It’s time has come. “Plant-forward” no longer is a trend to discuss. More consumers are changing their eating behaviors to include plant-based products and this is impacting new product innovation. And perhaps what’s most interesting about this innovation is the broad and deep exploration into the versatility of vegetables.
At its most basic, this innovation exploration has resulted in a broader use of preparation techniques that fundamentally shift both the appearance and structure of an individual ingredient. Consider that preparation techniques previously reserved solely for meat are now applied to vegetables with interesting and unexpected results. Here, we’re looking beyond roasting—to methods of smoking, charring and even sous vide preparation or “pulling.” Other techniques are drawn from beyond center-of-plate protein preparations to involve other menu categories, such as desserts. One example could be to create crème brûlée effects on halved fruit. This results in deep flavor as well as unexpected textures.
The most interesting innovation, though, is the completely unforeseen use of vegetables in categories and products that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Although the overall move toward a more plant-forward philosophy toward food is a key element, other trends have helped to lay the groundwork and drive interest in what vegetables can do. From world cuisines and sweet/savory combinations to lifestyle diets, the industry and consumer behavior has been poised to demand and support these efforts.
What started as spiralized vegetables used as a substitute for pasta has become something far more interesting. At the forefront of this trend is cauliflower, which has become the defacto stand-in for any carb-based application or product. Both foodservice and retail channels have seen cauliflower products used to create rice, gnocchi, “mashed potatoes,” “wings,” tabbouleh and pizza crusts. At first blush, these experiments could be written off as basic substitutes. However, what’s at the heart of this is the manipulation of produce to create—through a combination of science and culinary technique—a completely new way to consider produce as an ingredient.
The cauliflower revolution has led to similar innovation explorations in other categories. Most recently, retail processor Peekaboo Ice Cream, Surfside, Fla., is leveraging vegetables to enhance traditional flavors.
Why is this interesting? First, the vegetables aren’t “hidden” as a fun but furtive way to sneak veggies into an otherwise pleasurable and indulgent experience. Second, the vegetables aren’t meant to be the base flavor for an altogether new and fringe flavor that is unlikely to appeal to the masses. Instead, vegetables act as supporting flavors to traditional items and these ingredients—including cauliflower, carrot, zucchini, spinach and beets–provide depth of flavor and color enhancement. Here, the innovation is around the interplay between vegetables and traditional ice cream flavors to understand how they complement each other while creating an even more indulgent and pleasurable traditional ice cream experience.
Of course, there is plenty of science helping to move the needle on vegetable use and most of it has been discussed at length when it comes to plant-based protein, dairy, and other alternatives. Naturally, that will open entirely new doors to vegetable use. No matter what, it can be a real win for the industry when science and culinary combine to at a more basic level.