Is faux turkey good enough for a vegan Thanksgiving?

Higher prices and supply chain issues for turkey may cause US 'flexitarians' to try plant-based alternatives

Turkeys are displayed for sale in a grocery store before the Thanksgiving holiday. AFP

As real meat prices continue to soar due to supply chain disruptions and the highest inflation in decades, fake meat has become an increasingly accessible alternative — just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Demand for plant-based meat has grown steadily in recent years, even if only 5 per cent of the American population identifies as vegan or vegetarian. The category’s growth is mostly being driven by “flexitarians” — consumers who eat meat but are also adding in more plant-based alternatives due to health and sustainability concerns in the climate change era.

Add this to the rising cost of turkey for the holiday, up more than 20 per cent year on year, and plant-based holiday centrepieces could gain a real foothold this season.

A traditional bird for eight might cost between $20 to $40 in the US this year, depending on the location; most plant-based alternatives are about $16, and those producers say their prices have not changed significantly since 2020.

In 2019, Bloomberg conducted a taste test of nine imitation Thanksgiving roast products. The results were mixed and the takeaway was clear: turkey producers had nothing to worry about back then, as the demand and science were not quite there to really drive innovation.

This year, things are different. With the soaring price of turkey caused inflation and supply chain disruptions, and the wider availability of fake meat products, consumers are ready to give faux turkey a second chance.

“We are coming up on about 20 per cent more growth this year alone of sales of Field Roast. We would sell more if we could make more,” said Adam Grogan, chief operating officer of Greenleaf Foods, an independent subsidiary of Maple Leaf Foods.

For Greenleaf, the main obstacle to higher production is not supply chain woes but labour shortages, as the process for producing its “birds” cannot be widely automated.

Notably, not one company has changed their fake turkey recipe — instead choosing to expand their portfolios of products and increase production to capture new customers. In short, the fake meat has not much changed, but the customer base has.

“They are looking for premium products,” said Bob Nolan, senior vice president of insights and analytics at Conagra Brands, which produces the popular, plant-based Gardein Holiday Roast. Flexitarian households, which drove 85 per cent of Gardein’s revenue growth this year, will not settle for a typical vegan burger patty, he said.

“Beyond [Meat] and Impossible [Burger] changed the bar. Consumers are now expecting to find healthy, plant-based options without sacrificing taste and experience,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for NPD Group.

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Plant-based turkey is not a guaranteed sell for all flexitarians because, so far, it has not been produced to mimic the fibrous muscle of a real bird.

The Very Good Food Company's Very Good Butchers line started selling its version of turkey, Stuffed Beast, for Thanksgiving in 2017. At $40, it is on par with, if not pricier than, the cost of its meat-based alternative, depending on the market.

The company made a couple hundred “birds” in the first year and sold out right away. Last year, it made 9,000; this year, it is up to about 35,000.

A taste test showed consumers found it to be a higher-quality product than many faux turkeys. The roast is tied with twine and flecked with organic carrots and yams, and it has the oniony flavour of a very bready stuffing recipe.

Another big player, Tofurky, is also optimistic about the market, based on this year’s sales to date. The company that makes it has been around since 1980, and its first plant-based holiday roast dates back to 1995. The family-owned business now has several speciality products, including a "roast" with gravy.

“Last year, Tofurky saw its plant-based ham roast numbers grow 631 per cent and the holiday feast experienced 126 per cent growth,” said the company's chief executive, Jaime Athos. Currently, Tofurky is tracking 25 per cent ahead of cumulative orders shipped for the same time last year.

Tofurky has not updated the recipe of its Thanksgiving centrepiece, choosing instead to invoke nostalgia with the holiday roast. It tastes as if it was transported from another era, with a gummy texture and salty flavour.

With more plant-based alternative options on the market than ever before, it appears a few more turkeys will be able to gobble a sigh of relief this year.

Updated: November 23, 2021, 7:32 PM