For those who have been clamoring for Taco Bell to bring back potatoes, your wish has been granted.
After getting taken off of the menu as a way to streamline operations during the pandemic, the taco titan has confirmed that their beloved spuds will be returning to menus starting March 11th. You’ll be able to enjoy them in all the same ways as before.
Buried within the announcement of potatoes returning was even bigger news, however. After years of resisting the urge to pick a plant-based meat purveyor like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, Taco Bell has finally given in and chosen the latter.
For a long time, the chain has hung their hat on the beans, potatoes, and other inherently vegetarian options they had on the menu without the need to add a plant-based meat. They did launch an oat-based protein substitute, but that never made its way to US markets.
This year, though, Taco Bell will test a product nationwide that includes a collaboration with Beyond Meat. Like many other chains (ie. Del Taco or KFC), they’ll be making a custom protein that fits within the chain’s flavor spectrum, although whether that will be a beef substitute or not remains to be seen.
Taco Bell did mention back in 2019 that they were looking into plant-based alternatives. With Beyond Meat on board, it will be interesting to see if they include any vegan cheese, egg, or other animal product alternatives as time goes on.
As a vegan, I know about all the new products, restaurants and Netflix documentaries. I have vegan friends and share some of the same vegan views. At times, in this vegan bubble of mine, I even begin to believe everyone’s becoming vegan. A simple conversation with a relative quickly dispels that notion. The reality is that within the United States, vegans only make up an estimated 3% of the entire population. That’s like comparing an edamame, to an, I don’t know, elephant.
A recent study reveals the silver lining, as veganism has increased around 300% in the last 15 years. That’s an incredible explosion within a short space of time. You can credit the internet with this “mushroom” cloud of a diet shift. Whereas the initial conversation siloed around animal rights, over the years it’s expanded to include climate change and personal health and wellness. More specifically, two important factors for any new way of approaching things; advances in technology and just plain ol’ hands-on human ingenuity.
One person forging her own brand of human ingenuity is Executive Chef Mimi Williams of Counterpart Vegan in Echo Park, California. Using 100% market fresh ingredients and plant-based processes, she creates familiar staples that are nearly indistinguishable from their original meat-based iterations. This is in stark contrast to many vegan spots that feature alternative protein-heavy menus, which are great advances as well, yet different.
Raised in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, Williams was one of only a handful of Black families in the community. She shared a household with her parents and six brothers of Sicilian/Creole descent. Although she didn’t resemble most of her neighbors, Williams had a strong family support system. One could say she grew up with a traditional family in a non-traditional setting.
While her mother seemingly loved cooking and wanted Williams to learn, she recalls initially being resistant, feeling forced into doing a thing based on her gender expectations. Learning how to cook felt more like work than fun. Noticing that, her father encouraged her to cook things that interested her. That encouragement was the magic needed to open the floodgates of the world of food.
Williams’ was pushed to explore alternative diets during a period in which her father experienced health complications. With his doctor citing less meat consumption as a course of action, her family subsequently became early adopters of a mostly plant-based diet. By this time, Williams had become the de facto cook for her family, with her siblings frequently requesting her food.
At first, it took awhile to adjust to a mostly plant-based lifestyle, but after witnessing her father’s health improve firsthand, she was convinced the diet change was the right decision. These experiences helped Williams develop a perspective on food many Black people don’t have. She discovered veganism some years later during pregnancy after realizing she could no longer consume meat.
Honing her craft at restaurants across America, Williams’ still carries the same spirit of fearlessness and creativity her father encouraged as the current Executive Chef of Counterpart Vegan. Joining the team in 2019, she set about revitalizing Counterpart’s array of offerings. She credits a period of stagnant creativity as the stimuli behind her latest eight course tasting menu.
Consisting of familiar foods inspired by her upbringing, the flavors feel authentic. Some of the offerings include heirloom tomato carpaccio with a tasty and tangy vegan feta, pappardelle made from beets, seasoned squash ravioli and an unforgettable tiramisu as the finale. Williams’ new menu is a fine dining experience vegans and non-vegans alike can enjoy. She says she wants people to walk away feeling a sense of hope, and that when they share, “I didn’t know you could do that with this type of food,” that’s how she knows she’s on the right track.
If you’re looking for some momentary respite from quarantine, while supporting small businesses during the pause of outdoor dining, Chef Mimi will be offering a condensed version of the tasting menu as take-out for two. The dinner package will include a salad, appetizer, pasta, dessert, and likely, two non-alcoholic drinks.
There will be 25 of these dinner plates available to all guests and can be pre-ordered on Tock. The dinner package will be available every Friday and Saturday for pick-up, from 6PM-8PM.
In a move to further position themselves as a grocery store alternative to ground beef, Beyond Meat is taking a page out of the beef industry’s playbook. They’re going to start selling blends of their plant-based product that vary based on fat content.
The new forms don’t have official names yet, but one is being touted as the “brand’s juiciest patty” while the other is described as the company’s “most nutritious patty yet.” To differentiate, you could almost think of them as “Extra Juicy” and “Lean.”
In terms of ground beef varieties, you could consider Beyond Meat’s regular version to be standard ground beef, “Extra Juicy” to be like 80/20 or Extra Fatty, and the “Lean” one to be like a 96/4 blend of beef.
The “juiciest patty” form still has 35% less saturated fat than 80/20 ground beef, while the “most nutritious” form has 55% less saturated fat than 80/20 ground beef.
For context, Beyond Meat’s current iteration has 5 g of saturated fat per quarter pound, and 80/20 ground beef has about 8 grams of saturated fat per quarter pound. The “juiciest patty” form should have slightly more fat than Beyond’s standard product. Meanwhile, the “most nutritious form,” at 55% less saturated fat than 80/20 beef, would have slightly less than 4 grams of saturated fat per quarter pound based on Beyond’s claims.
Some folks will be sampling the new varieties in a sold-out tasting event in Los Angeles later in 2020. As for everyone else, they can expect to find the new options in stores in early 2021.
McDonald’s has been taking its time when it comes to adding plant-based foods to its menu. Outside of a couple of international tests and launches, the burger chain hasn’t added anything vegan onto its dining options. We now know the reason why: the burger giant was working on making its own forms of plant-based meat.
This new platform of items, called the McPlant, will start with a plant-based burger test that will happen in select markets globally in 2021. The plan is to bring this, along with meat-free chicken and breakfast offerings, to McDonald’s locations over the next few years.
According to USA Today, the announcement was made by McDonald’s International President Ian Borden during the chain’s most recent investor update call.
“McPlant is crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” Borden said. “In the future, McPlant could extend across a line of plant-based products including burgers, chicken-substitutes and breakfast sandwiches.”
Making your own plant-based substitutes is no easy feat, which explains why McDonald’s has been taking so long. According to CNBC, McDonald’s was working with Beyond Meat behind the scenes for a while to make their McPlant lineup happen, but are choosing to not tack the company’s name onto their plant-based offerings.
How their take on a plant-based burger will stack up to what’s already out there, however, remains to be seen.
After McDonald’s big news, the remaining national fast food establishments to have not tested or announced a plant-based or meat-free substitute include Arby’s, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, and Sonic, amongst others.
The plant-based and vegan industry has found some novel ways to create meat substitutes. Mostly, it’s been finding plant sources of some of the proteins and other molecules key to making meat, which is what companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have done.
An emerging company, however, is taking a more direct approach to creating these proteins. They’re making products like ice cream that use real milk protein and cow DNA, yet still claims them to be 100 percent vegan.
I know that phrase is going to generate controversy. Yes, it’s the exact same protein you get from milk. Yes, it does utilize the genes from a cow to make the protein. However, it doesn’t use any animals, any DNA extracted from an animal, or animal products whatsoever.
This vegan milk protein comes from Perfect Day, who specializes in what they would describe as “fermented vegan dairy” that’s 100% animal-free.
“The cool thing is we’re doing it with fermentation, so not a single cow is involved in our process,” says Nicki Briggs, Perfect Day’s VP of Corporate Communications.
Instead, Perfect Day uses a fermentation process that’s been widely used by various companies over the years. Briggs compared it to how proteins like insulin or rennet are made today in a conversation with Foodbeast.
Rennet, the curdling protein for cheese, is traditionally harvested from a calf’s stomach. Today, 90 percent of it is vegetarian, made by getting yeast to ferment sugars into the exact same protein. According to Briggs, Perfect Day uses that exact same process to make their vegan milk protein. The result is a powder that can be used to make ice cream, cheese, yogurt, and more.
For milk, it contains two predominant types of protein: casein and whey. The protein that Perfect Day is making, beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), is one of the primary components of whey protein. “We found that beta-lactoglobulin is the most nutritious and the most functional of all of the proteins in milk,” Briggs explained, indicating that BLG was the key one needed to create a functional alternative to getting milk from cows.
To get the fungi, called trichoderma, to make the milk protein, Perfect Day downloaded part of the genetic makeup of a cow into the fungi. Segments of DNA coding in any creature are used by cells to make different key components, including proteins. Adding that code into a fungi cell known for producing large quantities of protein was the key to making Perfect Day’s product.
One could call this “genetic engineering,” but it doesn’t use a technique like CRISPR, which splices in genes from another creature’s cells. Instead, Perfect Day turned to a virtual source of DNA: Google.
“We were able to, as silly as it sounds, Google it and find the sequence online,” Briggs explained. “We were able to use this sequence to influence our microflora.”
The microflora can then grow the protein en masse in giant fermentation tanks. That is then turned into the powder that can be added to an ice cream mix or other vegan dairy products to give it a structure akin to real dairy.
Right now, there’s only two brands in markets that use this novel animal-free whey: Smitten, who teamed up with Perfect Day to make limited batches of “N’ice cream,” and Brave Robot, who heavily advertises the protein they use in their pints of frozen dessert.
Brave Robot was locally available for me, so I secured some pints to sample and analyze. They use a blend of plant oils to replace the fat you would normally get in milk, as well as sunflower lecithin (a substitute for soy) to emulsify everything together.
The result is an extremely creamy ice cream that, at serving temperature, is pretty spot on to the original. I would say it does freeze a little bit harder than regular ice cream, but is way closer than any other vegan substitute I’ve tried.
Because this ice cream alternative does use real milk protein, it’s not recommended for those with allergies to milk. Allergies are triggered by proteins, and while a different protein (called alpha-s1 casein) is a more common allergen trigger in milk, beta-lactoglobulin can still cause issues for those sensitive to milk.
This, as well as the fact that it is a real protein, are some of the larger concerns some may have in calling what Perfect Day creates “vegan.” Yes, it doesn’t use any animals, but the structure of what’s inside it and real milk are identical.
Briggs understands that, saying “We want the word vegan to be a helpful navigation tool to find products not named from animals, but don’t want to be misleading.” While she believes that Perfect Day’s product fits under the technical term for vegan, there’s a different phrase she would use as well.
“We see animal-free as the master name for this,” she said. As for terms like lab-grown, describing Perfect Day’s protein as that would be “inaccurate,” as it’s “less sci-fi than it seems.”
While Perfect Day is using a technology that’s not new, they are applying it in a new way by recreating an “animal-free” milk protein that can be used to craft ice creams nearly identical to the original.
Perfect Day does plan to create the entire lineup of milk proteins and other dairy products, but those will come down the line as the company continues to grow.
Those clamoring for Jack In The Box to release some plant-based options have a reason to rejoice now, as the popular fast food chain is testing new UnChicken Sandwiches in partnership with Raised and Rooted plant-based products.
The Unchicken Sandwich will come in classic and spicy options and is made from a plant-based substitute filet from Raised and Rooted that features a split top bun, mayo, lettuce and tomato. For those curious to try this new test item from Jack In The Box, participating locations are in Reno, NV and Monterey, CA.
To help promote this new product, Jack In The Box has released chicken-scented face masks that are free. Just visit here on October 23rd for your chance to snag one while supplies last.
No word yet on a national release of The UnChicken Sandwich, but hopefully a positive reception could lead to wider availability in the future.
Switching to a plant-based diet, whether it be for ethical or environmental reasons, often comes with a cost increase. Outside of tofu, there’s not a lot of cost-effective vegan options out there.
Plant-based eggs is a category that’s particularly expensive. A bottle of JUST, equivalent to 8 eggs, costs $4.50 ($6 for a dozen). Follow Your Heart, a powder egg alternative, can cost $7 for a carton that’s equivalent to a dozen.
A new alternative, Zero Egg, has just emerged onto the market and hopes to make vegan eggs a lot more accessible. Their product, a mix of potato, pea, chickpea, and soy protein, costs 11 to 18 cents per egg, or just over $2 per dozen. It claims to have price parity to a dozen cage-free eggs, which sell at retail for about $3-$4 per dozen.
Zero Egg comes in two varieties: a formula ideal for egg replacement in scrambles, and another meant to substitute into baking mixes. The brand’s big selling point is texture, as it claims to be more fluffy than other egg alternatives available. However, it also is more versatile, as not all egg alternatives can be used for both scrambling and baking.
Nutritionally, Zero Egg’s product contains about 40% of the protein of an egg per serving (roughly 2.5 grams), but is a complete protein source. Environmentally, it uses 93% less water to produce than standard eggs.
As for cost, Zero Egg was able to bring that down through working with co-packers. They didn’t need a novel new factory process to make their substitute, making it easier to produce at scale.
Any restaurants that use Zero Egg will have ways to make it identifiable, including toothpick flags that can be stuck into sandwiches, akin to what Impossible Foods did with its initial burger launch.
Zero Egg will be available to restaurants via Gordon Food Service starting on World Egg Day, October 9th. A retail product will be hitting stores some time in the next couple of years, but there is also a “Home Store” option for any consumers who want to try to access the vegan egg through there.