As consumers continue to search for healthier food options, vegetables as star players in formulations are enjoying a renaissance. Value-added vegetable products are crowding onto grocery store shelves, supermarket fresh bars, and restaurant menus throughout the US.

Product developers recognize that, as main ingredients, vegetables can conform to nearly all diet trends — gluten-free, low-sugar, high-fiber, plant protein, and even low-carbohydrate. To meet the demand for these veggie innovations, manufacturers are finding new avenues of flavor, texture, and color in value-added vegetable products.

Produce consumption in the US has been low for many years, in spite of the famous “5-A-Day” program push by the Produce For Better Health Foundation. Last year, the Foundation reported on studies showing that “six in 10 kids are not eating enough fruit and nine in 10 kids are not eating enough vegetables.” While recent events and attitudes indicate a gradual shift in a positive direction, consumers still see the benefit gain of produce as primarily the healthfulness of the ingredients.

This increased attention being paid to produce and greater inclusion of vegetables in prepared foods recognizes that vegetables are high in nutrients, low in calories, and often are more filling (taking up more mass with fiber content) than the equivalent weight in animal products. The conclusion for product makers: Including veggies into a formulation is a “win-win.”

The more positive view consumers now have of vegetables also means that the “stealth health” approach of sneaking vegetables into formulations is becoming less necessary. Americans are more and more comfortable with plant-forward foods that make vegetables stars of the plate.

Convenience is another key factor driving the trend for more value-added products. The ever-busy home meal preparer is constantly seeking ways to save time. Paying attention to these needs and offering well-prepared vegetable snacks, sides, and entrées is crucial for vegetable processors to stay competitive.

The benefits of taking a produce-centric approach to value-added products extends to producers and growers as well, of course. While the “ugly produce” movement hit a trendy stride in the past couple of years, processors have long relied on lower cost less-than-perfect produce for formulations where the whole ingredient is never seen.

Using less-than-perfect produce reduces waste and does help the farmer. The bent carrots and lopsided tomatoes being sold at retail today as a badge of agricultural “wokeness” have been going into sauces and sides for decades.

Such integration also gives growers greater control of the supply chain by increasing the ability to capture greater value. They also can make it easier to use minimally processed vegetables as an ingredient and thus streamline the development of products, making them a more reasonable option for the product maker. Furthermore, value-added vegetable products further provide greater sales opportunities in niche markets the growers may not have had the chance to penetrate otherwise.


Blank Canvas

The neutral flavor of many vegetables lends them to a variety of treatments that provide clean bases to carry flavor. Cauliflower currently is the most persuasive example of this. Cauliflower used to have to settle for lesser-class standing behind its more colorful Brassica family members, broccoli and cabbage. However, while cauliflower once was considered bland, its neutrality is what makes it a culinary chameleon. It is being used in place of grains to make alternatives to high-starch foods, ranging from pizza crusts and snack chips to mashed potato substitutes.

Pair cauliflower’s demure flavor with its high levels of pectin, and you get a potato substitute that will whip up with a smooth and creamy texture. That magic combination recently has been highlighted to an acme, with developers using cauliflower as an animal protein replacement and creating chicken wing analogs: Formed cauliflower purée is breaded, fried, and served with Buffalo sauce.

Cauliflower gnocchi, “tots,” and flatbreads are entering the market as well. As developers become more familiar with the possibilities, equally daring usage of this vegetable will certainly appear in supermarkets in the near future. Less aggressive treatment has preparers cutting cauliflower heads into thick planks and grilling them as they would a beef steak.

B&G Foods North America, Inc.’s Green Giant brand Cauliflower Breadsticks represent another approach to taking advantage of the texture of cauliflower, using it to create a gluten-free breadstick option that bakes from frozen. Available in several flavors, and including toppings, they are reminiscent of bagel sticks.

“Riced” cauliflower and other vegetables are another minimally processed approach. Some brand owners are now making extruded rice-shaped products that behave like rice both in the kitchen and on the plate. Flavored versions of these shapes can be added to mixes and frozen dishes. Think paella made with saffron-infused cauliflower rice or red beans and rice made with tomato-infused veggie rice.

Such ideas are the driving force behind products such as Harvest Food Group, Inc.’s Path of Life brand of riced vegetables. The company’s Confetti Blend is a vibrant combo of riced cauliflower, zucchini, and orange and yellow carrots.

Chefs and food scientists are discovering that most of the culinary techniques we once reserved for animal products work quite capably when applied to vegetables. When research chefs dispense with the traditional cooking methods of boiling, sautéing, frying, and steaming they can allow their vegetable creativity to push the envelope.

Some chefs have been exploring the textural diversity of vegetables in an effort to mimic the mouthfeel of meat. Examples include shredding jackfruit or mushrooms to create a “pulled” texture, and then simmering or sautéing them and tossing them with barbecue sauce.


Vegetable Trends

Robert Schueller, manager of Melissa’s World Variety Produce, Inc., has had his finger on the pulse of consumer produce trends for nearly a quarter of a century. He’s noted some sharp upticks in popularity in the past couple of years of several root vegetables. “Little potatoes are big,” he says. “Varieties such as Pee Wee Dutch Yellow, Purple Fingerling, and Pee Wee Ruby Gold Potatoes are favored for their fresh potato flavor as well as being easy to clean and quick to cook.” He also points to the rapidly expanding popularity of purple and white sweet potatoes, as well as roots and rhizomes, including a renewed interest in watermelon radishes and fresh turmeric.

Schueller has spotted other recent vegetable trends, and they run a gamut from purple Brussels sprouts, variegated Graffiti eggplant, and the delicate, frondlike pale green Fioretto Cauliflower to peppers such as shishito, Manzano, and Enjoya varieties

On the leafy green side, Schueller has seen that kale sprouts, Asian cabbage varieties, and broccoli leaves are selling surprisingly well to consumers. “There’s no need for vegetable dishes to ever be boring,” he says.


Making it Work

Although versatile, there are important aspects of incorporating vegetables into products as they are delicate and highly perishable. “Quality and functionality are the most important aspects,” says Elliot Huss, CEO of Veggies Made Great, a “veggie-first company” with a focus on nutritious products that stay “true to their identity” as vegetable-centered. “Vegetables are always the first ingredient at Veggies Made Great, which means it’s important to get creative in not only the types of vegetables we use, but also the way we prepare them.”

There is definitely seasonality when it comes to sourcing produce, as Huss points out. He cites crop success and weather as pertinent factors the procurement team focuses on when securing and utilizing high quality, versatile vegetables. The company’s internal teams of Quality, Product Development, and Manufacturing play a role in inspecting, processing, and cooking plus cultivated a reliable set of outside partners they can depend on to help ensure the highest quality for the end products.

“Functionality comes into play in format,” continues Huss. “Some veggies are better diced, others are better shredded, and some are best in their whole form. Quality can come from both fresh and frozen format. Some produce is at its best quality when fresh, while others fit better puréed or frozen. Frozen often gets a ‘bad rap’, but frozen produce can be just as nutritious as — if not more than — fresh. We use either, based on the role they play, taking into account the effect of water content, texture, and visual appearance. Butternut squash is a great example: harvested during a limited time of the year, its peak quality is best preserved in a purée rather than fresh or frozen.”

The Veggies Made Great team uses an array of approaches to prepare veggies, including seasoned, caramelized, fire roasted, and grilled. “In most cases, our products feature an array of vegetables and not just a single star of the show,” explains Huss. “For example, in the Spinach Egg White Frittata, spinach gives the expected flavor profile, but the item also includes fire-roasted tomatoes, sautéed onions, and roasted red bell peppers.”

Sourcing also is a concern for the company. “Some manufacturers may purchase pre-blended ingredients to reduce cost and processing time, 
but at Veggies Made Great, we prefer to blend ourselves,” says Huss. “Every veggie blend used in our products is hand prepared to ensure the consumer that time and care is put into all our recipes.”

Looking toward the future produce trends, the product development and innovation team at Veggies Made Great is currently focused on bell peppers, fava beans and leeks, according to Huss. “Fava beans have a high protein content, can be baked, ground or puréed, and are extremely versatile. We believe they are not well utilized in the current competitor space. And leeks carry a sweet onion flavor and contain a fair amount of fiber, a plant-based nutrient most consumers are looking to eat more of.”


Not Your Nona's Noodles

The gluten-free trend created a huge demand for alternatives to farinaceous noodles. Both winter and summer squash lend themselves well to this treatment as well as assorted vegetables like beets, carrots, and potatoes.

Perhaps the easiest jump in this direction is to go straight to the spaghetti squash, the unique squash the pulp of which comes away in strands that resemble noodles of its namesake. Interestingly, few processors took marketing advantage of this vegetable until Solely, Inc. came along. The company cracked the code on taking the high-nutrition, low-calorie noodles from the squash by roasting it first, then hand-processing to get noodles that would hold up in shelf-stable format and cook up quickly without breaking down.

To create even more value for gluten-free noodle dishes, today’s product makers are focusing more on matching textures and flavors of the veggie “noodles” with an appropriate sauce. Cream sauces like Alfredo, for example, work well for spaghetti squash or butternut squash noodles; marinara sauces might play best with zucchini spirals.

Asian-style meals are also are subject to noodle makeovers. Japanese ramen and Vietnamese phô dishes are being created with vegetable noodles made from mung beans or yams rather than wheat or rice. Among the more popular vegetable-based noodles are those made from the Japanese tuber konjac. The rich source of the prebiotic hemicellulose polysaccharide glucomannan forms a rubbery gel that allows it to hold up well as a noodle both in the manufacturing and the cooking processes.

It wasn’t a big leap from noodles to pasta wrappers. Recent releases include wontons, filled pasta, and dumplings made from vegetables instead of grains. Such vegetable-based wrappers use pectin- rich, low-glycemic vegetables instead of rice or wheat flour. Exotic produce retailer Melissa’s World Variety Produce, Inc. sells wraps that actually are paper-thin slices of jicama root.


Faking it

Using vegetables to replace animal products is not a new concept, but the rush of attention being paid to a plant-forward culinary world is giving development chefs fodder for new creations. Portobello mushrooms, a tried-and-true stand-in for beef burger patties, are receiving renewed attention. But with an increased interest in, and the commercial cultivation of, a wider variety of fungi, developers can now consider the thick, yet tender stems of mushrooms such as the King Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus eryngii) as replacements for ingredients like sea scallops. Mushrooms also are being seasoned, dried, and smoked in a manner that maximizes their natural umami and gives them a texture similar to beef jerky. Smoked eggplant is being crafted to mimic cured meats for items such as pizzas. And slabs of sweet potato are being used instead of bread in avocado toast recipes.


Smooth Moves

Vegetable purées are inviting developers to use them as new thickening and flavoring options. While they are natural additions to soups, sauces, and baby food, they also are increasingly appearing in such products as beverages (think: “green” smoothies with spinach or kale). High-pectin vegetables like cauliflower offer excellent gluten- free thickening. And vibrant vegetable purées like those from beet or carrot can add a punch of natural color.

Squash and sweet potato purées are satisfying dairy substitutes in sauces as well, with some flavors lending dairy-like notes without the fat and calories of milk or cream. Of course, for the younger set there’s the new snack form — the squeeze pouch. Parents can find puréed vegetables combined with other vegetables, with fruit, or with yogurt.

There also are pudding-like snacks with unusual flavor combinations (such as beet and apple) that taste indulgent but pack healthful nutritional benefits. Parents get peace of mind knowing their kids are eating healthy snacks with easy cleanup.


Bite Size

Vegetables enjoy some of their greatest appeal when marrying indulgence with health. Veggie “tots” using sweet potato, broccoli, cauliflower, and butternut squash are recent veggie snack entries in the frozen aisle. They join breaded and fried treats made from cauliflower, peppers, green beans, asparagus, and even avocado. “Popper” shaped foods like cauliflower and broccoli florets, jalapeños, and mushrooms hold up well coated in breadcrumbs and fried.

More often these days, the coatings are gluten-free and/or whole grain products that burnish  the health halo of these fried treats. Seasoning packets and sauces can be added to packages for a final toss or dip in a flavorful ingredient. And not all are fried. Baked versions abound, allowing consumers craving these snacks to “have their vegetables and eat them too.”

Vegetables such as asparagus and green beans are popular as batter-dipped tempura-style treats. Avocados are reasonably new to further processing, but with their high omega oil content, they freeze well and can be sliced, battered, fried and frozen for reheating.

And speaking of breading, one new product launched recently is Think Better Foods LLC’s Vegify brand Veggie Crumbles. Made from beets, purple carrots, and orange carrots, they were developed to be a gluten free substitute for breadcrumbs or panko made from beets, purple carrots, and orange carrots, but consumers have been using them as a crunchy topper on everything from mac-‘n’-cheese to cottage cheese.

Fried root chips have been around for decades, but they’ve been joined recently by extruded and puffed veggie snacks and dried vegetable snack blends of crispy, crunchy beans, carrots, peas, and nuts. And firm roots and tubers such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, and jicama are being cut into batons and deep-fried as sit-ins for French fried potatoes.

Originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Dressing Up Veggies.