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Plant perfect

From cashew cheese to vegan sausage, plant-based foods are pleasing vegans and meat-eaters alike

SHUTTERSTOCK/PIKOSO.KZSHUTTERSTOCK/PIKOSO.KZ

Long the preferred fare of animal-rights activists, vegan foods are now catching on in mainstream Canadian diets. Not only are 6.4 million Canadians already following a diet that partially or fully restricts meat, the majority of those adhering to a vegan diet (which means avoiding all animal-based foods, including dairy and eggs) are under the age of 38, according to a 2018 study out of Dalhousie University in Halifax. Another survey conducted by popular takeout food delivery app Just Eat showed a whopping 987% increase in people seeking meat-free options last year.

All this points to vegan and plant-based foods gaining big momentum. “We’re moving beyond vegetarians to everyday consumers who are expanding their diets with plant-based options,” says Leslie Ewing, who oversees Plant-Based Foods of Canada, an association that launched this year. “This increased interest presents a great opportunity for both manufacturers and retailers.”

Besides the desire for healthier lifestyles and environmental concerns around meat production prompting vegan diets, Ewing says products in this category are now more accessible through mainstream retailers. In fact, earlier this year Loblaw CEO Galen G. Weston announced his company would launch 30 vegan products under its President’s Choice label in 2019.

Ewing points to innovative taste profiles that are winning over consumers too. “Taste is a key driver of growth,” she says. Whether it’s smoked and flavoured tofu, nut cheeses, vegan sausages, faux bacon grease or plant-based desserts, tasty new offerings are enticing even meat and dairy lovers to try them.

“Eighteen months ago, no one could find a good nut cheese out there and now several companies have jumped in to fill that void with success,” says grocer Matt Lurie, president of Ontario-based Organic Garage, a store that carries a wide array of vegan products. “I’m not a cheese connoisseur, but they’re coming out with brie and complex cheddar options that are a dead mimic for [dairy] cheese and it’s pretty impressive.”

Even traditional meat and dairy eaters are opting for nut-based cheeses, says Lynda Turner, founder of Fauxmagerie Zengarry, a vegan cheese maker based in Alexandria, Ont. The company’s seventh and latest flavour of cashew-based cheese—an aged cheddar fermented with craft beer—was inspired by the desire to create a pub-style cheese that would appeal to a more masculine audience. “When you tell a male this is our ale-aged cheddar, that’s the first one they’ll try,” she says. “Plus, you can put any of our cheeses on a regular charcuterie board because the taste profile is so rich.”

John Bonnell, co-founder of Toronto-based Wholly Veggie, says his customers aren’t all self-identified vegetarians or vegans either. “They’re just looking to incorporate more plants into their diets because they are concerned about what goes into their bodies,” he says. In the last year and a half, his company has launched 11 vegetarian and vegan products, ranging from fully cooked veggie patties and vegan “bites” to cauliflower-based pizza crusts. “But this is still a new category and we have to help consumers navigate,” he adds.

This navigation entails plenty of in-store demos and sampling to get people trying these products, says Bonnell. “It also means pulling products out of the freezers at the back of the store and closer to the front for easy access,” he says. “Remember that lots of people are looking for [plant-based] meal alternatives who aren’t traditional vegan shoppers.”

Turner suggests grocers try putting vegan products in various sections of their stores to determine where they’ll sell best. “Vegan cheese could be in the cheese department, for example, but I’ve also seen grocers creating special veggie sections where all these products can be found,” she says. Regardless of where you put them, signage is key. “It’s all about educating consumers and putting [up] signs that call attention to the fact these are dairy-free products,” says Turner.

At The Big Carrot Community Market in Toronto, vegan options are incorporated into daily fresh meal selections too. “In our kitchen and ‘grab and go’ section where we’re serving fresh food, there are always vegan options,” says marketing manager Sarah Dobec. “More and more people are trying a vegan diet and want something convenient.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December/January 2019 issue.

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