New plant-based foods group the latest veggie development

December 18 2018

There is no doubt that vegetarianism is on the rise in Canada, as in many western countries. And that has posed a challenge to the restaurant sector. Chefs and proprietors increasingly need to offer attractive meat-free alternatives.

Far from being in any way ephemeral, research by Dalhousie University indicates this trend is expected to grow. It noted that not only has the number of Canadians identifying as vegetarians risen from 900,000 15 years ago to 2.3 million now, with 850,000 vegans on top, but the overwhelming majority of those opting for plant-based diets are aged under 35. 

That in turn means a lot of people who are having children and raising them not to eat meat, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie Sylvain Charlebois told CTV. The consequences of this will be obvious; a large part of the next generation will consider plant-based diets the norm, and will subsequently pass the same attitudes on to their own children. 

In view of all this, it will hardly come as a shock that a group of major plant-based food producers have joined forces to create their own trade association. Plant-Based Foods of Canada (PBFA) includes big names such as Danone and Hain Celestial.

The stated mission is to work with local governments and industry stakeholders to promote more innovation and growth, as well as tackling emerging new issues in the sector. The most obvious of those issues, it seems, is the sheer demand for plant-based food products.

CEO of Hain Celestial Canada Beena Goldenberg said: "The time has come for the plant-based food industry to build upon its collective voice within Canada.

"In the next five to ten years, we are going to see rapid growth in the interest and consumption of plant-based foods. It’s happening already.

"As industry continues to move into the mainstream, it’s critical that it has a voice to accurately represent it and help shape the direction it takes for the benefit of all Canadians."

Of course, plant-based food already is mainstream in the sense that it has accompanied meat in dishes since time immemorial. However, the desire to use it as a substitute is a game-changer. It is less about salads and more about new products that can imitate the appearance, taste and presentation of meat without actually being comprised of animal flesh. 

The question for the restaurant sector is how it should respond. An obvious consequence of the banding together of major plant-based food companies is that there can be collective efforts to promote certain kinds of products. If these grow in popularity as a result and end up proliferating on grocery store shelves, it is reasonable to assume a growing number of consumers will demand something similar in restaurants. 

David Johnston, vice president and general manager of Pinnacle Foods Canada, emphasised this new reality when, commenting on the formation of the PBFA, he said: "Canadians want - and deserve - plant-based food choices that align with current food trends."

Of course, this is all great news for chefs who specialise in vegan and vegetarian foods. The opportunities for growth are huge, with such businesses likely to thrive and the skills of those who make the food sure to be in high demand. 

At the same time, however, there may be ever more pressure on other restaurants to increase their plant-based menu choices. Tokenism will simply not do. No longer can there be just one or two bland vegetarian options, and many chefs who specialise in meat-based dishes may need to develop more without. 

Alternatively, larger restaurants may be competing hard for the most skilled chefs when it comes to the production of vegetarian dishes.

In his comments on the Dalhousie research last month, Professor Charlebois claimed that some food producers were deluding themselves that the rise of vegetarianism in Canada would be just a passing fad. It may be that the formation of the PBFA will do them a favour by exploding that myth, showing that vegetarianism and veganism are here to stay and part of the mainstream. 

This should leave both producers and providers of food in no doubt they must take the necessary steps to address the shift in consumer demand. As such, the formation of the PBFA could be the biggest step yet in revolutionising the way Canadians eat, not least in restaurants.