These are the things I learned at the 2019 Fancy Food Show: Plant-based is the new vegetarian food, and a vegetarian diet is the new normal. And whether you want to blame or credit the increased gluten intolerance, nut allergies, and trepidation around all things meat and dairy, there is an alternative to everything.
Earlier this summer at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, as I wandered through about six football fields’ worth of displays helmed by producers, entrepreneurs, chefs, farmers, bakers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, activists, importers, I spotted all sorts of things that weren’t what they seem. By design. There was Avonaise, the avocado-based vegan alternative mayonnaise. There was hemp milk, an alternative to oat milk which has become the stand-in for soy and almond milk, which is an alternative to cow’s milk. There were nut crumbs from San Diego-based Appel Foods and pork rind crumbs from Pork King Good out of Ohio, both gluten-free substitutes for breadcrumbs. There were crackers and doughs made from ground-up cauliflower, an alternative to flour. There was Oaté, an oat milk frozen dessert, an alternative to ice cream and the creation of a trio of young friends who conceived their idea while studying at Boston University. They’ve grown their business out of Commonwealth Kitchen, the Dorchester incubator. (More on that in a minute.)
And there was snack food — lots and lots of snack food, each purporting to have more amino acids or fiber or probiotics than the last. MudLrk’s Shiitake Mushroom Chips, which come in ranch, Sriracha, and Kansas City BBQ flavors, have five grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber per serving. (And it’s vegan, gluten free, etc.) Second Brain Foods’ Barley Crunch and Barley Bars, created by Kokeb Kassa who was inspired by a staple in her native Ethiopia, pack a probiotics punch. There was high-protein, magnesium-packed, gluten-free sprouted buckwheat from Lil Bucks, a Chicago startup, and several people with new brands of popped water lily seeds. The protein-rich bites, traditional to ancient India, have the shape and consistency of Kix cereal and a slightly sweet earthiness.
Plant-based snack food is already making waves in big industry, too. Rob Ehrlich, who made his fortune as creator of Pirate Booty, was showcasing his new line of snack food: Vegan Rob’s, which encompasses sorghum-flour-based puffs in flavors like beet, probiotic cauliflower, and jackfruit.
But you hardly need a dispatch from the Fancy Food Show to learn that healthy eating has become de rigueur. According to a report from the United Fresh Produce Association, sales of organic produce grew 8.7 percent to $5.6 billion in 2018 over 2017. And a Nielsen study revealed plant-based foods are up 20 percent in dollar sales in the United States to more than $3.3 billion from 2017 to 2018.
News headlines during the past months show the real-time effects: The world came dangerously low on its supply of Impossible Burgers, the plant-based patty engineered to look, feel, and taste like meat, after fast-food restaurants put it on their menus. The meat lobby is up in arms. They want to put a moratorium on veggie burger producers using the word “burger” in their branding. The dairy lobby is also in a state, coming down on soy and almond milk manufacturers, demanding they take “milk” out of their products’ names.
And for these alternative-food makers, even bad PR is good PR. Americans want more exciting and diverse ways of eating. And they’re getting it. According to data compiled by the Specialty Food Association, the member-based trade organization that produces the Fancy Food Show, specialty food and beverage sales account for 16 percent of the food and beverage market. Among the top 10 specialty food categories with the highest dollar growth, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives, rice cakes, and frozen plant-based meat alternatives take the top three spots. Water clocks in above bottled tea and coffee.
Breakout local brands who made an appearance as part of Commonwealth Kitchen’s display were very on-trend. “Seniorpreneurs” Nanci Gelb and Terri Tsagaris, for instance, showcased their fledging Off Our Rocker Sweet Potato Cookies, a vegan treat that they’re lobbying stores to place in the produce aisles.
There was one thing missing from among the keto food, low-glycemic sweeteners, and responsibly sourced cacao, coffee, and meat: edibles. Representation of products containing CBD was very light. But according to a few conversations I had — particularly with people who are creating individually-packaged snacks — the coming years will likely be very different.