The rise of “plant-based” in our industry is much more complex than the stereotyped vegan warrior wanting to change the world. What motivates consumers to choose? How is industry responding? What is driving this obsession with eating only plants and are the plant-based alternatives just as good as traditional products?
Peoples’ reasons to go plant-based are broad and varied and their purchasing choices are directly influenced. Reasons include health, cultural, welfare and/or environmental reasons for consumption of food that is not animal in origin. The sheer volume of humans that will need to be fed in the next 30 years will put additional pressure on resourcing raw materials for food production. Another 2.2 billion more people than today is only great for our industry if resources are affordable and available. Whatever the background motives for choosing a plant-based diet, it is certain that we are all much more mindful of our food choices today.
For the marketer, plant-based is a rebranding gold mine. Plastics are labelled as “vegan leather”. Margarine returns as “vegan butter”. There isn’t a real problem with this if the plant/seed oils are sustainably sourced and trans fatty acids kept to a minimum during hydrogenation.
For the supplier, clean label offerings continue to emerge with innovative commercial solutions. Want freshness? Enzymes are now your key additives. Want NAFNAC? Some ingredient makers now readily cater to this. Clean labels mean finding new and better alternatives to historical processing patterns and compliment plant-based ideology.
For the processor, things are more complex. What is the right material to source? Raw materials may be plant-based, but the processes to grow them (manure) or purify them may not be (think bone char to refined sugars). The Australian Sugar Milling Council states “ultra violet light or activated charcoal is used to remove any impurities” from cane sugar. Also, understanding a plant-based rationale establishes interesting exclusions such as honey. As an industry, we have yet to be asked to address incorporating plant-based principles in our food production while adhering to necessary pest management practices.
This makes the industry shift both dramatic and disruptive. As market demand increases, we grapple to align with these new tolerances. Imagine discovering that you can’t use your everyday commercial vanilla extract as there are dairy traces identified on the specification sheet. In India, most western style bakeries and patisseries are eggless and dairy-free for cultural and transport reasons. The use of commercial, non-dairy whipping cream is understood, but the flavour and melt-in-mouth characteristics when compared to real cream demonstrates room for improvement. The message here is to take time to get educated on exactly what supplier solutions are on offer. If you can’t find the solution you want, you are likely going to have to create it.
The responses from the industry are as eclectic as consumers. Some disdain vegans’ attitudes, while others are mainstreaming plant-based offerings. We don’t have to preach what we practice, when demand exists. We just have to find new solutions. In bakery/ patisserie, there are plenty of raw materials that facilitate plant-based modification of the classics. Eggless and dairy-free custards are now obtained with non-dairy equivalents, modified starches, fibres and gums. Sure, it won’t be like what grandma used to make, but if your customers want plant based, they won’t be complaining.
As the global population continues to increase and alternative lifestyles emerge, our industry will need to be proactive to remain relevant. Yes, entirely plant-based bakeries and patisseries exist in Australia today. It is not about going back to the way things were, but drawing on innovation, our collective creativity and mindfully marketing our products with consumer needs in mind. It is clear life is not static and we all must look at new ways with our ingredients, recipes, suppliers, packaging and waste. It is important that those who are the future of our craft inherit skills, mindsets and attitudes that embrace this emerging and inescapable culinary paradigm.