‘Future is unlimited’ for plant-based food

Today’s young people are described as adventurous and quality driven who tend to buy food they consider healthy and sustainable

Ken Toong has first-hand experience with the consumer of the future and says it bodes well for plant-based foods.

Toong is executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It is the largest campus dining operation in the United States, serving 50,000 meals daily to 22,000 students on meal plans.

The students are part of the Generation Z demographic, which is the largest demographic in the world, comprising about 30 percent of the United States population.

They are an adventurous, quality driven group that tends to buy healthy and sustainable food, including plant-based products.

Ten years ago, Auxiliary Enterprises had about 10 plant-based items on its menu. Today it has about 120.

There are more plant-based products on the menu than chicken, seafood, pork or beef products.

“This is what they want,” Toong told delegates attending the Canadian Special Crops Association’s virtual annual conference.

Not too long ago, Auxiliary Enterprises used to focus on sourcing food locally because students were concerned about food miles.

Today’s student is more focused on ethical dining, which means eating products that use less water and chemicals, that adhere to animal welfare practices and that ensure workers are paid fair wages.

“The students really want us to do the right thing,” said Toong.

“They don’t mind to pay more if we do the right thing.”

He believes the “future is unlimited” for plant-based foods as the students transition from being influencers to consumers.

Paul Wong, chief innovation officer with Daiya Foods, a Vancouver firm that makes plant-based cheese, yogurt, pizza and pasta, said about 60 percent of the population wants to try plant-based products.

So in addition to focusing on ethics and values and health, there is one other key to success.

“You have one chance to convert these customers. The product has to taste good or they’re going to be turned off and are not going to try it again,” he said.

Andrea Pierce-Ghafoor, marketing director for Summer Fresh, a Canadian firm that makes hummus, dips, salads and snacks, said there is no doubt that the future is bright for pulses.

“Consumers just literally can’t get enough of hummus,” she said.

Demand for the product exploded during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when people were forced to dine at home.

“At one point I think I said, ‘are they bathing in it? Like, what are they doing with it?’ We just can’t produce enough hummus for the demand,” said Pierce-Ghafoor.

She would like to see the federal government establish something along the lines of a milk marketing board to help promote plant-based foods.

Pierce-Ghafoor also noted that while it was encouraging that the latest Canada’s Food Guide promoted pulse consumption and other sustainable foods, the government appears to have “stepped back” following a backlash of criticism of the guide from other food groups.

Chris Shields, vice-president of manufacturing with Lovingly Made Ingredients, said the Canadian government needs to provide more funding to fuel the explosive growth in plant-based foods.

“I know that certainly Canada wants to be at the forefront and the No. 1 place for plant protein, but the (funding) of it isn’t probably quite keeping pace with the industry,” he said.

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