By Alicia Hückmann, intern visiting from Germany
Thanks to this year’s Natural Products Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center, I was able to discover some amazing brands and products that I had never seen or paid attention to at grocery stores before. Tofurky was the only US brand for meat alternatives that I had tried before and heard of, so this event was a fantastic opportunity to broaden my horizon. Some of the products that I was very impressed with include:
1. Sweet Earth Naturals – Hickory & Sage Benevolent Bacon
When I opened the package at home, I was actually undecided about whether to fry the strips or throw them out right away. As I actually liked the smell, I decided to give them a try anyway. The best decision I made that day! After no more than two minutes, the stripes’ color had changed to dark red and their texture had become more firm, crispy even. Needless to say, they tasted absolutely heavenly. The combination of spices tasted as good as it smelled and completely blended with the mock meat during the frying process.
2. Vegetarian Plus – Vegan Black Pepper Steak
Of all products at the Vegetarian Plus Booth, this was by far my favorite (as well as a personal Products Expo highlight). Covered in mouthwatering thick, shiny black pepper sauce, this meat alternative looks just as delicious as it tastes. Its texture is close to perfection as it is chewy, yet soft enough to be easily enjoyed. Although it is made from soy, it is virtually impossible to guess because the spiciness of the sauce cover up the soy’s signature taste very well. The food is easily prepared as it only need to be heated up.
3. Hilary’s – Root Veggie Burger
Although (or rather because) this product does not even try to imitate meat taste-wise or appearance-wise, it has become one of my favorite meat alternatives. While it is conveniently shaped and can be used like a meat pattie, it uses plants to create an original flavor rather than reproduce an already existing one. Its texture is extremely soft and fluffy, which is, however, also a little bit of a disadvantage as it tends to fall apart relatively easily. Hilary’s uses natural, organic ingredients for their burgers and is free from common allergens.
4. Jackfruit products – The Jackfruit Company and Edward and Sons
I had never heard of jackfruit before coming to the USA so I was a little skeptical when I was offered samples of a meat alternative made from fruit at the expo. I am glad I tried it anyway! Considering the fact that the cans of jackfruit contained very few ingredients besides the fruit itself, I was even more surprised how tough the texture and how savory the taste was. Jackfruit meat substitutes were some of the products whose taste came less close to that of animal meat compared to others. The reason why I enjoyed them as much as I did, however, was the fact that they had a very unique flavor that blended perfectly with added spices and sauces.
5. Beer Brats – Tofurky
Back in the days when I still ate meat, I used to be a passionate lover of German sausages. In fact, I still remember exactly what they taste like even after not having had any in more than two years. When I first came across Tofurky’s Beer Brats a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrow at the idea of an American vegan brand attempting to imitate German sausages. But after witnessing how they did not only look but also almost exactly tasted like the Bratwursts I grew up with after frying them in a pan, I entirely changed my mind about this product. Who would have thought I would find my favorite vegan version of a German dish in the US? It is amazing what a good recipe and a few spices can do!
In my opinion, meat alternatives in America are generally better at imitating meat products. The foods I tried at the expo were astonishingly similar tasting. Apparently, many Americans attach great importance to alternatives being very similar to meat products that they grew up with or were used to eating as non-vegetarians. This would explain why Vegetarian Plus sells vegan whole turkeys for example.
Needless to say, I merely managed to get a glimpse of the US market for meat analogues during the three months of my stay but this is a rather striking tendency I noticed. Products like Hilary’s burgers remained more of an exception. During my two meatless years in Germany, on the other hand, I observed that the market there is a little more diverse. While some products willingly imitate the shape and texture of meat (like fake Schnitzel, sausages, cold cuts, and patties), this is mainly due to the fact that these shapes are very convenient when it comes to frying, grilling, and preparing food. In regard to taste, many products work with their original soy, seitan, or tofu base’s flavor rather than trying to cover it up entirely. The companies selling products that do are often part of the meat industry and either imitate their own products (like Rügenwalder Mühle) or traditional products popular among meat eaters that claim to taste like the original.
I see three different gaps on the German market for meat alternatives:
1. Meat alternatives that come close enough to animal meat to confuse a regular meat eater
Products that might have a chance to fill this particular gap include those by Sweet Earth Naturals, Vegetarian Plus, and Tofurky. All genuinely German brands I have tried so far either didn’t taste like meat at all or contained many artificial and fatty ingredients.
As I mentioned before, Jackfruit is hardly known in Germany. Although I read a few articles by German bloggers about it, I haven’t seen any Jackfruit products in supermarkets so far. This might be the perfect time for Jackfruit producers to claim the market before European brands catch up with the trend.
3. Vegetable and grain based alternatives
While the German market does certainly not need any more average tofu, tempeh, and seitan products, meat alternatives made from vegetables and superfood like quinoa is definitely a rarity on supermarket shelves. I can imagine that they might even be more appealing to occasional meat eaters and vegetarians alike. As they do not even try to compete with the taste of animal meat, they can create unique flavors that cannot be found anywhere in the traditional omnivore cuisine but are exclusive to the vegetarian one.