Plant-based foods are expanding and consumers want more

In the fall of 2018, Jenny Goldfarb suddenly had a craving for a sandwich made from corned beef and pastrami.

For Goldfarb – who grew up in a New York Jewish deli family – it was the classic sandwich of her youth. But her longing came with a catch: she is now a vegan.

So she started working with wheat protein, adding beets for a “meat” color, and dipping the mixture in various brines and spices. After a few months, she came up with a vegan replacement. She brought her vegan corned beef from her home in the San Fernando Valley to a Los Angeles deli that placed an order for £ 50. She cried tears of joy in her car.

Today, Goldfarb is shipping orders for up to £ 50,000 of their Unreal Deli corned beef, turkey and, more recently, steak slices to grocery stores across the country.

“We just got the green light from Publix,” said Goldfarb. “They want the retail packages, but they want to put it in their delis too.”

On the waves of success of soy, oats and other dairy alternatives, as well as vegan burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, a wide range of plant-based foods is riding on the menus of restaurants and in the aisles of grocery stores. And now more and more companies – from small upstarts to established brands – want to take part.

This summer, Panda Express started putting orange chicken with Beyond Chicken from Beyond Meat on the menus of some of its US locations. Peet’s Coffee sells a mung bean-based vegan breakfast sandwich with Just Egg.

When Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant reopened in June after closing due to the pandemic more than a year ago, it did so with a new, plant-based menu.

“It started with a plant-based burger, but now plant-based options are becoming available in all sorts of categories,” said Marie Molde, nutritionist and trend analyst at research firm Datassential. “We believe that plant-based chicken is really going to take off.”

Restaurants and grocery stores are responding to changing consumer demands as they move away from meat consumption. According to Nielsen IQ, fresh fruit sales in grocery stores have increased nearly 11% and fresh vegetables by 13% since 2019.

While only a small percentage of Americans are true vegans or belong to the broader vegetarian category – 5% said they were vegetarian in a 2018 Gallup poll – this is not the audience following these new companies and products.

Rather, they target the taste buds of the vegan-curious or so-called flexitarians, a much larger group of Americans who are trying to reduce their meat consumption. Some shy away from concerns about cruelty to animals, while others say the environment or perceived health benefits are factors. (Whether the plant-based foods, many of which are highly processed, are healthier is controversial.)

“This is not just for vegans – it would be too small a market,” said Mary McGovern, general manager of New Wave Foods, whose seaweed and vegetable protein prawns will be on restaurant menus this fall.

McGovern sees a much wider audience of millennials, flexitarians, and others interested in trying new plant-based foods. “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like the tectonic shift we’re seeing in the market now,” she said.

Restaurants jump on the train with both feet. Orders for herbal products from major grocers rose 20% in June from the same point in time in 2019, according to the NPD group.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

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