Story by Debra McKinney Banks and Celeste Ryan Blyden
A longtime mainstay in many Seventh-day Adventist homes, meat analogs are steadily gaining popularity outside our community, thanks to the growing trend of plant-based eating; Meatless Monday campaigns to eliminate animal protein one day a week; the rise of flexitarians seeking to adopt a healthier lifestyle; and a segment of the population driven to alleviate chronic health issues.
A 2015 report from research company Markets and Markets states, “The growing demand for meat-free food products and increasing health concerns are expected to drive the market for meat substitutes globally.” Sales from plant-based meat alternatives reached $553 million in 2012, up eight percent since 2010, and researchers estimate that sales will reach $5.17 billion by 2020.
Adventists have been in the business of manufacturing and marketing animal-free products since the late 1890s when John Harvey Kellogg created Nuttose and Protose from ground peanuts. Today’s consumers enjoy an ever-expanding variety of choices, including those made from soybeans (tofu and tempeh), TVP (textured vegetable protein), pea protein, wheat gluten (seitan), mycoprotein (derived from a fermented fungus) and jackfruit, which some say replicates the chewy texture of chicken.
“Brands like Gardein and Field Roast are really taking off because we now have a younger generation who is looking for ‘clean’ products and who don’t want to read a ‘book’ when scanning the ingredient list,” says Duane Stafan, regional sales manager for Sunbelt foods, the main distributor to Adventist Book Centers (ABC) in the mid-Atlantic region. He says consumers are looking for products that are made with non-GMO corn and soy, lower sodium, fewer preservatives and artificial flavoring.
Today’s customer is looking for healthier options, says Laura Wolf, general manager at LivingWell, Potomac Conference’s ABC in Silver Spring, Md., where 70 percent of customers are not Adventist.
Janelle Rivera, manager for the New Jersey Conference’s Second ACTS ABC and Adventist Community Services Center in Lawrenceville, is also excited about the new products coming into the market. “I often get asked if the products on the shelf are non-GMO. Some brands are [also] leaning away from cans and repackaging in a more appealing way, such as resealable, upright bags,” says Rivera.
What’s New and Changing?
While Adventist consumers may try some of the new items on the market, they tend to be fiercely loyal to and nostalgic about the familiar red-labeled products by Loma Linda Foods and Worthington Foods. Started by Adventist members in the 1950s in California and Ohio, respectively, Loma Linda and Worthington’s “shelf stable” lines are now owned by South Carolina-based Atlantic Natural Foods, who purchased the rights from Kellogg Foods in 2014. Sometime this year, Atlantic is slated to introduce a “blue label” product line of the Loma Linda brand that will incorporate cleaner, non-GMO versions of their popular sellers.
Heritage Health Foods, started in 2009 by president and CEO Don Otis, who joined Worthington in the 1990s and worked with that brand until 2015, is now the only wholly Adventist-owned and operated manufacturer of frozen and dry meatless products in North America. With facilities in Tennessee and Michigan, he purchased Cedar Lake Food Company and Worthington’s frozen product line from Kellogg in June 2016. “It’s possible that if we didn’t buy it, it would have been shut down,” says Eric Otis, sales manager for the Adventist market. “My father wants to keep the strong Adventist brand favorites going, further the health message and help support the mission of the church.”
Adventists are largely the ones who eat these brands, and reportedly, since it was a very small part of their business, Kellogg stopped producing them in July 2015 and store inventory ran out in February 2016. When Heritage purchased the rights, they had to re-source, re-make, replicate the taste and quality and re-stock retailer supplies. “We went almost 10 full months without the Worthington frozen line, which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of our food sales,” says Sean Bellman, who manages three ABCs and is also an east coast food distributor. Bellman also used to manage the ABC in Hamburg, Pa., which was owned by the Southern New England Conference whose location recently closed.
“We sell a lot of Big Franks, FriChik and Dinner Roast,” shares Andrew Choi, manager of the Highland View Academy ABC, in Hagerstown, Md. “Not having Dinner Roast for a while negatively impacted our business.”
Despite the growing market outside the church, Heritage says it remains committed to the Adventist consumer base. “We are actively making progress in developing healthier versions of the foods Adventists know and love while maintaining the flavor and texture they are used to,” says Jon Fish, vice president/creative director. To that end, Heritage now offers three lines of meatless products: Legacy—for those who just want a non-cholesterol meat replacement; Heritage—the all-natural, vegan and non-GMO option; and Kim’s Simple Meals—natural, whole grain, organic, vegan and lower in sodium.
The Sodium Conundrum
While meat substitutes tout low-fat, high protein products with a taste and texture that can fool the most discerning palette, manufacturers say the recipes require a certain amount of salt. One serving of Dinner Roast or two pieces of Fri-Chik, for example, account for almost one quarter of the recommended daily amount of sodium. As a result, some Adventists say they are avoiding or reducing consumption. To address this concern, Fish from Heritage says the company uses sea salt instead of sodium chloride (table salt), and “we have recognized the need to look at other spices and seasonings to pull out the flavor of our foods.”
Another impactful reality is that the ABC isn’t the only place to find veggie meat anymore. It’s now available in grocery stores, big-box stores like Wal-Mart and even Amazon.com. “Almost across the board nationwide, 60 percent of sales is veggie meat, 40 percent is books,” says Bellman. To keep their doors open, the four remaining ABC managers in the Columbia Union rely on annual events like camp meetings, special events such as the interest generated from the Desmond Doss film and ingenuity (see columbiaunionvisitor.com/thefutureofABCs).
To keep customers and encourage them to try the plethora of new products, Dorrel McLaren, the food demo “queen” at LivingWell, frequently prepares and provides samples, shares recipes on how to use them and teaches cooking classes. HVA’s Choi counts on camp meeting, which he says provides 18 to 20 percent of his sales. He also hopes Adventists will embrace some of the new options. “Customers are somewhat hesitant to try new products,” he says. “During camp meeting, we had a Heritage Foods representative and were successful selling Chicken Bites and Sizzle Burger.”