We Went to Baltimore and All We Got Were a Whole Bunch of Great New Vegan Products
I have seen the future of natural foods, and its name is Soy Rocks.
Billed as "Health Food That Tastes Like Junk Food", Soy Rocks are nuggets of soy covered in a creamy, dark chocolate coating, and, despite the inclination one might have to run screaming from any combination of soybean and chocolate, they are astoundingly good. Soy Rocks, produced by the Dixie Diners' Club, is just one of the items we sampled at the Natural Products Expo that took place last weekend in Baltimore.
And, boy, what an Expo it was. We had never attended before, and were warned ahead of time by seasoned Expo attendees that it is a huge, overwhelming, insane event. Arrogantly, I nodded my head, all the while thinking to myself: How crazy could gingko biloba and green tea really be? What a bunch of wusses! Let's just say that by the end of every day, after lugging big bags brimming with product samples and advertising materials up and down aisle after aisle of the behemoth convention center, I - and my poor, calloused feet - were thoroughly exhausted. Did I forget to mention my 11th hour decision to pack stylish platforms over sensible flats? A week later, my feet are only beginning to grudgingly forgive me.
Not that I'm complaining, though. As a vegan or vegetarian, going to the Natural Products Expo makes one feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store: as far as the eye could see, there was amazing food - turn the corner and there was more waiting for you to sample. At times, tossing down sample after sample given to us in little plastic cups, I felt like a bit like Veruca Salt, the greedy, gluttonous girl in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, too. Not that I'm complaining, though.
Through our good fortune of being friends with the owners of a natural foods store, we managed to get our mitts on "Retailer" badges, and we found ourselves ardently pursued by a diverse myriad of manufacturers eager for entry into our "store". We we're courted with all manner of natural foods, from the hippie-esque to the more contemporary: we were given hemp seed granola to munch, soy egg nog to wash it down with, seitan turkey to feast on. It's a brave new world out there.
The Expo this year came right on the heels of the FDA's announcement that they will be allowing labels to promote soy's health benefits on soy-based products. This is, of course, a major coup for the soy industry, and the optimistic, confident spirit at the Expo was palpable. As my friend Reed, a natural foods broker, likes to smile and say: "Our side is winning".
You could see it all around the Expo center. There is a growing concern about what we put in our bodies, and there's a growing awareness of the many ramifications of the standard American diet. Manufacturers are no longer apologizing for selling products that are meatless; in fact, most companies are unabashedly promoting this fact. Instead of having to sell people on soy, mainstream consumers are now actively seeking it out. Where once we had but a few products to choose among, today the industry is practically bursting with new innovations.
Because there's so much demand, and, as a consequence, so much competition, in general the quality of what is produced is of a higher grade today than it was 20 years ago. A lot of what we sampled was very much designed to taste vegetarian, but there were also a lot of products that aimed to closely replicate animal-based foods. The latter has a controversy attached to it: many vegetarians feel uncomfortable, angered or even repulsed by anything that looks or tastes like an animal product. This is certainly understandable. Those who enjoy these items contend that because it's not the real thing, there needn't be an ethical dilemma. Regardless of how one feels about this issue, though, I do think that these products help to pave the way for those who are making the transition to more of a plant-based diet; many budding vegetarians enjoy meat and dairy analogs because of they seem familiar, and, if they taste good, the diet may seem more accessible.
Here are just some of the products we tasted at the Expo:
*Soy cappuccinos by Zen Don (www.zendon.com). This was a remarkably rich, wonderfully flavored drink made of organic soy milk that we returned many times for. They also make puddings in banana and chocolate, and they carry other soy milk varieties of plain, vanilla and chocolate. This is truly one of the best products we tried.
*I usually don't like frozen foods, but the vegan, organic varieties we tried by Celentano were very impressive. The vegan Eggplant Parmigiana was unbelievably succulent, and the Roasted Vegetable Lasagne also blew us away. Just to make everything even more perfect, they highly promote the fact that their products are vegan.
* Macaroni and ChReese by Roads End Organics (www.chreese.com). We met these Vermont-based folks at the NAVS Summerfest in July; they are truly committed to selling high-quality vegan and organic products. In addition to the macaroni, they also sell penne and shells with "chReese" a tasty cheese substitute made with nutritional yeast. The products come in simple, attractive boxes, and all one has to do is just add water.
* HempNut Nut Butter by HempNut, Inc. (www.TheHempNut.com) (also the same folks who make the Rella cheeses) offers those who eat a plant-based diet the opportunity to eat a product rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may detoxify cancer-promoting enzymes. HempNut Nut Butter can be eaten spread on crackers or in a sandwich, and their other product, HempNut Hempseed, which taste like pine nuts, can be sprinkled over food, blended in a smoothie or roasted with spices to make a crunchy seasoning. Also, coming to natural foods stores soon, is their new vegan burger, a "Hempeh" smoked veggie burger. We tried these too, and they tasted like tempeh burgers, but with all the nutritional benefits of hempseed. They have also developed a new vegan lip balm made from hempseeds. Very exciting innovations from a company that proclaims that hemp is "The Soybean of the New Millennium."
* Oh boy, we were thrilled when we discovered Better Than Ice Créme (www.BetterThanMilk.com)! Right out of a soft-serve machine, we were given the richest, smoothest vegan ice cream cones that we've tried yet. This was amazing stuff that didn't have even the most remote taste of "healthiness". The soy-based product can be made in home ice cream freezers or in professional soft-serve machines. Also on the fantastic frozen desserts front was OatsCream, available in vanilla, chocolate, cappuccino, mango, black cherry and, seasonally, pumpkin pie. OatsCream has a different taste than Better Than Ice Créme, but the texture is similar: silky and smooth. The taste of the latter is slightly more "adult", though.
* Another product that is sure to comfort vegans who miss certain culinary traditions who they gave up animal ingredients is White Wave's Silk Nog (www.whitewave.com), just in time for the holidays. Asking consumers to "Nog themselves out" for the holidays, Silk also comes in plain, vanilla and chocolate. Made with organic ingredients, Silk is creamy and without any "beany" aftertaste. Yum!
* On the breakfast front, we have Nature's Path (www.naturespath.com), New Organics Co.(www.neworganics.com), and The Organic Garden (www.theorganicgardenfood.com) producing wonderful vegan, organic cereals, from raisin bran to blueberry muesli.
* Now and Zen works magic with seitan, clearly trying to replicate the flavors and texture of meat. They are the makers of the UnTurkey, the completely vegan "bird" sold in natural foods stores that comes with bread stuffing and gravy. Despite how delicious it is, it is a bit disconcerting to look at, and it has an actual "skin" made from yuba (beancurd skin). Now and Zen also offers UnRibs, UnChicken and UnSteak. In addition to the UnTurkey, we tried the UnSteak, which was sautéed with mushrooms and very savory. The UnRibs have a delicious tangy sauce, and a frighteningly meat-like texture. Now and Zen also sells a whipped cream substitute called Hip Whip, which is remarkable.
* Another great supplier of vegan foods (and organic vegan foods, at that) is Organic Foods, Inc. (www.organicfoodstore.com). Among the delicacies offered at their booth was "Uncheese" Tofu, which has a thick cheeselike texture and a taste not unlike my memory of a good provolone. They also served up a hearty Vegan Chili, which was about as tasty as anything we ate all weekend.
* I've heard many vegans lament that there was no soy yogurt product that approximated the taste of regular yogurt, but I think we found one. The kind produced by WholeSoy (www.wholesoycom.com), however, is very, very close. Made with transitional organic soybeans, WholeSoy Yogurt comes in plain, raspberry, peach and strawberry. For yogurt fanatics, this is worth checking out.
*The Vermont Maple Cookie Company (www.vermontmaplecookie.com) makes four varieties of vegan cookies that are all fantastic: Oatmeal Raisin, Chocolate Chip, Maple Chocolate Walnut and Ginger Spice. They're made with organic whole wheat flour and other natural ingredients, and they've created a cookie that tastes amazingly decadent and healthy at the same time.
* Tired of the same old corn chips? Then try Heavenly Hemp Tortilla Chips (www.hempfoods.com). Made from a blend of helpseed flour and organic corn, they are available in garlic, hot and spicy, blue, and yellow corn chips. These were wonderful.
*The Dixie Diners' Club (www.dixiediner.com) has such a vast and innovative array of meat and dairy substitutes that you just have to see their catalog to believe it. They've got everything covered. Especially imaginative are their Soy Rocks; this is the kind of product that can make non-believers think again.
These were just some of the many wonderful items we tried. Going to the Natural Products Expo made us aware of just how far our cause has come, and how our purchasing power is really making an impact on product selection. Also, we got to see how, with the multitude of nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet finally being recognized and promoted by the medical community, what we've been saying all along has gained credence.
There is a lot to be proud of, and a lot to look forward to.
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