COLUMN: Is There a New Vanguard of Plant-Based Companies?

CHICAGO – It’s no secret that the plant-based sector has seen its fair share of turbulence the past few years, but some products on display at the 2024 National Restaurant Association Show may buck these current trends.

As a one-time vegetarian and now a full-time flexitarian, I think health concerns played a part in the recent decline of plant-based. Fair or not, many plant-based meat, chicken, and seafood analogues have been accused of being ultra-processed and many consumers are fading away from these types of foods.

There is a second (and maybe more obvious) issue, however: taste. While vegetarians and vegans have an ethical reason to quit eating meat and dairy products, taste remains king for most flexitarians (and vegetarians and vegans, too, when you think about it).

Five of my favorite plant-based products I had a chance to try at the 2024 National Restaurant Association show are below; they are presented in no particular order.

Daiya’s Vegan Pepperoni Pizza

Daiya is no stranger to the plant-based space; the company was founded in 2008 but in December 2023 reformulated its product utilizing fermentation technology.

According to my personal taste, the product was much better than the versions I had in prior years. The alt-cheese had similar attributes to real cheese – it pulled, melted, and tasted similar, and the Beyond Meat topping was the proverbial icing on the cake.

Rebellyous Foods Alt-Chicken Products

Rebellyous Foods, an alt-chicken maker and the brainchild of former aerospace engineer Christie Lagally, had its plant-based chicken nugget products on display at the conference.

I was able to try two preparations: one as a plant-based chicken parmesan and one as a plant-based chicken and waffle. The company’s plant-based chicken nuggets both tasted very good and showcased how to elevate something as simple as a nugget into something a bit more gourmet.

Prime Roots Deli Products

Prime Roots is a koji mushroom-based plant-based deli provider, and its booth featured a Tesla Cybertruck with a modified trunk to fit a deli-style case.

I had previously spoken with founder Kimberlie Li on The Food Institute Podcast and had a chance to catch up with her at the show. I sampled a variety of plant-based pate and deli meat products and found them all to be quite enjoyable.

Boldly Foods Plant-Based Tuna

I stopped by the Boldly Foods booth to learn a bit more about the company and found that it had an ethical mission to help end the climate crisis through the development of plant-based seafood products.

I had the opportunity to taste the company’s Boldly Tuna. I was pretty impressed with the texture, color, and taste. It felt like eating a sushi-style preparation of the food.

The Plant-It Food Co.

Utilizing seaweed, this Ireland-based company furnished me a plant-based crab cake and a plant-based fish stick. The seaweed gave each product a distinct seafood-like flavor which I really appreciated.

The company also makes other plant-based products, including buddha bowls, Thai yellow curry, and loaded fries, but I didn’t get a chance to sample them. I’ll be keeping an eye out for my opportunity to do so, though.

FI’s May 2024 Industry Report unpacks the future of plant-forward foods, including the growth of non-dairy dairy, mushrooms & fungi, and the evolving landscape of plant-based meat alternatives. This report is included in FI’s Corporate, Professional, and E-member packages and is also available for individual purchase. Get the Report

The Food Institute Podcast

How are foodservice consumers contending with persistent inflation? Are they eating more at home, for example, or continuing to treat themselves at their favorite restaurants? The latest episode of The Food Institute Podcast examines that topic with Krystle Mobayeni of BentoBox, who dissected rapidly evolving consumer dining dynamics.