Occasionally here at CleanTechnica, we receive opportunities to test and review products. I tend to find this a bit awkward — how can a writer describe a book or e-bike or food item honestly after having it arrive at your door gratis, via a company’s press agency? That was my recent dilemma when I had the opportunity to review several plant-based food items. To be as fair as possible, I decided to conduct a comparison taste test of these and items purchased at my local grocer to see which of several comparable selections held up. So I put on my Restaurant Reviewer’s hat and did a side-by-side taste test of products from Healthy Choice, Tattooed Chef, and Wholly Veggie. Check out the results.
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Background: Why plant-based? Production of animal-based proteins has many limitations — environmental degradation, animal welfare, cultural considerations, and health constraints. The replacement of meat by alternative ingredients is fast becoming a norm in many countries around the world, with the numbers and varieties of alternative meat products expanding annually. Responding to the devastating climate crisis, many companies are working to reduce the significant climate footprint of the animal-farmed meat industry by innovating ways to move to plant-based products. Today’s food entrepreneurs are learning to draw upon an extraordinary mélange of language, history, and food to appeal to flexitarians and others who have become intrigued by meatless meals.
Who is the audience for plant-based foods? In the last 2 years, a whole new series of plant-based foods has captured the interest and taste buds of consumers. The result of intensive food engineering and culinary expertise, these foods are making headlines. US grocery shoppers are reducing their meat and dairy consumption. Flexitarians — people who are eating less and less meat and dairy than ever before — represent the largest growth opportunity for the plant-based food market share.
What items tend to be staples in plant-based food selections? Cauliflower is a common foundation of popular plant-based recipes. One cup of cauliflower contains about one-sixth the amount of carbohydrates in a cup of cooked pasta. The versatility of cauliflower means it can be mashed and buttered like potatoes, sautéed in spices for a curry, or tossed in buffalo sauce and fried to make meatless chicken wings. Rice and beans in combination have long been known to create a complete protein. To make a front-of-package claim, protein must be calculated as a complete protein. Chickpeas are becoming an increasingly prevalent ingredient in protein alternatives — just half a cup of cooked chickpeas contains the equivalent of 15% of the average daily recommended value. They also have naturally low levels of saturated fats and high fiber content. Unlike some beans, which offer comparable nutritional value, chickpeas lack the “earthy” texture common in many beans, making them an increasingly popular source of protein among consumers.
The Plant-Based Contestants — The Taste-Off
Plant-Based Burrito Bowl, Tattooed Chef:
- Company description: “Cilantro rice mixed with riced cauliflower, plant-based beef, roasted corn and black beans tossed in a jalapeno cream.”
- Taste test review: The aesthetics of this presentation were excellent: different items were separated and distinguishable by texture and color. It could’ve been delivered from the line of a restaurant. The jalapeno cream sauce that poured out after heating, however, was way too spicy. In my own food service experience, it’s always best to under spice and offer condiments for optional use on the side.
Unwrapped Burrito Bowl, Healthy Choice:
- Company description: “Organic black and pinto beans kick off this Mexican-inspired masterpiece. Toss in sweet red bell peppers, scallions and organic whole grain brown rice. Then kick it up a notch with fire roasted corn and spicy tomatillo sauce.”
- Taste test review: While I continue to be baffled about why anyone needs to buy a prepared burrito bowl — it’s so easy to make oneself — this item was fine, a little bland, unmemorable. It was vegan and used brown rather than white rice, both a plus.
Mozzarella-Style Sticks, Wholly Veggie:
- Company description: “Perfectly good veggies were rescued to create our crispy crust. It’s called upcycling. Your mouth tastes cheesy, gooey goodness, your body gets veggies.”
- Taste test review: OMG! If you’ve craved gooey, hot and steamy “cheese” oozing out of a light but sturdy crust, this is the item for you! My family fought over seconds. This item closely resembles mozz sticks that you’d order as a restaurant appetizer — without the guilt of animal agriculture. Yum, yum.
Cauliflower Mac & Cheese Bowl, Tattooed Chef:
- Company description: “Creamy cheddar cheese sauce over cauliflower florets topped with panko breadcrumbs.”
- Taste test review: This was a bland dish that tasted a whole lot more like cauliflower than it did mac & cheese… and it was vegetarian, not vegan, so I sorta fail to understand how cauliflower would accentuate cow cheese except as a substitute for white pasta.
Coconut Cauliflower Veggie-Full Meal, Wholly Veggie:
- Company description: “A delicious and nutritious blend of cauliflower florets, black beans, red lentils, green peas, quinoa, and carrots, delicately coated in a ginger coconut milk sauce.”
- Taste test review: This dish was fine, a little underwhelming in flavor considering its array of ingredients. Then again, it has quinoa, which unlike some plant proteins, is a complete protein — it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. So the veggie-full meal was a solid choice that I would purchase one day.
Buffalo Cauliflower Wings, Wholly Veggie:
- Company description: “Full cauliflower florets, lightly coated in a crunchy panko crust. Our gluten free, panko coating gives our cauliflower a unique, crunchy bite. Paired with our outrageously popular Buffalo Sauce.”
- Taste test review: Buffalo Wings is an item I’ve missed when I returned to being a lacto-ovo vegetarian after a brief period of eating free range chicken. These buffalo cauliflower wings definitely held their own, with nice texture and taste of the wings. I found the separate buffalo sauce packet to be a bit spicy, but liked the wings just fine without them.
Sweet Potato Popcorn, Wholly Veggie:
- Company description: “We asked sweet potatoes what they wanted to be when they grew up. They said ‘popcorn’.”
- Taste test review: While the name “popcorn” seems to refer more to the small shape than actual popped popcorn kernels, this item was quite tasty. The sweet potato filling was only lightly processed, bright orange in color, and retained much of the original sweet potato texture. The chickpea crumb coating baked nicely (many non-Wholly Veggie items were only recommended as microwave items) and presented with a light toasting. The mandarin orange sauce, in its separate packaging, was sweet without being cloying. Another thumbs-up yum!
The Winner — By A Whole Lot
Wholly Veggie. Its plant-based selections were the least processed, highest protein, and best tasting, to the point that 3 out of 4 items closely resembled their traditional counterparts. These veggie-forward products are sold in over 5,000 Target, Whole Foods, and Sprouts stores across North America — a number that’s set to more than double here in 2022.
It’s interesting that the Wholly Veggie brand was founded by two former meat plant workers who left the meat industry. Founders Dave and John met while working for an organic meat plant specializing in cattle, trout, and poultry, where they became disillusioned with the narrative that the organic meat industry was feeding to the public. They came to understand that “organic” has multiple iterations, and animal agriculture, even when farmed “the right way,” still took 1.1 million acres of land for their company to service only a handful of regional grocery stores.
They also experience emotionally destructive effects of spending time in slaughterhouses.
This year, in line with its lifelong commitment to sustainable foodways, Wholly Veggie has taken a first step towards tackling food waste issues, through its new partnership with Outcast Foods, which provides Wholly Veggie with upcycled cauliflower powder sourced from imperfect cauliflower that would otherwise be thrown away at retail grocery stores. Wholly Veggie uses this upcycled cauliflower in the crumb for its new Mozzarella Sticks and Jalapeño Cheddar sticks.
In the US, we’re taught at a very young age that eating meat is a sign of prosperity, and that it’s good for your health, too. What we don’t learn in science or health classes is that industrial animal agriculture has significant impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Now we can add another missing ingredient to this equation — if we phase out meat and replace it with plant-based foods, we could balance out the emissions from other sectors and recover important biomass across the globe.
If you haven’t tried plant-based food items — either the ones described here or others — please do so. You’d be helping to save the planet for generations to follow.