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What's ahead for plant-based meats and proteins?

Suppliers and operators are moving beyond burgers and breakfast meats to grow along with the plant protein trend.
Chickenless Tacos courtesy of El Pollo Loco

Burgers and sausage patties may have pushed plant proteins squarely into the mainstream, but these days, suppliers and operators are rapidly moving into other products. And it seems like consumers’ appetite for meat, dairy and egg alternatives is only increasing.

Revenue Management Solutions polled consumers early in 2020 and again in the throes of the pandemic later in the year, and 30% of respondents said they would switch restaurant brands to satisfy their taste for plant-based meat alternatives, up 7%. RMS found that health is declining as a reason for this trend, while environmental concerns are increasing.

Operators are responding to the demand. Technomic Ignite menu data predicts that plant-based proteins will grow nearly 35% on menus by the end of 2022. Alternatives to chicken, eggs, crab and pulled pork are all starting to make inroads and are poised for growth.

On the global market, Technomic sees meat alternatives in the pork, fish and lamb categories, maybe even frogs legs and crayfish, emerging. And more chains will develop their own in-house nonmeat and non-dairy items.

With the success of the Impossible Burger and vegan cheese in several of its concepts, FAT Brands debuted Chick’n Vings early in 2021. “We were looking for a poultry alternative with a taste that soared above the rest, and Chick’n Vings rose to the top,” said Taylor Fischer, director of marketing at FAT Brands. The vegetarian wings come from a supplier partner and are available on the menus of Fatburger and Buffalo Express with a choice of dipping sauces. The price varies by location, but they cost the same as regular wings, she added.

Chick’n Vings ran as a limited-time offer, and based on their success, FAT Brands is looking to add more plant-based products that fit with its taste and texture criteria. Fatburger and Elevation Burger currently offer vegan shakes, using ingredients including cashew ice cream, oat milk ice cream, almond milk and coconut whipped cream, and these have been top sellers, said Fischer.

Plant-based poultry has grown more than 8% in menu mentions year over year, reports Technomic, and continues on an upward trajectory. In addition to Chick’n Vings, recent items include El Pollo Loco’s Chickenless Pollo Burrito, California Pizza Kitchen’s BBQ “Don’t Call Me Chicken” Pizza and the option of plant-based chicken as a protein at several salad and stir-fry concepts. On the noncommercial side, Ohio State University debuted a sub sandwich made with vegan chicken, and the University of Minnesota a Vegan Thai Curry.

The egg—the other animal protein that comes from the chicken—is also seeing growth in its plant-based form. Eat Just, the company that launched its first liquid plant-based egg product in 2019, and added a frozen folded egg product last year, is debuting Egg Sous Vide at retail in spring, 2021. The high-protein egg bite is available in four varieties showcasing Indian, Mexican, Japanese and American-style flavor profiles.

“We have sold the equivalent of over 80 million eggs since we launched,” said Matt Riley, Senior VP of Global Sales for Eat Just.

According to the Good Food Institute, vegan eggs were the fastest growing plant-based category in 2019. As with alternative burgers and chicken, early adapters were vegans and vegetarians, but currently, 90% of those purchasing Eat Just’s products have traditional animal proteins in their shopping carts as well, said Riley.

These shoppers are similar to restaurant consumers of plant-based proteins, most of whom are flexitarians, choosing these as a healthier or more sustainable option on occasion. Zero Egg, another plant product that launched on the market last November, might have targeted meat avoiders in its Veganuary partnership with Tropicaleo Restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., but non-vegans also embraced the global dishes.

"For the theme of the menu, we decided to take a look at traditional foods from around the globe," said Mario Rodriguez, corporate chef of Zero Egg. “Hand-rolled gnocchi, tamales and egg salad tea sandwiches were among our limited-time popup dishes.”

Tropicaleo also regularly menus Zero Egg in more mainstream items, including a breakfast biscuit sandwich and a rice bowl with scrambled “eggs,” plant-based sausage and sweet plantains.

Riley said that Just Eggs is working on innovations that include changing the structure of the mung bean-based product to expand its functionality to baking applications for cakes, cookies, breads and more.

Another ingredient that is being mined for its meat-substitute potential is oats. Pulled Oats was developed by Finnish company Gold & Green Foods as an alternative to the overly processed fake meat that dominated the category. The frozen product launched last year in the U.S.

Pulled oats are made from Nordic oats, fava beans and yellow peas. The result is a protein-rich product with a texture that’s a mix of shreds and crumbles. In the kitchen, pulled oats can be seasoned and used instead of meat in tacos, stir-fries, barbecue, pasta sauces and pizza toppings.

That’s pretty much how they are beginning to show up on menus. The Press in Oklahoma City does a vegan sloppy joe, while Fat Cat Bar in Chicago offers Vegan Chili composed of roasted pulled oats, tomatoes, onions, three kinds of beans and scallions. Mojo-marinated pulled oats are the base for a Cubano at Pet Shop Bar in Jersey City, N.J., which also does ropa vieja tacos by braising the oats in a spiced tomato sauce and topping them with queso and cilantro.

On the seafood front, New Wave Foods received a fresh round of financing in January to produce and distribute its plant-based shrimp to restaurants and foodservice venues. The shrimp are made of sustainable seaweed and plant proteins.

“We're launching a versatile plant-based shrimp that can be used in a wide range of shrimp dishes,” said Michelle Wolf, co-founder and CTO of New Wave Foods. In appearance, taste and texture, the shrimp closely resemble their ocean counterparts, according to the company. Following this rollout, plant-based lobster, scallops and crab are in the works. 

Be on the lookout for mushrooms as a meaty meatless ingredient, too—going beyond the popular blended burger. Umami-rich, immunity-boosting mushrooms were named as a 2021 trending ingredient by several forecasters, particularly the more exotic varieties such as oyster, enoki and lion’s mane. In addition to serving mushrooms as is, chefs are forming them into chicken nuggets, combining them with legumes in meatballs and roasting them in shawarma-style applications.

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