Malcolm Jolley talks to innovator and food trend watcher Dana McCauley about the new vegetarianism.

Dana McCauley is who you call when you want to know what’s happening in the food business in Canada. The author and broadcaster is currently the Associate Director  for New Venture Creation at the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office, where she works with scientists “trying to figure out how to feed nine billion people”, and before that she headed up and launch the new food business incubator Food Starter, and she maintains her consultancy practice at Blue Unicorn, helping companies navigate today’s Canadian food scene.

One company that recently hired McCauley on is San Diego based Chosen Foods, that makes things out of avocados, like oils, mayonnaise and salad dressings. Chosen is upping their Canadian presence by exhibiting at this weekend’s Toronto Veg Fest, and they wanted to know from McCauley why this vegetarian festival is particularly well attended and why plant-based foods in Canada seem to be gaining traction at quick speed. When their PR sent me a press release with the opportunity to interview Dana McAuley about plant-base foods, I jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with the expert and hear what she had to say. Here’s what we talked about.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Good Food Revolution: Okay, so why are we using this term ‘plant-based foods’ instead of vegan?

Dana McCauley: The reason we call them plant-based foods is that they aren’t just for vegans. There are a lot more people these days who do ‘Meatless Monday’ or a few days a week. Certainly there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily tie into the political side of veganism or vegetarianism – I mean the PETA, no fur, no leather thing – but they still want to eat more plant-based proteins for their health, for the planet, and those sorts of things. I saw some research last spring that 39% of Americans want to eat more plant-based foods and 43% of Canadians. I thought that was interesting, given our climate, which makes me think of meaty stews and things; cold weather food. It’s only 4%, but in the case of plant-based foods, it’s a really interesting statistic.

Good Food Revolution: I agree with your observations, and I can’t argue with your research. For sure interest in plant-based foods is on the rise. I call it ‘casual vegetarianism’.

Dana McCauley: That’s a great term.

Good Food Revolution: As you say, it’s not ideological. I know a couple who have become, for all intensive purposes, vegetarian, or at least pescatarian. But they’ll serve meat to their kids. Maybe not as much as other parents, but they’re not drawing any lines in the sand.

Dana McCauley: Right, they don’t want to worry about all the nutrition handling you need to do if you go all plant-based. Meat is easy nutritionally, when you need to get your protein.

Good Food Revolution: You know it’s funny, preparing for this interview, I realized that I went vegetarian yesterday. It wasn’t on purpose. I made sandwich for lunch and instead of opening a new package of ham, I settled for cheese. And then we had very simple tomato pasta for dinners because there were really beautiful tomatoes in the shop. Anyway, you are the food trend expert, and I know it’s your business to study food trends across the board, but I can tell you, if you look at the cookbooks I have written about over the last few years, and the authors I’ve interviewed, they’re all skewing towards the veggies. Part of it, I think, is that there are only so many ways to roast a chicken, and a lot of the more interesting flavours and textures come out of the garden.

Dana McCauley: For sure. And in the restaurant scene too. LOV in Montreal, a Planta here in Toronto. They are busy. And with an interesting demographic. My son is 21 now, and I say to him and his friends, when they are periodically single, go to Planta and hang out at the bar. It’s nothing but young, beautiful women. That’s the demographic that’s embracing plant-based foods in a conscious way. You and I might accidentally not eat meat for a couple of days, but it’s also pretty stylish and cool.

Good Food Revolution: And as a home cook, the vegetable dishes are where a lot of the interesting new flavours are.

Dana McCauley: Well, right now, a lot of the food tech activity is around ‘clean meat’. There’s a lot of new thinking about how to create meatless foods. That’s pretty exciting. If you’re somebody who want to have a new experience, you might try ‘cellular meat’ or some kind of new drink made from fermenting golden berries. There’s so much new stuff. I went to the store to do some research and I literally could not believe the explosion of choice, especially with vegan cheese and all the beverages from Ripple to strawberry smoothie flavoured kefir. When there’s a vegan cheese Alfredo sauce, it means you can make a meal that’s plant-based, vegan, vegetarian or whatever, put it on the table and get acceptance from the whole family.

Good Food Revolution: Aha. That’s a pretty big deal, isn’t it?

Dana McCauley: It used to be that you cooked something else ’for the vegetarian’, but now it’s pretty simple to pull together something that everybody will eat.

Good Food Revolution: Then, what will be the point of rebelling against your carnivore parents? Anyway, can we get back to the vegan ‘meat’? I have to say, that stuff makes me a little nervous. Is it at the point now where you can’t tell the difference between real meat?

Dana McCauley: I think you can tell. But it’s often quite palatable. For instance, I have tried the Beyond Burger, and got my son to try it. I just said, “New burger recipe, want to try it?” He tried it and said, “That’s a pretty good burger, what did you do? It’s a little bit different.” And I thought, wow! He’s definitely a meaty kind of a guy…

Good Food Revolution: The son of a chef!

Dana McCauley: Right. So, he was actually surprised when I told him it wasn’t meat. And certainly, the way sales are going for A&W for the Beyond Burger shows that people are curious, they want to try it. And it looks like quite a few are going back and ordering it again.

Good Food Revolution: Let’s talk long term, because you have been tracking food trends for some time…

Dana McCauley: We don’t need a number, Malcolm!

Good Food Revolution: Ha ha, no! But bear with me: what I’m getting at is in my experience these kind of meta-trends, that affect people’s diets, like the local food movement, or organics, or ethically raised meat, they don’t go away. People generally don’t go back to industrial food, or asparagus in February once they’ve found better food. Do you think the pivot towards plant-based food also has legs?

Dana McCauley: Right. Those are the macro-trends, and this would be another one I would put under health and wellness. And certainly ‘meatless’ is becoming its own vertical. There’s an evolution because there’s a lot of ingenuity. It’s really an exciting time to be in the food business because there’s so much choice and so much innovation, and it’s getting easier to be whatever it is you want to be on a particular day. It’s a luxury to be here at this point in history.

Follow Dana McCauley on Twitter: @DanaMcCauley.