Produce as protein

Departments - Edible Insights

Virtue or vice? Focus on the fundamentals of freshness and flavor.

July 17, 2019

Photo © petrrgoskov | Adobe Stock

There are some interesting dynamics happening in the world of meatless diets and meatless “meats.” With a bevy of meatless burgers hitting mainstream restaurant and fast food chains, it may seem like meat is on its way out and produce will replace it as a protein. As a produce grower you might feel you have to keep chasing the next big meatless-product market. But is that really the healthiest approach?

Year of the vegan

While it’s been thrown around in the media that 2019 is the year for veganism, that seems to only really apply to North America and Europe. Meat demand and consumption looks to be on the rise globally as developing countries strive to get a bigger bite of what they consider the good life.

The makers of just-like-meat meatless substitutes also don’t appear to be targeting vegetarians or vegans with their products. In fact, it’s meat eaters who are the primary target. This makes total sense to me, as someone who was a strict vegetarian for about 24 years, and who still doesn’t eat red meat or pork. The last thing I want out of my veggie burger is for it to be too close to real meat in appearance, texture or flavor. I avoid real meat for a reason. A bloody veggie burger? Gag me with a spoon.

Many will also argue that meat replacements, such as some of the new meatless burgers, are much better for the environment but aren’t really any healthier for you than the real thing. Turns out, the processed foods manufacturers aren’t really selling a health “virtue” when it comes to meatless meats, but rather a more environmentally conscious vice.

Grow fresh

So, back to all those up-and-coming vegetarians and vegans and generally health-conscious eaters in North America. How can you best connect with them without feeling like you’re trend-chasing your tail? What market research suggests they are looking for from their food is freshness, flavor and safety. Processed foods continue to fall under more intense consumer scrutiny, and many are turning back to fresh foods to make both healthier and more responsible buying choices.

I’ve always been a health-conscious shopper, but even I am getting pickier about making sure my shopping cart is filled with mostly whole, fresh foods. I resort to processed foods for only a few bonus items, such as a handful of condiments, a few cheeses and a bit of bread. Processed faux meats are a rare item in my cart because I need to avoid soy and other additives.

As a produce grower, fresh is a trend on which you can easily and authentically capitalize. It’s the root of your business. After all, there are no hidden ingredients in a fresh-grown organic strawberry (at least there shouldn’t be).

Grow flavor

When it comes to how produce is grown, a focus on organic seems to go hand in hand with flavor. Yes, consumers are concerned with how their produce is grown, but there seems to be a significant perception that organic produce tastes better. The better flavor is the bigger seller. I have a container of blueberries in my refrigerator right now that is blowing my mind. I had to go back and check the container to see if they were grown organically (I didn’t remember what I’d purchased) because they are the best blueberries I’ve ever tasted. Sure enough, they’re organically grown. That superior flavor experience will have a big impact on my future blueberry-buying habits.

If there is the option to choose organic produce over conventional for environmental and health reasons, many will make that choice on principle. But if that organic produce didn’t taste as good as or better than conventional produce? You’ll lose those customers. When your organic produce obviously tastes better, make sure it’s a big part of your marketing focus.  

Grow safe

Produce paranoia is a reality in today’s media market. A salmonella recall on lettuce gets consumers in a produce lockdown almost instantaneously these days. What these produce recalls have trained consumers to do is think smaller. Smaller in the sense of where and from whom they are buying their produce. Big-scale contaminations are generally associated with big-scale operations. As a result, consumers are losing trust with big food producers and farming operations. The perception is that smaller farmers and producers, with locally available sales, are safer.

More and more of my friends are turning to local farmers markets and smaller natural grocers who post information about where their produce is farmed. Traceability and transparency are non-negotiable. Making good sales connections with smaller local retailers and markets and investing in marketing and advertising in your local area are necessary.

Grow focused

As a produce grower, the root of your business is selling your customers virtue over vice. Freshness and flavor are the foundations of your product. Rather than trying to chase processed food trends, focus on the fundamentals. Be sure to get vocal about the benefits you bring to your customers’ kitchen table. If you’re a big growing operation, you can still make inroads by making connections in your local community and touting the benefits of flavor and freshness — especially if you grow organically.  

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.