Plant-based proteins step into the spotlight as sales of vegetarian products surge in North America
More and more consumers across Canada are taking a pass on animal-based protein. Indeed, the use of meatless products is now becoming mainstream, says Ashlyn Neff. “It’s not just for vegetarians and vegans anymore,” notes the brand manager at Richmond, B.C-based Garden Protein International, the maker of Gardein products. “Large numbers of meat-eaters are consuming plant-based proteins.” Tebbie Chuchla, spokesperson for Toronto, Ont.-based Hain Celestial Canada, producer of Yves vegetarian products, agrees: “We have seen a growth in the number of consumers who are becoming ‘flexitarians,’ and that increase has occurred across most demographic groups.”
For many, it’s about health. Millions have read books like The China Study, written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell in 2005. Campbell points to links found in his research studies and that of others between animal-based protein – including casein in dairy products – and disease. He says the consumption of a diet rich in animal products (which are high in cholesterol and protein, low in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and can be high in saturated fat) leads to inflammation, cancer promotion, diabetes, diseases of the heart, brain, kidney and eye, weight gain, digestive problems and autoimmune reactions.
But those reaching for vegetarian options are likely not solely focused on avoiding the health risks of animal-based protein. They’re also looking to gain a nutritional advantage. “Studies in recent years have recognized soy for a range of health benefits,” says Annalisa Gross, marketing specialist at Earth’s Own Food Company in Vancouver, B.C., which makes So Good beverages and frozen desserts. “Fortified soy beverage is valued as an alternative source for protein and important vitamins and minerals.” She adds, “People from all walks of life are looking for better-for-you alternatives. Plant-based foods are just one of the options that are increasingly available to help people on their quest. People are interested in choice.”
“We’ve noticed a definite trend in our customers equating healthier eating with eating more vegetarian or vegan meals a week,” adds Claudia Howard, vice-president of Marketing at Holy Crap cereals in Gibsons, B.C. “Customer comments on our website and social media sites reflect the positive health benefits they are experiencing with a plant-based diet, including weight loss, lowered cholesterol, lowered blood pressure and increased energy.” Holy Crap sells its gluten-free, vegan, organic cereals in Canada, and exports varieties to 40 other countries. The cereal has even travelled to the International Space Station. The original recipe features chia, buckwheat, hulled hemp seeds, raisins, dried cranberries and more, 65 per cent of which are Canadian ingredients.
Besides health, there are other significant reasons behind the increased interest in vegetarian food. Neff says consumers are worried about the authenticity and safety of meat, as well as the significant impact of livestock farming on the environment. He notes that if every North American ate meatless just one day per week, it would mitigate the annual greenhouse gas emissions of over a half a million cars on our roads.
Beyond the bun
In response to all of this, companies are now offering a greater variety of vegetarian products than ever before. As Neff says, the meatless category originally started with veggie hot dogs and burgers, but has now moved “beyond the bun.” Consumers are interested in both ready-to-eat meals and meal components for cooking at home. “We are growing the category through centre-of-plate products,” says Neff, “like our award-winning Seven Grain Crispy Tenders, Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n, and Beefless Tips.” Other Gardein products include frozen holiday “roasts,” breakfast sandwiches, meatless meatballs, beefless sliders, beefless strips, BBQ “wings,” meatless ground, chili and a variety of prepared meals. Yves’ products range from veggie “shrimp,” grain strips, “tuna,” hot dogs and bratwurst, to skewers, strips, deli slices and meatless ground.
It’s also important that vegetarian foods are perceived as, and actually are, easy to prepare. This is why customer support through recipes and meal ingredient ideas are essential. “People need to know how to prep and cook vegetarian products in order to buy them regularly,” says Amelia Lee, spokesperson for Sunrise Soya Foods in Vancouver. The company makes a wide range of tofu products using non-genetically modified (non-GMO) soybeans grown in Canada. One of Sunrise’s popular products is Soyganic Smoked Tofu. “All you need to do is slice it thinly and place it into sandwiches for an easy meat alternative option,” says Lee. “It has a great smoky taste and meaty texture.”
Canadian companies in this sector are also offering a variety of dairy-free vegetarian dips, spreads and yogurt-like snacks and dessert products. “There has certainly been an increase in demand for dairy alternatives, also referred to as analogs, over the past five years,” says Francis Lo, co-founder of Cambridge, Ont.-based Yoso. His customers include vegans, families contending with food allergies and food sensitivities, those who prefer a dairy-free and gluten-free diet, and those wishing to support small Canadian family businesses. The main source of protein in the Soygo product line is non-GMO organic and locally grown soybeans from southwestern Ontario. “Soybeans still remain as one of the few sources [of plant-based protein] which provide a complete protein with all the essential amino acids,” explains Lo.
Earth’s Own also uses non-GMO soybeans in its So Good beverages and frozen desserts, while Sunrise markets non-GMO Pete’s Tofu, a preservative-free, yogurt-like snack or dessert with fruit on the bottom.
Like companies in many other sectors, vegetarian food companies guard their formulations closely. “With our wide variety of products, we have many different formulations, cuts and seasonings we use to produce the best taste and texture,” explains Neff. Gardein products contain non-GMO soy and wheat protein, and pea protein. Regarding Yves protein sources and formulations, Chuchla says “Our products are predominantly wheat and soy-based,” adding, “We are always looking for new high-quality sources of protein, such as pea protein found in our new Garden Ground Round.”
Whatever formulations companies use, they do not have to ensure that vegetarian meal products contain “complete” protein. That is, research shows that in contrast to what was believed decades ago, we do not have to consume all of the nine amino acids essential to the human body at the same meal. As long as they are ingested over a 24-hour period, these essential amino acids can be used by the body as complete protein for growth, tissue repair and so on.
“Our recommendations for vegetarians are to consume a variety of foods,” explains Dietitians of Canada Media Relations manager Kate Comeau, “and by doing so they will meet their essential amino acids needs.” With all the new ready-to-eat options and meal ingredient ideas now available in Canada, that’s easier than ever.This article appeared in the print issue:November/December 2013 edition