By Don Douloff
There was a time when consumers seeking packaged, ready-to-eat vegetarian meals had precious few options (think pallid veggie burgers and grey, spongy veggie loaf). But that has changed dramatically, as manufacturers have upped their game and now offer a wide array of frozen, RTE options catering to the growing market for plant-based choices.
“We’re seeing strong demand across our packaged vegan and vegetarian meal categories,” says Ryan Dennis, director of Communications at Nature’s Emporium, a Toronto-area mini-chain of health-food stores. “There is growing awareness and interest amongst our customer base, both due to the recognized potential health benefits of skewing toward a plant-based diet, and the environmental benefits of consuming plant-based foods. This is driving interest in these foods not just amongst vegans and vegetarians, but increasingly amongst traditional meat-eating individuals who are embracing trends like meatless Mondays and assuming a ‘flexitarian’ (or more part-time vegetarian) approach.”
According to the executive summary of a report, Ready and Prepared Meals, produced by market-research firm Mintel, 86 per cent of Canadians ate one or more frozen RTE meal in the six months leading up to March 2015, and 55 per cent of Canadians said “RTE meals allow them to try different foods and flavours,” with 53 per cent “agreeing that ethnic-inspired RTE meal options are more adventurous.”
Indeed, consumers looking to explore global cuisines have much to choose from — Indian, for example. Vij’s frozen entrées, the retail offshoot of Vancouver-based Vij’s Group of Companies, which made its name with several influential Vancouver-area Indian restaurants, is now available in 900 stores. Culled from the company’s restaurant menus, the line includes scratch-made, kettle-cooked Curried Chickpeas; Saag & Paneer (spinach with cottage cheese); Coconut & Ginger Curried Green Beans; Punjabi Daal (lentils); and Black Chickpea & Ginger Curry. Sales of the retail line have been growing an average of 18 to 20 per cent annually, said company CEO Vikram Vij.
Burnaby, B.C.-based Indianlife produces a line of frozen vegetarian or vegan frozen meals that can include chutneys, rice and flatbreads. Options include Banglore Beans – Kidney Bean Curry, and Vegetable Korma with white and wild rice and naan. The newest additions to the entrée line are Shahi Paneer (green peas and cubes of paneer cheese with brown basmati rice) and Palak Paneer (paneer cheese in spinach sauce with basmati white rice). Adding to those are Indianlife’s Masala Wrap with Chickpea & Wild Rice, and Naan Wrap with Kidney Beans & Brown Rice. There’s also Metro supermarket’s Irresistibles Chana Masala. “The vegan and vegetarian categories of our private brands business (Irresistibles and Selection) is definitely growing,” says a Metro spokesman.
But RTE’s globe-hopping ways aren’t confined to India. Mexican vegetarian entrées, for instance, are well represented in the freezer section. Amy’s, for instance, offers Black Bean Burrito, and Enchilada with Spanish Rice & Beans and, in the Light & Lean line, Bean & Cheese Burrito. Glutenfreeda serves up gluten-free burritos (dairy-free vegetarian, and vegetarian bean and cheese). And from Burlington, Ont.-based 50 Pesos, there’s Black Bean Quesadilla.
Representing Asian influences are frozen meals such as Irresistibles Life Smart Vegetable Chow Mein, and Amy’s Thai Red Curry (with jasmine rice and vegetables) and Pad Thai (rice noodles and tofu). Eastern Europe gets its due with Cheemo potato/Cheddar, potato/mushroom and potato/cream cheese/dill perogies; and, from Ontario-based Sarafina Fine Foods, Cabbage Rolls with Quinoa, and Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa.
Italian-themed options, perennially popular with consumers, are an integral part of the RTE universe. Amy’s, for example, targets pastaphiles with Tofu Vegetable Lasagna and Spinach Lasagna, while its Bowls line entices rice lovers with its Mushroom Risotto. Sarafina’s Italian-inspired offerings include Vegetarian Lasagna and Eggplant Parmesan with Quinoa, while Michelina’s counters with Spinach & Ricotta Bake, anchored by rigatoni. Supermarket private labels, too, are getting into the act. Witness Whole Foods’ 365 private-label vegetable and vegan lasagnas; Longo’s Vegetable Lasagna (with broccoli and rapini) and Cheese and Spinach Pasta Rolls; and Loblaws President’s Choice (PC) Blue Menu Roasted Vegetable Lasagna and Fettuccine Alfredo.
And then there’s pizza, an entire category unto itself. The selection is dizzying, ranging from traditional pies and flatbreads to vegan and gluten-free creations. In the former category, options include Stone Baked Mediterranean Flatbread and Stone Baked Pizza (five cheese and tomato/cheese/basil) from Longo’s private label; Whole Foods’ 365 Vegan Pie and Thin-Crust Pizza with Goat Cheese and Pesto; Loblaws PC Thin & Crispy pies (spinach, for example, and in the PC Blue Menu line, spinach with roasted veggies and goat cheese); and from Metro, Life Smart Thin Crust Multigrain with Spinach & Vegetable, and La Pizza Thin Crust Pizza with Raised Edge (Broccoli, Spinach & Kale). Toronto-based Tandoori Oven, which launched its frozen RTE line in October 2015, counts two naan-based pizzas (veggie and cheese, both made with garam masala-spiced tomato sauce) in its repertoire.
Gluten-free pizza options (“gluten-free or wheat-free continues to be a driver in interest across all sub-categories,” says Dennis) run to Duo Cheese, and Spinach & Feta, pies from Glutino. Covering gluten-free, as well as dairy-free, is Daiya, whose line, made with mozzarella-style shreds, is available in varieties like Spinach & Mushroom; Margherita; and Supreme (with onions, red and green peppers and meatless sausage). Sarafina’s gluten-free line includes Spinaci Funghi, on multigrain crust; Quattro Formaggi, on rice crust; and Vegan Pizza, on sweet-potato crust. Sarafina, which launched its gluten-free pizza in 2013, has been growing “on average 60 per cent each year,” said vice-president John Daniele.
Another thriving category is vegetarian comfort foods. Featured in that sub-group is Daiya’s dairy-free Cheezy Mac (Deluxe Cheddar Style, Deluxe Alfredo Style and Deluxe White Cheddar Style Veggie); Loblaws PC Macaroni and 3 Cheeses; Amy’s Rice Mac & Cheese, and Macaroni & Soy; Amy’s Vegetable Pot Pie, and Broccoli Pot Pie with cheddar sauce; and Yves’ Veggie Corn Dogs.
Retail freezers also find space for veggie burgers, in all manner of creative offerings, including Loblaws PC Portobello Swiss Vegetarian Burger and SoL Cuisine’s Sprouted Quinoa Chia Burger and Sweet Curry Vegetable Burger, along with Spicy Black Bean Sliders. Elsewhere, there’s Veggie Chicken Burger, Mushroom Burger and 7 Grain Burger, and Kale and Root Vegetable Patties, from Yves, which commands 59 share points of the total meat alternatives category, including almost 10 share points in the frozen sub-category, according to AC Nielsen figures.
Trending, too, are meat-replacement meals, typically made with soy protein. “We’re seeing an overall strong interest in this category, driven by health and environmental concerns, but also encouraged by an increasingly broad selection of innovative products offered by companies like Field Roast, Gardein and Sophie’s Kitchen,” says Dennis. “It’s easier than ever to find convincing meat substitutions, and people are willing to experiment.”
Sophie’s Kitchen, for instance, makes such seafood-replacement products as vegan crab cakes, breaded vegan scallops and vegan smoked salmon. Gardein meat-replacement meals include Mandarin Crispy Chick’n; Chick’n Sliders; Chipotle Lime Fingers; Breakfast Patties; Meatless Meatloaf; Mini Crabless Cakes; Golden Fishless Filet; Holiday Roast with cranberry and wild rice stuffing; and Savory Stuffed Turk’y. Over at Yves, there’s Original Veggie Ground Round.
Tofurky, a U.S. brand of turkey replacement made from a blend of wheat protein and organic tofu, numbers Slow Roasted Chick’n (in Thai basil, sesame garlic and barbecue flavours), hot dogs and sausages in its RTE roster.
Billing itself as The Original Vegetarian Grain Meat, Seattle-based Field Roast’s lineup includes Apple Maple Breakfast Sausages; Smokey Forager’s Roast brushed with pineapple mustard glaze; and Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute, hazelnut-infused grain meat stuffed with Field Roast sausages, crystallized ginger, cranberries and apples and wrapped in puff pastry.
This article appeared in the print issue:June 2016 edition, Food Trends section