NAPA, CALIF. — Plant-forward eating is one of the most significant mega-trends underway in America and global foodservice, according to speakers at the Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit hosted by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa Valley, Calif., April 18-20, 2023. The trend is changing how chefs think about menus, flavor development, ingredients, creativity and their customers.

Such trends most often are created in restaurants, but then transition to retail quickly, said Christos Dinopoulos, vice president, managing director, Unilever Food Solutions North America, New York, who discussed Unilever’s global menu trends for 2023. One of them is “irresistible vegetables” taking center stage as decadent, indulgent plant-based dishes.  

Rupa Bhattacharya, executive director, strategic initiatives group, CIA, New York, said, “It’s about fundamentally prioritizing produce.”

When whole vegetables are the focal point of a dish, there’s opportunity to introduce new textures, contrasting flavors and unexpected combinations. Vegetables may be showcased as feel-good foods that have hints of being wild, pure and seasonal.

“Plant forward is the way forward,” said Ixta Belfrage, a United Kingdom-based cookbook author who spoke at the event. “Make plants the star of the dish in order to eat less animal products.”

She said combining vegetables in different forms like roasted and fresh cabbage or roasted and pickled celeriac in the same dish is one of her favorite techniques to create interest for a center stage role in a vegetable-forward meal. The layered combinations bring out the dynamic flavors in vegetables that inherently have subtle flavor. One of her favorite vegetable marinades is lemon, lime and tangerine. The citrus combination “lets the vegetables speak for themselves,” she said.

No one can argue that most of us should be eating more vegetables, as only 1 in 10 adults eat the recommended daily serving of vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. That’s why the most chefs speaking during their culinary demonstrations focused on the use of “whole vegetables,” sometimes with a little bit of animal as a garnish or cooking aid. For example, crumbled bacon or a butter sauté. The consensus was most vegetables taste better with a sprinkling of cheese.  

Flexitarian entrees do not have to be complex, but they should be focused. That focus is on the main ingredient: the vegetable.

Keisha Griggs, executive chef with Ate Kitchen, Houston, focused on Caribbean cuisine and shared with attendees one of her favorite meat alternatives: jackfruit. The tropical tree fruit grows in Asia, Africa and South America and belongs to the same plant family as figs.

The unripe jackfruit’s claim to fame is its ability to imitate pulled pork and chicken, as it has a stringy texture and neutral flavor. Unlike animal sources of protein, jackfruit contains no saturated fats or cholesterol. It is much lower in protein than meat, includes potassium, fiber and antioxidants.

Jack & Annie's plant-based chicken productsJack & Annie’s, Boulder, Colo., has introduced three frozen meat alternatives formulated with jackfruit. Source: Jack & Annie's

Like Mr. Dinopoulos said, what gets created out of home finds its way to in-home quickly. For example, food manufacturer Jack & Annie’s, Boulder, Colo., has three new frozen foods formulated with jackfruit: crispy jack patties, Buffalo jack patties and crispy gluten-free jack tenders.

“By using jackfruit as our No. 1 ingredient, we’re able to make foods that not only satisfy like meat, but that also are a good source of fiber and protein, lower in fat and calories than meat products, and simpler and less processed compared to other meat alternatives,” said Annie Ryu, founder and chief executive officer. “Jackfruit has a naturally meaty texture, and also picks up flavors well, allowing for a versatile and delicious tasting experience.”

David Orr Gaucher, co-founder and co-chief executive officer, Wholly Veggie, Toronto, wants to “make it fun to eat your veggies with snacks and entrees that you can prep and eat in 15 minutes.”

The company uses full cauliflower florets to formulate its wings. They are coated in a panko crust and paired with either Buffalo or ranch sauce.

Artichokes and mushrooms, both hearty vegetables that can withstand the rigors of commercial manufacturing, packaging and distribution, are being used as the key ingredients in several prepared packaged foods. Cutting Vedge from World Finer Foods, Bloomfield, NJ, offers patties, balls, sausage and ground all based on artichokes.

“Artichokes star as the lead ingredient, supported by nutritious spinach, quinoa and bean protein,” said Robert Levy, regional sales manager. “There are no fillers here. Veggies are the center of your plate.”

Fable Food, an Australian startup that now sells its namesake products in the United States, has shiitake mushrooms as the No. 1 ingredient. Other key ingredients are coconut oil, soy protein isolate and tapioca flour.