Plant-based foodstuffs that deliver all the richness, texture and depth of flavour of animal products are helping caterers target the growing customer demographic of flexitarians, as Will Hawkes reveals, in this look at vegan and vegetarian alternatives to animal fats and meat.
If you want a vegan burger in 2021, you're in luck. There are lots of options. Companies like Moving Mountains, Vivera, Beyond Meat and Taste & Glory make them, while big chains, most notably KFC, sell millions across their counters. You can buy them in supermarkets, in quality restaurants, even at football grounds.
This abundance follows a feeding frenzy of innovation over the past few years, which has pushed the standard of vegan meat replacements onwards and upwards. It's been a game-changer for vegan grub in the UK, but in a world used to dining on animal products, it's only the first step. There are more challenges to face, and perhaps the most important one of all is fat.
So much of the food that Britons enjoy is based on animal fat – from cheese and mayonnaise to classic sauces and desserts. That's why, no doubt, the current vegan arms race is about replicating what fat brings to food: richness, texture and depth of flavour. New companies, like Hoxton Farms, which raised £2.7m earlier this year to support its project to grow purified animal fat in bioreactors, are pushing the technology forward.
"Chefs and caterers are looking for products that can help them accurately create vegan alternatives of classic dishes, while maintaining the taste that consumers know and love," says John Want, sales, marketing and R&D director at Rich's, which has recently launched liquid dairy-free cream alternatives for the food manufacturing, beverage and catering sectors.
The events of the past year have made this challenge more pressing, as vegan food picks up both full-time and part-time acolytes. "The Covid pandemic seems to have accelerated the interest in plant-based dining," says Gordon Lauder, managing director of frozen food distributor Central Foods.
"A survey by the Vegan Society earlier this year found that 20% of people had reduced the amount of meat they were eating over the previous 12 months, while 15% had minimised their egg and dairy intake, which means that a quarter of all British people have cut back on some form of animal product since the first lockdown."
A quarter of all British people have cut back on some form of animal product since the first lockdown
The largest and fastest-growing group of plant-based consumers consists of flexitarians and reducers, who are aiming to cut their consumption of meat, dairy and animal products. A 2019 alternative meat market report by Barclays estimated that 92% of plant-based meals in the UK are consumed by the country's estimated 22 million flexitarians – one in three of the total population.
Chewing the fat
Operators have an increasing number of options when it comes to replacements for animal fat. There are different ways to achieve the same goal, using everything from nuts to rice, but it's worth bearing in mind that vegan customers are often as motivated by health factors as they are by how planet-friendly a product is.
Made from rice syrup, sunflower oil, palm oil and water, Rich's Plant-Based Cooking Crème and Plant-Based Whipping Crème are lower in saturated fat than their dairy rivals, although the presence of palm oil might cause environmentally focused vegans to look elsewhere. "Ours are the only plant-based cream alternatives that perform and taste just like dairy, with no bean, grain or nut back- notes," says Want. "Both creams are 100% vegan and allergen-free, and able to be used in a huge range of recipes, from desserts, soups, sauces and ready meals to hot and cold beverages.
"They also boast a range of health benefits such as zero trans fat or cholesterol, 89% less saturated fat and 12% fewer calories than their dairy alternatives."
Iglooh, a vanilla-flavoured dairy-free drinks mix, depends on a blend of sugars and thickeners for its consistency. There are no artificial ingredients, its maker Aimia points out. "Iglooh adds a naturally creamy, thick and luxurious texture to any cold, blended/mixed drink, no matter the additional ingredients or flavours added," says Karen Green, marketing manager at Aimia Foods. "It is the perfect starting point for a whole host of creative drinks, since it is so easy for operators to add different flavours, syrups, chocolate, fruit, coffee or cocoa powder, and more."
And how about Horlicks? A vegan blend has recently been launched, says marketing manager Michelle Younger. "Horlicks Vegan can be used to create a delicious dairy-free version of the comforting and cosy beverage, or it can be added to shakes, frappés, cakes and more," she says.
Of all animal fat alternatives, mayonnaise has perhaps seen the most innovation over the past few years, with everyone from Hellmann's to start-ups such as Dr Will's creating vegan versions.
Creative Foods' food development director Lee Tynan suggests that his company's Oasis Vegan Mayo is a perfect option for food service. "It looks and tastes just like the real thing, so vegans can now enjoy a mayo dip with their fries, or as a sauce for their vegan burger, safe in the knowledge that it is free from dairy," he says. "It also allows our foodservice customers to add a simple ‘twist' by mixing it with on-trend ingredients to create vegan starters, side dishes, or mayonnaise-based dips such as black olive, smashed avocado, sundried tomato, or pesto."
Then there's ice-cream, such as Suncream's Gelato Lusso Vegan Coconut and Passion Fruit, or cheesecake, such as the vegan options produced by the English Cheesecake Company. "No dessert menu is complete without the timeless addition of a cheesecake. From refreshing summer flavours such as Deliciously Raspberry through to on-trend Lotus Biscoff and Double Chocolate Cookies & Cream, our vegan range has something for all tastes and seasons," says Josh Laurier, the company's operations director.
"As well as our core range, which we continuously update, we work with many customers to create bespoke creations to order. We love nothing more than bringing our customers' ideas to life and helping to create a dessert menu of which they can be proud."
Macphie has launched three vegan savoury sauces and a plant-based dairy cream alternative, packaged in cartons made up of 87% renewable material. The savoury range consists of a cheese sauce, a white sauce and a demi-glace. "To really make waves in the market, operators have to demonstrate that they understand the desires of consumers and the ethical and environmental concerns they're trying to address," says Kirsty Matthews, marketing and insights manager at Macphie.
The growth of vegan cuisine has seen some of Britain's most popular brands begin offering meat-free alternatives. A great example is the Birds Eye Green Cuisine range, launched in 2019 and now one of the sector's biggest players. It includes meat-free sausages, burgers, chicken-less dippers and fish-less fingers, and all products are made from plant-based proteins.
Meanwhile, Central Foods offers KaterVeg, a gluten-free vegan mince, which can be used as a meat-free swap in a range of favourite dishes from spaghetti bolognese and chilli to lasagne, shepherd's pie and even pizza toppings, says Lauder.
Martin Eshelby, food innovation manager, supporting menu development for fresh produce supplier Oliver Kay, suggests that operators use seitan, a meat substitute made from wheat gluten, while Gold & Green Foods champions its plant-based protein Pulled Oats, which contain just five ingredients and no soy.
Although fat is the focus right now for vegan innovators, meat substitutes are still moving forward, according to Shani Wright, global media relations manager at Spanish plant-based brand Heura Foods. "I'm excited to see the rise of the third generation of plant-based protein focused on nutrition," she says. "The future of plant-based protein is being led from the Mediterranean. This means clean labels, high nutritional profiles and the use of olive oil. After all, the Mediterranean diet is credited as being one of the healthiest in the world, resulting in some of the longest lifespans."
And the rest
While meat substitutes might be the stars of the vegan product world, operators would do well to add some plant-based power across menus. Lucky Boat noodles are entirely egg-free, for example, while Lamb Weston's Dukes of Chippingdom can provide the base for plant-loaded chips. Tilda has launched a steamed rice range of pouches for foodservice, and all Mission tortillas and tortilla chips are suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
When it comes to snacking, Kallo's growing portfolio of plant-based products includes lightly salted, gluten-free rice and corn cakes, lentil cakes and veggie cakes. The latter are made with pea protein and lentil flour rather than rice. Released initially in two flavours – spinach and pesto, and beetroot and balsamic – each cake is made with only natural ingredients.
"In the earlier days of product trials, we tested the veggie cakes on consumers and 45% considered consuming them with no topping – which is three times more than for rice cakes," says Bryan Martins, marketing and category director at Ecotone UK (as Wessanen UK has rebranded itself).
And how can caterers ensure there is no cross-contamination between plant-based meals and dishes offering meat? Welbilt suggests using its colourful new cooking accessories. "Merrychef has launched a range of colour-coded accessories to be used with the Merrychef Eikon E1S and E2S, which make serving plant-based food really easy," says Steve Hemsil, Welbilt sales director for UK and Ireland.
"Using different coloured cooking trays or liners, an operator can cook a vegetarian and non-vegetarian item one after the other, without having to clean down the equipment."
Central Foods www.centralfoods.co.uk
Creative Foods www.creativefoods.co.uk
English Cheesecake Company www.englishcheesecake.com
Gold & Green Foods www.goldandgreenfoods.com
Heura Foods www.heurafoods.com
Hoxton Farms www.hoxtonfarms.com
Lamb Weston www.lambweston.com
Lucky Boat Noodles www.luckyboatnoodles.co.uk
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