Marketing executives agree there is a growing trend toward healthier products. However, many new healthful prepared foods have failed miserably in the marketplace. Why? The answer can be summed up in one very important word: taste.

To elaborate, taste, texture, aroma, mouthfeel and visual appeal all are important when choosing what to eat. Another hedonistic attribute often overlooked is the satiation factor. Satiation does matter, particularly considering healthy desserts. Dessert is a reward you give yourself at the end of a meal. It absolutely must meet all hedonistic expectations. So, how can a company develop a fantastic product that appeals to growing numbers of consumers concerned about health, while building in the hedonistic attributes that ensure success? The answer may be vegan desserts.

Consumers almost unanimously believe that vegan means healthful. And, while manufacturers may cringe at the production of organic products, foods that also possess a similar healthful halo, the formulation and processing of vegan products often is easier and less costly. There are less rigors and expenses when trying to meet federal regulations governing organic foods. More importantly, making vegan items is far less complicated. Many traditional dessert recipes are vegan to begin with! Nabisco's Oreo cookie is an example of a tasty product that may be a vegan product. However, there has been much discussion on this on Internet forums as of late.

What is Vegan?

Donald Watson coined the word vegan (pronounced VEE-gun) in 1944, in Leicester, England. At the time, the British Vegetarian Society was in a heated debate regarding the definition of the word vegetarian. A proposal was put forward to create an official sub-group of the society that would advocate elimination of dairy products as well as meat from the diet. When the proposal was defeated, Watson led a group of like-minded members in forming a new, more tightly focused organization. The term vegan was created from the first three and the last two letters of the word vegetarian. Watson stated, “Veganism begins with vegetarianism and then carries it to its most logical conclusion.”

The primary concern for a vegan is ethics. The rhetoric found in vegan literature and on websites focuses on ethical and/or environmental issues. By understanding that, many seemingly odd patterns of purchasing behavior become clear.

Vegans do care about the wholesomeness of the foods they eat, and their healthfulness is a secondary concern. Since a vegan diet predominantly contains foods that are innately “good,” such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, high-quality oils and soy products, vegans are not as concerned about healthfulness when eating snacks, sweets and baked goods. Many devout vegans eat what could be considered “junk food” by most nutritionists.

What does this tell us about creating new products that appeal to vegans? It is very possible to create indulgent, hedonistic desserts and snacks that meet all the requirements of vegan philosophy. These foods also can appeal to the vast majority of consumers. The halo of health that makes foods more acceptable will be present, and the “ethical activists” will be on your side!

Making it Vegan

Creating an outstanding and successful new bakery product is a labor of love, or should be. The very best baked products often are created via a team combining bakery scientists, pastry chefs and/or artisan bakers. In developing vegan bakery items, manufacturers may wish to add a practicing vegan to the R&D team.

Remember, the rules followed by vegans are not always scientific or seemingly logical. The majority of vegans follow this diet because of moral concerns for what they believe is needless abuse of animals. For example, a vegan may not eat honey. They believe that taking honey from hardworking insects is exploitative, inflicting stress and even starvation on innocent honeybees. Bees labor endlessly to feed themselves and, in doing so, pollinate the plants we rely on for food. Do bees truly suffer? That is up for discussion; what matters is that vegans believe so. Think of vegan dietary rules as being similar to the rules governing kosher foods. Some of the rules seem quite logical and based in science. Others are simply based on faith, to be followed without question.

Ethics aside, the rules that govern bakery science and cereal chemistry still apply. Every baked good dessert requires a basic cell structure provided by proper formulation and facilitated through a well-engineered process, from mixing to proofing and baking. The product must have a viable leavening system to provide the all-important volume most bakery items need.

Interestingly, gluten, that important element of flour, is a favorite among vegans. This food component is isolated, compressed and often used as a vegan meat substitute as well. (No, it does not taste just like chicken.) “Soy margarine” seems to be a primary ingredient in almost every consumer baked vegan goods recipe. Do not tell them it is shortening; they do not want to know. Vegans happily consume guar, carrageenan, xanthan and cellulose gums. These are considered vegetable gums and are ethically acceptable. In contrast, many vegans will not consume white granulated sugar. The thought is that sometimes animal bones are used during the sugar manufacturing process to whiten the final product, according to Jo Stepaniak on the “Grassroots Veganism” website (see Website Resources).

Vegan Formulation 101

The golden rule in vegan product development is “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” No meat products harvested from animals may be used. The second rule is less clear and perhaps could be summed up as “Thou Shalt Not Abuse.” Vegans consider the treatment of dairy cows and egg-laying chickens in typical farming operations to be abusive. That means no egg, milk, whey or other dairy products may be used. Gelatin derived from animal sources is also out. Basically, any ingredient derived from or processed with a product derived from an animal source is not acceptable. The third rule can be downright baffling. It could be stated as “Thou Shalt Not Annoy”; refusal to eat honey may fall under this rule. Like the regulations governing kosher manufacturing, vegans wish to understand the process involved in creating the ingredients used in manufacturing the final product. Again, the primary drive is ethics, not food science.

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, more than 10% of females under 25 now claim to occasionally practice vegan eating. The potential market for these products is huge.

In Chicago, a little local vegan restaurant has been baking delicious muffins, cookies, cakes and desserts for over 20 years. Chef Jo Kaucher established Chicago's popular all-vegetarian The Chicago Diner with her partner, Mickey Hornick, in 1983.

Chef Jo is widely acknowledged as one of the finest vegetarian bakers in the nation by Vegetarian Times and The Chicago Vegetarian Society. Her baked goods are featured at The Chicago Diner and at Whole Foods and Wild Oats groceries. Recently, Whole Foods Supermarkets has contracted with The Chicago Diner to purchase baked items. Hornick just bought the land to build a manufacturing facility. Demand for great vegan baked items has exceeded supply in Chicago.

Good vegan desserts command higher prices and generate better margins than conventional products. Perhaps best of all, vegans are easy to please. Their expectations are tempered by moral and ethical concerns. Vegan desserts can satisfy all the hedonistic attributes consumers need to make a new product a hit.

Sidebar: Ingredient Substitutions: Food Scientists Needed

An Internet search for vegan-acceptable ingredients is challenging in that most focus on what is not acceptable. However, here is a small sampling of consumer-oriented websites that have offered suggestions on how vegans can adapt conventional recipes.

Honey: Agave nectar1

Sugar: Maple sugar, granular fruit sweetener, date sugar, pure maple syrup, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, mixed fruit juice concentrates, beet sugar, concentrated fruit syrups, rice syrup, barley malt and sorghum syrup2

Milk and cheese replacers: Soya milk, rice milk, oat milk, pea milk, almond milk, tofu, soya cheese, soya yogurt, coconut milk, ground cashew nuts and yeast flakes3

Egg substitute (for one egg): 1T flax seeds ground plus 3T water; 1T chick pea or soya flour plus 1T water; 2T instant mash potatoes; 1/2 large banana; 2 heaping teaspoons soy powder plus 2T water; and 1/4c apple sauce in sweet recipes.4 The site also claims these substitutions will make “virtually no difference in the end product!”

--Claudia D. O'Donnell, Chief Editor