitutes are far superior to what they were just a couple of years ago – we’re now able to source products that the carnivores like to eat!”
Gary says that he avoids labelling menu items as vegan or vegetarian –“because we want all our diners to consider those culinary choices, not just those who are following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. It’s not necessarily to call it out because vegans already know what they can eat, and this way we can appeal to meat-eaters as well – they can and do enjoy plant-based proteins. You don’t miss the meat as long as the taste is there.”
Many of ALH Group’s venues offer food that is cut above standard pub fare and these are where plant-based protein meals are becoming regular items on the menu. “We’ll do plant-based curries, Buddha bowls, burrito bowls – they’re subtly woven into the menu without specifically drawing attention to them. It’s important to offer them because you don’t want to ostracise any of your potential diners – in the case where you have a large group of friends or people going out to celebrate an occasion such as birthday party, just one person who wants to eat plant-based protein can lose you the entire booking if you don’t have those choices on the menu. So it’s really a case of being up to speed on this emerging trend, and also being sensitive and aware of people’s dietary choices.”
Cameron Prowse, Business Development Manager of Life Health Foods which features a number of plant-based protein products under its brands the Alternative Meat Co and Alternative Dairy Co, says the move to plant-based meals is here to stay and not a passing fad. “Ten years ago it was very hard to find good quality plant-based food on the menu, but now it’s getting easier for consumers to eat quality plant-based meals when they choose. There’s been a steady build in demand, and in part that’s because the newer generation of products stack up so well that consumers are choosing to cut down on their meat intake because they know they can do so without compromising their dining experience. And that’s because the quality of many of today’s plant-based menu solutions delivers the texture, taste and satiety that they expect.”
One of Life Health Food Foods’ most popular new products is the Alternative Meat Co’s vegetarian burger pattie developed by its inhouse product development team. “The texture and mouthfeel deliver a very meatlike experience which is something new and exciting for the market,” Cameron explains. “We’ve achieved this by using a blend of three different types of plant-based proteins, combining them in a way which allows us to mimic meat. The older generation vegetarian patties tended to be glutinous and breadlike but this new generation really delivers on texture, mouthfeel and taste.”
Diners looking for plant-based foods often aren’t only seeking an alternative to meat – dairy products and eggs are also ingredients which many occasionally avoid, and they are excluded from vegan diets. This can present problems for foodservice professionals given that milk and egg are key components of many foodservice ingredients and it’s not always easy to find a substitute which delivers comparable quality.
However, this is changing as more manufacturers are stepping up to the challenge of developing alternative formulations for the plant-based foods diner. A case in point is fresh mayonnaise which is traditionally made with eggs. Birch & Waite’s fresh chilled mayonnaise has long been a favourite of chefs, but since April the Australian supplier has also been marketing a Vegan Mayonnaise.
“It’s egg free and dairy free,” says Sarah Rowe, Senior Brand Manager at Birch & Waite Foods. “Australia is the third largest vegan market in the world and that’s continuing to grow, and we strongly believe we have the best vegan mayonnaise on the market. We’re famous for our Whole Egg Mayonnaise and that’s been considered number one in the market for a long time, so it was important to us to meet the same quality standard in our Vegan Mayonnaise. Our research suggests that chefs often want a one-stop solution, that is, one product they can use for all applications, and ours delivers that – there’s no quality compromise because you really don’t notice that it isn’t made with eggs.”
No effort was spared on the part of the Birch & Waite product development team to achieve this goal. “We went through so many iterations because we wanted to make sure we had the perfect protein replacement in our Vegan Mayonnaise that maintained the same smooth and creamy texture as our signature product.”
Sarah says the result speaks for itself – “Our sales teams have conducted blind taste tests with chefs and most of them have said ‘I’ve already tried your Whole Egg Mayonnaise’ – they couldn’t taste any difference! So there was definitely a gap to be filled in the market from a quality perspective.”
While Birch & Waite’s Vegan Mayonnaise can be used for all applications where you would normally use Whole Egg Mayonnaise, it has been primarily developed for plant-based menus. “We find a lot of our end-users are using it on plant-based salads and vegan burgers,” Sarah says. “The feedback from the market has been so positive that we’ve had to accelerate the launch of our 10kg bucket – we’ve had a lot of commitment from customers telling us that they want a larger pack size than the 1 litre squeezy bottle we launched with.”
Simplot Australia has recently expanded its foodservice range to include two plant-based protein brands, 100% Not Beef and 100% Not Chicken. As the names suggest, their products have been developed to present and taste as close as possible to their meat-based alternatives.
“The general growth in veganism and flexitarian meals is a huge trend,” acknowledges Simplot Australia Executive Chef David White. “More and more consumers are excluding meat from their diet once or twice a week in favour of something lighter. Environmental impact and sustainability are also big concerns for millennials both in Australia and internationally, and this is also driving demand. Plant-based proteins offer strong potential to feed growing populations without the carbon footprint that it takes to run cattle and livestock. But of course they have to deliver on taste and satiety – the feeling of fullness you get when you eat a meat-based meat. That’s the beauty of the products in our 100% Not range – you can use 100% Not Beef to make a great tajita and nine out of ten people won’t be able to pick that it’s not made with beef, because the texture and flavour profile is up there.
Simplot’s 100% Not products have been individually quick frozen so you can use as little or as much as you want – giving chefs the opportunity to try them on the menu and see whether they deliver on customer satisfaction. “From the chef’s perspective, you can cook with this like you would any other protein. You don’t have to modify your recipe and it won’t change your flavour profile so you can do a straight swap of the ingredient, which makes it easy for the chef.”
Recipes such as Simplot’s Charred Vegetable Lasagne, which showcases the Edgell’s Chef’s Grill chargrilled vegetables range, are a simple and labour-saving way to create a point of difference on the menu – in this case the arduous task of chargrilling the vegies has been done for you, and they come frozen and not packed in oil or vinegar as is usually the case.