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The Fight for the Center of the Plate

The Fight for the Center of the Plate

The center of the plate in the United States has usually featured a hefty beef roast or grilled pork chops, or maybe seafood, or even hamburgers and hot dogs. The days of predictable meals of meat and two vegetables are changing, however, with plant-based entrées, vegetable dishes, value-added meats and exotic fare taking over center position. Demand for alternative proteins is being driven by people who love eating meat but also are open to a diet that includes plant-based proteins.

Centering on Plant-Based Proteins

Key Takeaways

  • Customers searching for healthy alternatives to meat, poultry and seafood are snapping up plant-based meats and cultivated seafood.
  • Other trends expanding typical center-of-plate fare include value-added meat-and-veggie combos, “veg-centric” dishes with meat serving as a flavor accent rather than the main dish, and soybean-based tofu and tempeh in various textures and flavors.
  • People aren’t necessarily looking to stop eating meat entirely, but are interested in incorporating plant-based products into their diets and trying new foods.

Along with meals, investment in plant-based options is evolving. For example, 2019 and Q1 2020 have been record periods of investment in companies that create alternatives to conventional animal-based foods. These include U.S. plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies, according to Washington, D.C.-based The Good Food Institute (GFI), an international nonprofit that aims to build a sustainable global food system with alternative proteins.

Investment in U.S. plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies in Q1 2020 was almost as much as the complete previous year, with $741 million invested in the quarter, even though COVID-19 was disrupting global markets. An additional center-of-plate component was hot by the end of 2019, when there were 55 cultivated-seafood companies around the globe — a 57% increase over 2018.

“We’ve observed that many Americans are considering a different diet in the future, and for most, this includes decreasing their meat consumption,” says Dan Curtin, president of plant-based food supplier Greenleaf Foods, in Elmhurst, Illinois. Greenleaf is the owner of Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat Co.

Curtin notes that people aren’t necessarily looking to eliminate meat from their diets entirely; instead, they’re focused on incorporating plant-based products to round out their diets, or to bring new textures and flavors onto their plates.

“The idea of meat in moderation – a flexitarian lifestyle – has expanded the category beyond vegetarian and vegan customers, resulting in innovations throughout the category, and subsequently more interest from consumers as well,” he observes.

Plant-based food, according to GFI, refers to products that are direct replacements for animal-based products. This definition includes products that use the biomimicry approach to imitate the taste and texture of meat, as well as products made from plant ingredients such as jackfruit, seitan, tofu and tempeh that serve as functional meat replacements, according to GFI’s “2019 State of the Industry Report.”

In addition to suppliers of plant-based products, retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Kroger-owned King Soopers are heavy into plant-based foods and capitalizing on the trend. Whole Foods offers 360 plant-based products on its shelves, while King Soopers offers 410. GFI says that these two retailers offer 50% more plant-based options than most other top retailers.

The possibilities of the dishes consumers can make with Lightlife and Field Roast products are endless, according to Curtin. “At Lightlife, our focus is on clean, nourishing health,” he says. “We strive to provide solutions to the balance consumers are seeking, and to provide them complete transparency when it comes to the ingredients in our plant-based products.”

A Field Roast Grain Meat Co. veggie roast can take the place of animal protein as a holiday main dish. Parent company Greenleaf Foods plans to build North America's largest protein manufacturing facility, in Indiana.
A Field Roast Grain Meat Co. veggie roast can take the place of animal protein as a holiday main dish. Parent company Greenleaf Foods plans to build North America's largest protein manufacturing facility, in Indiana.

For example, Curtin notes that the Lightlife Plant-Based Burger is made only with simple ingredients like pea protein, coconut oil, garlic powder and beet powder. Other center-plate dishes using plant-based hamburger include tacos or lettuce wraps.

Greenleaf’s Field Roast brand, meanwhile, focuses on big, bold flavors, Curtin observes, and is driven by culinary craftsmanship. “We’re known for our plant-based meats and cheeses, all made using whole-food ingredients like grains, vegetables, legumes and spices,” he points out. “Our Field Roast Sausages, Breakfast Patties, Burgers and Plant-Based Chao Cheese are great when used as a single ingredient in a dish, but when it comes to center plate, some of my favorites are lasagna, loaded mac ‘n cheese, flatbreads, and pot stickers. The Field Roast Celebration Roast is also a must-have for the holidays. Field Roast products are made for kitchen creators and flavor trailblazers.”

A World of New Dishes

Center-of-plate dishes created with vegetables have been readily available for a few years. Items such as pasta or rice created from cauliflower or squash can be used to create spaghetti or vegetable fried rice. A whole head of cauliflower can be roasted and flavored with spices for a unique main dish, and grilled thick slices of cabbage make great steaks.

Seafood Isn’t Always From the Sea

Plant-based or cultivated seafood is a small sector, but a growing one, according to The Good Food Institute’s “2019 U.S. State of the Industry Report on Plant-Based Meat, Eggs and Dairy.”

In 2019, there were numerous product launches, including New York-based Good Catch’s plant-based tuna, which debuted at Whole Foods Market, Thrive Market and Fairway Markets. Meanwhile, New York-based Ocean Hugger Foods showcased its own plant-based tuna, Ahimi, and launched a plant-based eel product at the National Restaurant Association show. The new product is created by altering the texture and flavor of eggplant to resemble that of freshwater eel, or unagi.

Family-owned Van Cleve Seafood Co., based in Spotsylvania, Va., launched a plant-based line, Wild.Skinny.Clean, with Crab-less Cakes and plant-based pink shrimp. Tyson Ventures’ investment in San Francisco-based New Wave Foods, the first major investment by a conventional meat company in the plant-based seafood space, opened a door for the Springdale, Ark.-based meat company. For a company like Tyson, seafood has been out of reach in the past, because of production systems. Plant-based seafood can be produced in the same facility as other plant-based meat products, however, making it practical for Tyson.

Colored cauliflower from specialty produce purveyors Frieda’s and Melissa’s can wake up a meal. A sampler dish of winter produce can fill the center of a plate and hungry stomachs alike.

Value-added meat-and-vegetable combos are gaining in popularity with consumers. Harried customers are more willing to grab a package that contains everything needed for dinner, from meat to vegetables, than in the past. Many retailers cut beef, pork and chicken for convenience, while others add their own seasonings and marinades. Cut meat and vegetables that are pre-skewered will appeal to consumers seeking kabobs.

Noel W. White, CEO of Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, said in an annual report that his company can meet consumer needs through a broad portfolio of diverse products, including prepared foods and value-added chicken, which are expected to be the most profitable segments. Beef is expected to see continued growth as part of Tyson’s case-ready value-added business. Tyson’s poultry business continues to grow its mix of value-added products via acquisition and new products in the retail and foodservice channels. Some retailers are packaging meat cuts with vegetables for faster dinner solutions, while others are offering pre-marinated meats or heat-and-eat baby back ribs.

Veg-centric is another trend in entrées that started in restaurants. It began when foodservice and restaurant customers asked for dishes with vegetables as the main course. “Veg-centricity” features fresh produce, mainly vegetables, as “the star of the plate.” It’s not vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian, according to Gordon Food Service, based in Wyoming, Michigan. Veg-centric involves chefs applying small amounts of umami to center-of-plate vegetable dishes to enhance flavor. Developed in Japan, umami is savory and one of the five basic tastes, together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Umami is characteristic of cooked meats and broths.

The flavor and protein of umami are added to vegetable dishes, for example, as bits of country ham, meat broth or crispy chicken skin. There are at least 13 umami additions. These small additions increase the desirable taste and protein of plant-based and vegetable entrées, according to Gordon Food Service chefs.

Meat proteins are still part of veg-centric dishes, but they have changed places with vegetables. In these dishes, they serve only as a flavor enhancer, which is a plus for those watching their diets. Other examples include roasted Brussels sprouts with crumbled chorizo, and caramelized cauliflower with balsamic-bacon breadcrumbs.

Tofu and Tempeh

Spring rolls made with soy-based tempeh offer vitamins and minerals as well as flavor and visual appeal.
Spring rolls made with soy-based tempeh offer vitamins and minerals as well as flavor and visual appeal.

As most people know, tofu is a rather bland, soft, white cheese-like food high in protein and made from curdled soybean milk. Tofu is pressed into blocks, with categories of softness including silken, soft, firm and extra firm. It’s used in a variety of Asian and other dishes, where it soaks up the flavor of the surrounding ingredients and adds protein.

Tempeh also comes from soybeans and is a plant-based protein source that originated in Indonesia. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans that have been formed into a block, though store-bought tempeh often includes additional beans and grains. Tempeh also has a high protein content and offers many other health benefits. For example, it’s loaded with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, manganese, phosphorus and iron. 

According to a Greenleaf Foods representative, the tempeh segment “is growing like wildfire.” Lightlife currently has the No. 1 tempeh brand in the United States. “We’ve been making tempeh for over 40 years and just introduced a new addition to our tempeh line: Buffalo Tempeh,” the rep says, likening the flavor to buffalo wings — without the wings.

Many consumers may be working from home now, but their time is still limited, and the search for a balanced meal is ongoing. These new occupants in the center of the plate create interest while helping to create a healthy diet.  

About the Author

D. Gail Fleenor

D. Gail Fleenor is a contributing editor at Progressive Grocer.

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