KANSAS CITY - Partnerships are creating the catalyst for vegan products that fulfill nutritional and environmental needs while also providing comfort and enjoyment. 

Once a niche demographic, the demand for vegan products continues to grow as consumers shift their focus to foods benefitting diet and lifestyle. Valued at $14.2 billion in 2018, the vegan food market is expected to reach $31.4 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR of 10.5% from 2019-2026, according to Allied Market Research. 

In the last five years, roughly 5.6% of all new products launched in bakery sweet goods carry a vegan/vegetarian claim. However, of those products, there were few where vegan was the prominent claim made on the package and not since 2018 where it peaked, with almost 50 launches that year with vegan/vegetarian claims, according to research shared by Corbion, Lenexa, Kan.  

Today’s plant-based consumers are also foodies and 69% regularly seek out new products to try, according to IFT Top Food Trends of 2021. A natural offshoot of all-natural and clean label eating, vegan checks many boxes – encompassing personal health and lifestyle ambitions, nutritional benefits, animal and planet wellbeing, environmental concerns and sustainability. 

For Abe’s The Vegan Muffin, the original impetus for vegan was personal. Co-founders Joby and Marty Koffman sought to create an allergen-free muffin that could be enjoyed by their son and nephew who was born lactose intolerant and anaphylactic to nuts, peanuts, eggs, sesame, soy and seeds. The West Nyack, NY-based producer of muffins, brownies and cakes originally chose a dairy-free callout but soon realized other families in search of allergen-free bakery items looked for a vegan callout, a code word for no eggs and no dairy.  

“People have begun to identify plant-based foods as comfort foods and vegan doesn’t have to exist with the negative connotations,” said Marty Koffman. “We’ve seen a huge play with online and e-commerce from those looking for better-for-you foods offered online.”  

For a growing number of consumers, vegan is becoming a serendipitous path leading to delicious and indulgent sweet goods both better for you and free from particular ingredients. When Just Desserts, Fairfield, Calif., became a nut-free bakery it learned that many consumers were also looking for products free from dairy and eggs. Today, the producer of vegan hand-crafted cakes, cupcakes and mini cakes finds being plant based and free of the other major allergens is increasing the appeal of its offerings.   

“We recognize that a broad demographic finds the appeal of a plant-based diet while a smaller sub-group is focused on a more rigorous perspective and particularly value the vegan certification,” said Michael Mendes, CEO and managing partner of Just Desserts. 

Agents of change 

As vegan products move from niche to mainstream, the movement is strengthened by Millennials and Gen Z who prioritize better nutrition and more accountability from the foods they eat and the businesses they patronize.  

Witnessing these consumer attitudes and increased interest in vegan and plant-based foods, Délifrance looked to innovate and adapt to the evolving needs of its customers and their consumers. The top-volume exporter of frozen baked goods in the United States, imported by Overseas Food Trading, Fort Lee, NJ, offers vegan croissants made with spelt and quinoa and its newly launched Vegan Baskets, a savory vegan puff pastry that’s free from palm oil and additives.  

“Even consumers who aren’t vegan are opting to flex their diet as part of their health and wellness focus,” said Aurelie Negrier, international business development manager of Paris-based Délifrance. “Plant based is synonymous with this and is impacting our attitudes to good-for-you products.” 

A survey from FMCG Gurus, a UK-based market research company, found 46% of North American consumers say they will be more attentive to sustainability claims after COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic, when many traditional products in the grocery store were out of stock, some consumers took a chance on plant-based alternatives, with many finding themselves pleasantly surprised, according to Sarah Hickey, senior director of insights and market research at Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich. 

In a study conducted with Datassentials, Dawn Foods found that 86% of consumers who tried a plant-based food during COVID would like to continue using this alternative after traditional products became available. Lack of product availability during the lockdowns also placed a spotlight on the ability of natural resources to replenish themselves with reduced human interference. This resulted in growing optimism that some elements of damage done to the environment can be reversible, Hickey continued.  

“Plant-based items generally have less impact on the environment,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, IDDBA, Madison, Wis. “This measure of sustainability is important to many generations, especially younger consumers who are driving this, but lots of savvy shoppers are doing their homework.”  

Repeat performance 

After clearing the hurdles of all-natural and clean label, vegan processors must successfully formulate without the key ingredients of eggs and dairy. One of the biggest challenges is egg replacement, which plays a critical role in helping to maintain moistness through shelf life, providing aeration, emulsification and structure and influencing color and flavor.  

Certain baked goods – cakes and batters, in particular – tend to face additional challenges because they specifically rely on eggs to provide volume, resilience and emulsification viscosity, shared Kathy Sargent, global innovation director, Corbion.  

“Goods that already have a moist or creamy texture work best as the changes in proteins are less noticeable,” she said. “Additionally, some egg replacers may contain allergens like gluten or dairy, so bakers should consider the needs of their consumers when replacing eggs in their formulations for vegan products.”  

Cargill offers several plant-based ingredients to replicate eggs’ functional role in the form of starches, pea protein, soy flour and plant-sourced lecithins. These ingredients help fill in the functional gaps but will likely need to be used in combination with other ingredients such as enzymes to extend shelf life, according to Allison Leibovich, technical innovation advisor, Cargill, Minneapolis. 

Starches, especially nOSA and other modified starches, contribute to dough rheology, shelf life, crumb structure, batter viscosity, set structure and freeze/thaw stability. Pea protein provides good emulsification and binding properties and also offers nutritional benefits in the form of protein fortification, and plant-based lecithins aid in emulsification and pan release, promote even mixing and facilitate ingredient distribution.  

Knowing customers have expectations around sensory attributes like texture and flavor, Leibovich recommended experimenting with varying combinations of ingredients and formulating new-to-the-world vegan products rather than trying to transform a classic formulation into a vegan offering.  

“Cookies are good candidates for vegan formulation, as eggs are less critical to the finished product,” Leibovich said. “However, creating vegan friendly versions of cakes and muffins is much harder. In these applications, eggs contribute to aeration and structure, key functional roles that are more difficult to replicate with other ingredients.” 

Another challenge comes with replacing dairy and fat. Looking to produce a product of equal quality to its traditional products, Délifrance bakers are replicating the taste and texture of classic croissants using alternative fats like shea butter while retaining traditional baking methods. The vegan raw cake produced by Nats Rawline, Liege, Belgium, another import from Overseas Food Trading, consists of mostly raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.  

“Vegans do not want to feel like an afterthought,” Negrier said. “Taste is paramount, and we use our French expertise to create indulgent moments that still pack flavor.”  

Dispelling misconceptions 

By using exceptional quality plant-based ingredients, Just Desserts is dispelling the myth that consumers must compromise if they buy vegan. To further bolster this, the company prominently features plant-based on its label and uses graphics to reinforce framing of the product. 

“We see the use of these exceptional quality plant-based ingredients as offering a consumer benefit, rather than focusing on what’s excluded from the product,” Mendes continued. “While the message is nuanced, we believe it is resonating and we are delivering the product experience that’s driving repeat purchases.”  

Noticing many bakeries struggling to understand what ingredients are and are not vegan, Dawn Foods launched a complete vegan portfolio including donut mixes, crème cake and brownie mixes and filling, icing, glazes and toppings and inclusions free from milk, eggs, honey and gelatin – all compliant with FDA’s definition of vegan. The company also recently partnered with the Vegan Awareness Foundation to place the Certified Vegan seal on its Vegan Vanilla Crème cake mix. 

To help bakers make an easier switch to non-animal-based ingredients and maintain a bakery that’s 100% vegan, Dawn Foods recommends bakers regularly clean and sanitize surfaces, tools and machinery, fry in vegetable-based oils and use vegan icing, glazes, fillings and toppings. Other tips include keeping vegan baked goods in the oven for a couple of extra minutes to reduce the risk of collapsing while cooling.  

The company is also in the process of developing an assortment tool for its instore bakery customers. Available in late summer 2021, the tool will help bakers understand the right combination of products to offer including vegan sweet goods. 

Give and take  

Now and in the future, the building of partnerships between suppliers and processors along with a listening ear for consumers purchasing vegan products will continue to strengthen the vegan category – using collective efforts to meet calls for nutrition, sustainability and enhanced education in one delicious package. 

“Simple things make life easier and more enjoyable,” Koffman said. “In the future, the vegan category will become truly clean label and all-natural. There are 62 million Americans with allergies or food sensitivities and 59% of Americans who are buying plant-based products. Consumers throughout the country want to make sense of how they can get their families to eat well.”