Walking through the seemingly endless aisles of the Plant Based World Expo at the Javits Center in New York City on September 8th was like entering Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but instead of sweets, the delectable foods and innovative products are all made of plant ingredients, designed to make it easier than ever to eat a more plant-based diet.

It's a wonder to see what you can do with chickpeas, lupini beans, cashews, and yellow pea protein. No longer are the offerings made largely of soybeans or seitan. Now you can drink milk made of hemp leaves or flax seeds, munch on burgers made of fungus (actually a cousin of mushrooms), and lick ice cream made from Italian lupini beans The most astounding thing about these healthier-for-you products is they taste exactly like, if not better than, the original.

Many of the hundreds of exhibitors who set up shop at the Javits center were showcasing innovations so new that many of the crispy vegan chickens or frothy non-dairy creamers are not even yet distributed in retail stores, but instead are either coming to America from places like Korea and Denmark or are first making their debut with food services in hotels, schools, and other large distribution food operations.

The third group of new products is from trusted companies you already know well, like Wicked Kitchen introducing ice cream or Abe's Vegan Muffins featuring a Minions-inspired new flavor, Myoko's Creamery showcasing cashew mozzarella, Strong Roots offering sweet potato tots, and Ripple debuting new pea milk flavors. In many cases, the game was one of yards and inches, not downs, but everyone is playing to win. And it was clear from the tasting that many of these new innovations are sure to become bestsellers in no time.

And then there are the clean, simple, unfancy, functional, refreshing drinks, such as the functional vitamin-infused water that has just the right amount of chlorophyll in it, from a company simply called Chlorophyll Water which simply sells vitamin-rich chlorophyll-infused water. I wanted to load up on a case since the last time I tried drinking chlorophyll in drops I got it all over my countertop and my hands and it stains!

Another delicious and healthful drink, especially after tasting many samples of fried chicken substitutes, was from Remedy, which makes a line of functional smoothies and health shots with everything your body needs to be healthy, from Spirulina to Matcha. I felt energized just from sipping these. I pocketed two shots for later and kept going.

The Next Big Thing in Plant-Based Products

First and foremost consumers want food that is more than nutritious, but that matches their core values, explained key-note speaker and food cerebral thinker Eve Turow-Paul, executive director of Food For Climate League. She explained how the plant-based world fits into consumers' larger yearnings for community, meaning, and purpose. "Most of the world has eaten a largely plant-based diet for hundreds of years," she explained. Only recently did we become more meat-centric.

The fastest growing group of vegan adopters are African Americans, she said, because of the concern for better health choices for themselves and their families. (As an aside, The Beet spoke to Mayor Eric Adams about his book, Healthy At Last, a look at the need for black Americans to change their diets to become healthier, after a long tradition of eating fried foods high in fat, sodium, and fast foods that are meat-centric and ultimately low in plant ingredients.)

Only about 1 percent of the global population is motivated to eat plant-based due to the climate, Turow-Paul adds, while the vast majority of people will do it for health, safety, or identity reasons.

Products That Are Healthy, Affordable and Shelf Stable

Still, the Plant Based World Expo was full of companies catering to both, the health-minded consumer and the ones eating for the planet, who have gained a new name: Climatarians, defined by the fact that they seek out foods and products that will lower their carbon footprint and get as close to carbon neutral as possible.

Since food accounts for one-third of all global greenhouse gases, we are now in a state of keen awareness, especially after the recent climate events that have seen drought, fires, floods, and heat waves across the western US and Europe, that consumers need to do everything we can to halt climate change.

Consumers hope to find purpose and meaning from the food choices they make at the supermarket, and striving to be healthier is the number one reason they will buy plant-based foods, says Turow-Paul. Other studies have shown that concern over climate change is a growing motivation among younger consumers, and more than half of younger consumers self-identify as "flexitarians," meaning they eat plant-based some or most of the time. Meanwhile, a recent study that found sales of plant-based food has grown 54 percent since 2018.

Because of this growing consumer awareness about plant-based diets being healthier and better for the environment, the demand for foods that are healthier and planet-friendly means plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy are elbowing their way onto shelves but affordability is still a factor when it comes to which products make it from shelf to checkout. "Food makers need to prioritize creating foods that are nutritious, affordable, and shelf-stable," Turow-Paul said. "The next big trend is making plant-based eating more affordable access to all," she told the expo exhibitors.

In this magical mystery tour of future foods, several trends emerged, including the fact that now yellow pea protein has competition from other ingredients that are full of protein and equally low in calories, fat or unwanted aftertaste.

So the first trend is the rising popularity of new protein sources to replace soy as the default protein of choice.

Those ingredients include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Lupini Beans
  • Myco protein
  • Quinoa
  • Spelt
  • Hemp
  • Flax

The second big trend is the diversity of products. Instead of meat-free patties and milk of every variety (which were all still there of course), the show featured almost every other type of product that could be characterized as traditional meat and dairy remade with ingredients you can grow, not raise.

There were more types of meat from bologna alternatives to crumbles to use in tacos and pasta sauce, as well as more new cream cheeses and buttery spreads, melted mozzarella and yogurts, puddings, and dips, all made soy0free and non-GMO. The bar gets higher every year as more products taste exactly like the real thing, thanks to companies investing in new technology, new ingredients, and better look, smell, mouthfeel, and general presentation.

The third major trend: Goodness, as in foods that are doing good for the planet and doing good for your body as well as those that are doing good for the people and communities that raise the plants. Many of the companies are B corps which means they are ethical in the way they harvest and produce the raw ingredients that make their way into your food package.

Another point of pride: Companies that tout their packages are either biodegradable or made from ocean plastic or carbon-neutral. With positive, upbeat, optimistic names like Good PLANeT (which sells plant-based allergen-free cheeses), "good" everything was on the label. The idea? Make you feel good about your consumer choice at the store.

This idea of feeling good about plant-based eating was also the main point made by Turow-Paul, who is also the author of Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and MeaningIf you are standing at the supermarket aisle and see one product that has no such proclamations and the same product that calls out on the label that it is giving back or planet-friendly, carbon neutral, or Fair Trade, then the consumer will choose that one, price notwithstanding, she said.

"We all are searching for meaning and purpose in our lives and there is no easier way to find it than by purchasing food and products that are food for our health or are sustainable," she explained. With food accounting for 30 percent of all global greenhouse gases, consumers are now aware that their choices matter. We want to shop in alignment without values and that means eating more plant-based" she said.

Your Favorite Foods Are Getting a Plant-Based Makeover

If meat-free burgers and milk from nuts were the first forays by food companies, the current trend is to fill in the gaps at the supermarket: Plant-based tuna made from chickpeas, seaweed, and soy, croissants made with dairy-free butter as well as quinoa and Spelt flour (which we couldn't taste so I can't tell you if they were light and fluffy as a croissant should be). There were all kinds of pasta made from chickpeas and one new and delicious ice cream made from lupini beans. One legume was the stars of the show: Chickpeas.

The trend that's still growing strong: New varieties of chicken alternatives on offer, from classic fillets to crispy nuggets, chicken tender, chicken sticks, chicken wings, and popcorn chicken, and not a bird was killed in the making. For one thing, these new chicken recipes are healthier for you but of course, since they don't involve the raising and slaughtering of birds in cruel and unhealthy circumstances you can feel good about eating Korean barbeque-style wings or meatless pork, both of which taste exactly like the real thing.

The other big trend was delicious, cheesy plant-based cheeses that are so real tasting and cheese-like that you could fool the most devoted pizza lover into believing that the mozzarella on his or her pie was from the Italian pizzeria on their corner. But actually, in the case of Myoko's Creamery, it's a cashew blend that melts up perfectly and tastes rich and creamy.

Vegan Pizza, Wings, and Comfort Foods

Another vegan pizza maker Blackbird Foods is now launching their own foray into both the wings world with classic buffalo and Korean bbq style sings that will be available in Target stores this fall, while their frozen pizzas offer the best selection of vegan pies you can find anywhere, from the Margarita to their Supreme or "Pepperoni" or BBQ sauce pie.

I lingered a bit longer than the required length of conversation and had to pull myself away from these samples, which were delicious. Both the BBQ pizza and the Korean-style wings tasted perfectly flavored and like chicken in texture. Add in the cheesy pizza and Blackbird would be welcome game-day fare at any party, for vegans or not!

Lupini Bean Ice Cream and Other Innovations

First, and perhaps the most fun stop along my journey into the future of plant-based food, was a stop at the booth manned by Chad Sarno, who with his brother Derek Sarno are the founders of both Good Catch and Wicked Kitchen (and that very morning they had announced that Wicked Kitchen was acquiring Good Catch in what turned out to be a family affair they were all pumped about).

Wicked Kitchen already makes dozens of SKUs of vegan entrees, including their go-to quick meal of instant noodles for nights when you just can't get it together to shop and cook. But they were celebrating their next big push into plant-based ice cream, which tastes as rich and creamy as the favorite ice creams you grew up with, but these bars and pints are made with lupini beans and full of clean protein.

The MVP ingredient: The Mighty Chickpea

Chickpeas showed up in all sorts of new and exciting ways, such as milk (from Yofiit, a company founded on the idea that we need to feed our kids healthier options). Chickpeas had replaced plain peas as one of the most popular "first ingredient" on the label, including in muffins and other unexpected places.

The other fun surprise was the Myco technology presence, which is a raw ingredient made from fungus (yucky word, so think mushroom cousin) that can be made into any number of textures and tastes from burgers to cream cheese.

Still another unexpected surprise was to see the Minions gracing the latest flavor of Abe's Vegan Muffins, which is Banana Chip. Of all the kids' snacks in the world, Mignons chose Abes to partner with during the promotion for the latest movie, Minions: The Rise of Gru.

On an alarming note, the war in Ukraine is impacting the supply chain, not just of wheat or oil, but also of sunflower oil for foods, and Sam Dennigan, the founder and CEO of Strong Roots, made it clear that food makers of the world over are watching this closely. "We are all trying to figure out healthy and affordable alternatives as the main supply of sunflower oil has dried up," he explained. The company has shifted its production stateside, but for many other food manufacturers, buying plants overseas is more affordable, and they are watching the global economy, including currency rates and the price of commodities.

As Eve Turow-Paul explained in her keynote: Consumers want to do the right thing, but plant-based foods have to be tasty, affordable, and accessible. Once the plant-based food industry achieves all three, then consumers will have no reason not to choose plant-based over their traditional choices. If the Plant Based World Expo is any indication, we just got one big step closer.

For new product recommendations, check out The Beet's plant-based product reviews

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