Big Food takes bigger strides into vegan market

On February 15, 2017, Ben & Jerry's officially launched three new all-vegan varieties, adding to the existing four introduced in early 2016.

Great news: This morning Ben & Jerry's officially unveils three new ice cream flavors, nearly doubling the size of the company's overall vegan product line. Even greater news: This is just part of big push by household-name brands to get new vegan products into the hands and mouths of customers, tapping into the growing appeal of animal-free foods.

The three new Ben & Jerry's flavors - all very hush-hush, of course, until some retailers got them early and zipped them onto shelves, from whence they zipped to the internet - are: Cherry Garcia (another existing flavor in a vegan version, joining two from last year); Coconut Seven-Layer Bar and Caramel Almond Brittle.
 
Thanks to Sean Greenwood, chief of PR for Ben & Jerry's, who was passing through Philly yesterday, I got a chance to try all three flavors and they were all up to the high standard already set by Ben & Jerry's existing line. Probably my fave was the Coconut Seven-Layer Bar, although the crunchy textural contrast in the Caramel Almond Brittle gave it an extra zing, so it's a hard choice. The Cherry Garcia tasted fine, but then, I was never a major Deadhead.
 
I chatted with Greenwood about the company's move in a non-dairy direction and he explained B&J's long-term "carbon tax" - the company has worked out its own carbon footprint and is implementing a plan to neutralize it. The strategies thus far focus on making the company's dairy operation more sustainably efficient, but as I noted, since dairy comprises 42% of the footprint, an easy solution would be to wipe out that whole liability by going 100% animal-free. Greenwood agreed with the math, but didn't see that strategy coming to the fore just yet. Still good to see a company seriously working on these issues.
 
The three new Ben & Jerry's flavors would be a cool enough treat, but the even more mainstream (and Philly-born) Breyers is currently rolling out two all-new, all-vegan flavors: Oreo Cookies & Cream and Vanilla Peanut Butter. These I haven't tried yet, but they should be available in Philadelphia area supermarkets within the next few weeks.

Like the Ben & Jerry's, both of the Breyers varieties are almond milk-based, underscoring almonds' top-dog status, and showing how little the anti-almond hysteria of a couple years back wound up mattering.
 
There's a wider picture, though. Both of these ice-cream makers are now part of Unilever, whose Hellmann's mayonnaise, you may recall, seemed to decide to join rather than fight the vegan tide and introduced its "Carefully Crafted Sandwich Spread," which today sports a label whose unmistakable main message - the word "VEGAN" - can be read from a few yards away.

So, is there perhaps a Unilever-wide initiative to veganize its brands?
 
I asked and received this response : "We know that consumers today are looking for a variety of choices, and we continuously evaluate our brands and products in an effort to meet those evolving tastes, lifestyle preferences and needs." OK. Choice is good. Guess we'll have to watch what happens.
 
But the thing is, it's more than just Unilever. Also now showing up in Philly-area stores are Non-Dairy Creamers from Coffee Mate (under the Natural Bliss label) that really are non-dairy, i.e. vegan (regular Coffee Mate contains casein). This may seem like a boutique issue to some, but to vegan coffee drinkers who lighten their coffee, it's a happy step forward.
 
The flavors are Vanilla Almond Milk, Caramel Almond Milk, and Coconut Sweet Creme. I got a chance to try these in coffee and they work well. They come in fun, odd-shaped containers that are singularly easy-open, easy-close. Although I'm partial to the thicker creaminess of soy (which sometimes has a beany aftertaste), these are a bit lighter and sweeter (no aftertaste). I usually take sugar in my coffee and with these, you can do without - they're a complete flavor package.
 
Sure, Silk soy creamer, introduced back at the turn of the century, still remains the standard that everybody (including Silk's other creamers) tries to beat, but its availability is mostly limited to places that are already veg-friendly, e.g. Whole Foods, Mom's Organic Markets. Nestlé's Coffee Mate has a much greater reach: Starting this week you should be able to find these Natural Bliss non-dairy creamers at everyday stores like Acme, Walmart, Target, ShopRite and CVS.

CVS itself has begun outfitting many stores with a "Vegan Trend Zone," grouping together vegan snacks and power bars and adding a some new ones, as well as stocking some dairy- alternative brands. It's great to see such a ubiquitous store brand embracing the concept of plant-based merchandising, but even greater if CVS steps up its game by a) stocking some serious plant proteins, and b) carrying forward its anti-cancer commitment (which banned cigarette sales) by eliminating the sale of all processed meats, also a documented cancer promoter.

Either way, we're clearly crossing a threshold into a new era of multinational giants within the vegan marketplace, offering both vegans and the vegan-curious ever-easier options to buy and try vegan foods. The flip side of this great news is that these players will exploit the established distribution channels, capital and branding influence that they have and homegrown small-timers usually lack, so there may be real plant-based competition replacing the wide open vegan vistas of yore. I hope my vegan biz peeps here in Philly are prepping and getting even more serious about customer service, food quality and transparency.

The best news, though, is that these high-profile animal-free products will have more people than ever thinking about and considering changing, even veganizing, their diets, so this era could very well wind up as a win for consumers, a win for vegan mom-&-pops, a win for national brands, a win for a carbon-neutral planet and, above all, a win for the animals.

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V for Visit the Library: Come out this Thursday night, Feb. 16 at 7:30, to the Bala Cynwyd Library, to hear me (in person!) read excerpts from V for Veg: The Best of Philly's Vegan Food Column. I will have copies to sign as well as some copies of Eating Vegan in Philly. See you there! (131 Old Lancaster Rd, 610-664-1196)