The Hunger for Vegan, Vegetarian Foods

March 24, 2016
Vegetarian and vegan eating are getting more common as concern grows for personal health, animal rights and the environment.

Though we eat more meat than any other population in the world, Americans' appetite for vegan and vegetarian foods is voracious. Mintel reports about 36 percent of consumers say they're buying meat alternatives and plant-based foods, and The Huffington Post reports some 16-plus million people consider themselves vegan or vegetarian.

In 2012, Americans ate 12.2 percent less meat than five years earlier, and 12 percent of the global food and drink products launched in 2013 carried a vegetarian claim, up from 6 percent in 2009, according to Huffington Post. In 2014, the Huffington Post predicted that by 2050, America may be a "vegan country" – or at least a significant percentage of Americans will be vegans.

Just last month the Plant Based Foods Assn. formed in Washington, D.C.

Our emergent love of plant-based foods and the healthy, organic, clean-label food movements are prompting mainstream food producers to slip in more veggies. In 2015, more than 100 plant-based meat substitutes were introduced in grocery stores, according to Supermarketnews.com.

"These foods are exploding in traditional supermarkets," points out Greg Blake, co-owner of Daiya Foods, Vancouver, British Columbia, founded to create plant-based dairy alternatives. Its Greek Yogurt Alternative, Supreme Pizza, cheese-like shreds, slices and blocks are available in the dairy case and freezer aisle, while its Cheezy Mac is shelf-stable. At Natural Products Expo West, Daiya launched a line of dairy-, egg- and gluten-free plant-based dressings in Creamy Caesar, Blue Cheeze and Homestyle Ranch varieties, as well as a new Pepperoni Style pizza entirely made from plants.

"The most beneficial ingredients are probably plant-based proteins," says Blake. "Given the recent declaration from the World Health Organization that processed and red meat cause cancer, the trend to increase vegetable and fruit consumption and reduce red and processed meat consumption will likely continue."

Vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians

How can you tell vegans apart from vegetarians? Vegetarians consume dairy products and eggs. Vegans avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy, and often animal-based nonfood items such as leather, wool and silk. Vegetarianism usually refers to diet, and is frequently adhered to for health reasons and food safety, as vegetarian diets often incorporate high-fiber, low-carb foods and few saturated fats.

To be vegan is more of an ethical, lifestyle choice. But the vegan product category should grow at an average 13.4 percent thorough 2020, says a report in latestvegan news. Vegan products are no longer niches, Blake adds. "Vegan represents a healthier choice for your body, it's good for the planet and animals, and it's more sustainable in terms of feeding an ever expanding population. People are increasingly aware of these issues and how their food choices have an impact."

Flexitarians eat meat occasionally. They're part of the trend of Meatless Mondays − serving veggie burgers or other vegetarian meals at least once a week. This trend is becoming popular with half of the country, according to The Huffington Post.

"Consumers are questioning the foods they’re putting into their bodies and looking for options to meet their needs," says Yves Potvin, founder and president of Gardein Protein International, Richmond, British Columbia. "Meatless Mondays are a simple way to make a huge impact on your health and the health of the planet. If every American ate meatless just one day per week, it would be the equivalent to taking a half million cars off the road."

Now owned by Pinnacle Foods, Gardein makes vegan products with non-GMO soy, wheat and vegetables. Its convenient new meatless pepperoni pizza pockets, which debuted in March, are filled with marinara sauce, meatless pepperoni and vegan mozz’rella. Each pocket has 9g of certified vegan plant protein and is cholesterol-free.

"There are four main factors that explain the increase in plant-based diets and their popularity," Potvin says. "The recent food safety scandals, the rise in allergies and [gluten and dairy] intolerances, increasing awareness of the ethical and environmental impact of meat and the consistent focus on health and wellness."

Nuts for protein

Vegan and vegetarian diets can be deficient in some nutrients, protein being one of them. The nutritional value of nuts, with their fiber and protein, makes them a good replacement for snacks and other foods high in fat, sugar, sodium and gluten, explains Martin Pohl, president and one of the original founders of Hughson Nut Co., Hughson, Calif. Almonds, he notes, provide 20g of protein in one cup of sliced almonds. One ounce of almonds contains 13g of unsaturated fat (9g of monounsaturated) and 1g of saturated fat.

"Increased demand [from consumers] for almond flour, almond butter and almond milk is also noteworthy," Pohl adds. "The almond industry is a leader addressing sustainability as well. Consuming more plant-based proteins and monounsaturated fats, both found in almonds, is recommended in the new Dietary Guidelines."

Nuts provide health benefits and consumer appeal, agrees Harbinder Maan senior marketing manager-trade stewardship at Almond Board of California, Modesto, Calif. "Based on Innova Market Insights' category data, the growing emphasis on protein will stay strong. Protein claims have been applied to more categories for satiety, including breakfast, meal-replacement drinks, snacks and meat alternatives."

Going dairy-less

Plant-based non-dairy desserts are cropping up across the country. In February, Almetta Foods, a Eugene, Ore.-based startup, created a non-dairy, almond-cashew milk mousse dessert/snack now on supermarket shelves in Oregon. It tastes as rich as something made with dairy products ... and "it's good for you," notes Guru Hari Khalsa, vice president of product development.

Fans of Ben & Jerry ice cream who want a non-dairy option can rejoice. In February, the Burlington, Vt., company nationally launched four all-vegan treats made with almond milk. They come in classic flavors of Chocolate Fudge Brownie and the infamous Chunky Monkey, and two new flavors, Coffee Caramel Fudge and P.B. & Cookies. "Creating these new flavors with a non-dairy base that meets the high expectations of Ben & Jerry's consumers was quite a challenge," says Ben & Jerry flavorist Kirsten Schimoler. "We wanted to bring the same fun ... and flavor excitement to our non-dairy fans and we nailed it."

Galaxy Nutritional Foods, North Kingstown, R.I., just launched Go Veggie Vegan Spread & Dip minis, which it says are the only vegan, plant-based substitutes for traditional dairy-based dips and spreads. The four pack of Chive & Garlic contains 100-calorie cups of coconut oil-based cream cheese alternative, free from lactose, cholesterol, gluten, preservatives and GMOs. “It’s portion control meets calorie control for snackers on-the-go," says Whitney Velasco-Aznar, vice president of marketing at Galaxy. The company also reformulated its vegan shredded "cheese" recipe using a proprietary process to deliver a better melt and nutritional profile.


The fact that big food companies are investing in organic and vegan startups is an indication of where the food world is headed. Many recognize the veggie craze, including WhiteWave Foods Co., Denver. Long a leader in soy milk (Silk), the company in 2014 acquired So Delicious, which specializes in coconut milk­based frozen desserts as well as other nondairy products.

Unilever recently answered the success of Hampton Creek’s egg-free Just Mayo with its Hellmann's Carefully Crafted eggless mayonnaise-like spread. Hampton Creek, on the other hand, says it will roll out 43 new plant-based products (from pancakes and salad dressings to brownies and dessert mixes) through retailers beginning with Walmart, says CEO Josh Tetrick.

Satisfying snacks

Los Angeles-based Annie Chun’s rolled out two new vegan seaweed snacks at Natural Products Expo West: Organic Seaweed Snacks, made with USDA-certified organic ingredients; and Korean BBQ Seaweed Crisps. The Organic Seaweed snacks are lightly seasoned, roasted sheets of nori that are gluten- and dairy-free, with 30 calories per serving. Nayoung Shin, head of corporate marketing and planning, says vegan and/or vegetarian numbers continue to grow, especially as more and more food brands offer vegan/vegetarian alternatives. "Consumers are looking for options to support a healthy lifestyle, which in turn, contributes to longer lives."

Savory and nutrient-rich, snack bars from Mediterra Inc., New York, come in Kale & Pumpkin Seeds, Bell Peppers & Olives, Sundried Tomato & Basil and Olive & Walnuts, to name a few. Mediterra favors the Mediterranean diet, and its bars, launched in 2015, also feature nuts, herbs, olive oil, amaranth and protein-rich pea crisps. They have less than 4g of sugar, no added sugars or sweeteners, are non-GMO and gluten- and dairy-free.

"The response was overwhelmingly positive, so the need to create additional flavors became obvious," says Telemaque Lavidas, founder. "People are tired of sweet nutrition bars, and are paying close attention to sugar intake. Mediterra’s Savory Bars address both issues."
Development challenges, advantages

Pleasing those looking for variety in plant-based meal options is challenging, Potvin emphasizes. New vegetarians and vegans can quickly tire of the same old rice and bean dishes. Thankfully, many cuisines embrace vegetarian cuisine, from Indian meals to Italian pasta entrees, he says. "No one wants to eat a veggie burger every day. From chick’n to beefless to fishless to turk’y to burgers to porkless, we will continue to innovate."

Perceptions about the vegan lifestyle also are changing for the better. Being called a "healthnut" is no longer a negative connotation, Maan points out, as eating "clean" and considering animal rights and the environment are growing concerns. It also offers plenty of product development potential for marketers. "This trend won't disappear, but will only evolve as new trends and healthier products are developed," she says.

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