As far as delicious-sounding foods go, "unflavoured texturized vegetable protein" (or TVP) probably won't set many mouths to watering. And yet the soy-crumble-cum-ground-meat-replacement helped build a Richmond, B.C.-based food empire. In 1997, Happy Veggie World began selling vegan and vegetarian foods to the local Buddhist community – back when mock meats were a novelty in Canada, it was a niche company selling tofu, bean curd and TVP to a niche market.
By the time David Son and his business partner took the company over in 2014, the meatless market had significantly changed. Like most Westerners, Canadians have been driven by health, environmental and budgetary concerns to eat less and less red meat: Since 1999, we've reduced our pork intake by 31 per cent and our beef consumption by 19 per cent. At the same time, the market for convenience foods has exploded and, Son says, "Vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives have come such a long way in terms of flavour and texture."
Seeing a market opening, the duo shifted focus from base ingredients to heat-and-serve meals combining international flavours with their mock chicken, beef and pork. "Once we nailed the recipes we started sampling them at all sorts of events and once the public was able to try them, they were usually blown away by just how good they were, even the people who weren't vegans or vegetarians," Son says. Business took off, and Happy Veggie World has seen revenue growth of 2,000 per cent in the past year.
No longer second-class food for people who refuse to eat the real stuff, faux meats have become, well, a cash cow. According to an August report by U.S. firm MarketsandMarkets, the global meat-substitutes market – everything from tofu and tempeh to veggie dogs and Tofurky – was worth $3.9-billion (U.S.) in 2014 and is projected to grow beyond $5-billion by 2020.
Closer to home, British Columbia-based Yves Veggie Cuisine, which claims 52.9 per cent of the meat-alternatives market in major Canadian grocery stores, saw 18-per-cent brand growth in dollars in 2015, according to its Toronto parent company, Hain Celestial. Even Schneider's, a Maple Leaf Foods brand known for its real meat, produces Oh Naturel!, a line that includes meatless (though not vegan) Chick'n Nuggets and meatballs.
Ironically, some vegetarians and vegans look down on imitation animal products, whether for health reasons – they are highly processed, after all – or because they prefer to avoid meat-like foods entirely. It's not full-time herbivores driving this growth, but omnivores looking for new "plant-based proteins," as mock meats have been rebranded. A study by global research company Mintel found that of the 36 per cent of Americans who bought meat substitutes, only 7 per cent identified as vegetarian.
This is echoed by Jennifer Bundock, owner of downtown Toronto vegan pizzeria and snack bar Apiecalypse Now, who has noted an increasing diversity in her clientele beyond the strict vegans who might once have been her only customers.
"It's been a triumph for us that we're able to stay as busy as we are," says Bundock, whose menu offers, for example, a "pepperphony" pizza, which sees imitation pepperoni layered underneath jack and mozzarella soy cheese. "We're probably getting more people through the door who aren't veg than people who are."
Some of her regulars are meat-eaters who prefer her pizza because it's less greasy than the standard. She also gets walk-ins attracted by the display of doughnuts who don't notice they're in a vegan restaurant until after they order their slice.
Vancouver dietitian Vesanto Melina says that once people decide to cut back on meat, they go in search of a convenient, filling, concentrated protein source with a blood-sugar-levelling effect – and meat replacements based on soy and wheat gluten fit the bill. The co-author of Becoming Vegan makes a case for incorporating mock meats as part of a varied diet – not only are they convenient, she adds, but they can be used to, say, make vegetarian teenagers feel they fit in better during a barbecue or make a meatless shepherd's pie to please vegetarian-skeptic family members.
Melina also points out that while mock meats are processed, so is the animal protein on our menus. "You don't go up and bite a cow," she points out. "After it's slaughtered, it's made into something that's a human-friendly form to eat."
Bundock says her diners want alternatives for a variety of reasons – including religion, whether it's keeping kosher or enjoying a Hawaiian-style slice not actually made from pigs; allergies (some people are allergic to animal protein); and reducing, but not eliminating, meat from their diets – but often still want to eat foods that are familiar to them.
Which is where Happy Veggie World comes in, with its bestselling chunks of Ginger Chick'n (so spelled to comply with Canadian Food Inspection Agency labelling requirements) and citrus spare ribs – both sold frozen, ready to heat and serve, with the sauce already included. Unlike a block of plain tofu, or a bag of unflavoured TVP, there's no learning curve before a customer can eat.
"We're not trying to convert anybody to become a vegan, but we want people to understand there are alternatives out there," Son says. The company is working to expand its offerings even further beyond the Asian and vegetarian markets. It has just introduced an imitation lamb product, and is planning to roll out a faux-chicken masala. "People are always shocked – they eat [our products] and they're like, wait a minute, this isn't meat? That's what sells them."
IKEA tries a vegan alternative to its much-loved Swedish meatball
Once you figure out how to pronounce gronsaksbullar (groants-ask-boolar), it's kind of funny in a sophomoric way. But as part of IKEA's mandate for a more sustainable and responsible business model, the vegan version of the company's much-loved Swedish meatball is perfectly serious. Made from non-GMO vegetables and chickpeas, and free of gluten, dairy or eggs, the dish has just one-30th the carbon footprint of its meaty cousin.
The retail giant's theme for 2016 is "It starts with the food." IKEA now serves sustainable salmon and recycles all of its paper waste into napkins (and toilet tissue) for the restaurants. Gronsaksbullar is just one of the ways IKEA plans on being a better corporate citizen in 2016 – as well as a more profitable one. Since the arrival of the veggie meatball last April, Canadian stores have seen an uptick in shoppers visiting exclusively to dine on a relatively inexpensive, family-friendly, nutritious meal that checks a bunch of the right dietary, religious and ethical boxes.
With an astounding 800 million worldwide visitors and Canadian sales of $1.795-billion in 2015, there's plenty at stake for both IKEA and everyone else.
Signe Langford for The Globe and Mail