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Cheesy, Creamy and Plant-Based?
Written in collaboration with QSR Magazine.
Perhaps a few years ago chefs could deny the momentum of plant-based items—maybe it was just a fad, some said—but they can no longer. And while much of the focus in the plant-based movement had previously centered around meat alternatives which have moved toward achieving ubiquity, there’s a growing incidence of plant-based cheeses on menus, too. Datassential recently reported that plant-based cheeses grew 11 percent in 2021 alone, and have grown 82 percent across four years.
This seems to be a response to the ever-growing percentage of diners who are looking for plant-based foods. According to a survey conducted by One Poll on behalf of Sprouts Farmers Market a year ago, 54 percent of respondents aged 24-39 said they identified as flexitarians and were incorporating more plant-based meals than meat-based meals as a permanent diet change.
Still, Datassential reports that plant-based cheese appears on just 4.5 percent of menus across the industry, meaning there is room for even more growth. Specifically, says the AFP Innovation Team, there is room for plant-based cheese sauces, which offer versatility and mimic the mouthfeel and performance of dairy-based cheese sauces.
“It seems everywhere you look today, major quick-service chains are launching plant-based protein on their menu,” says the AFP Innovation Team. “One item that may be missing is a true ‘ooey, gooey’ topping that aligns with their plant-based initiatives.”
In response to burgeoning demand, the AFP Innovation Team recently created Muy Fresco® Plant-Based Cheese Sauce. The cheese sauce comes in two flavors—nacho and cheddar—and can be used in a host of applications, including nachos, mac and cheese, or on top of burgers.
AFP spent the past 18 months in research and development with the product trying to understand from both the perspective of operators and consumers where an innovative, shelf-stable plant-based cheese sauce might fit into the foodservice landscape.
“The overwhelming sentiment from both groups,” says the AFP Innovation Team, “was that taste and texture were the top two attributes missing from other competitive plant-based cheese sauces on the market today. Specifically, we saw in existing products the texture tended to be ‘gelled,’ or lacked a creamy melted cheese texture, while the color often tended to be brownish or artificial orange.”
Furthermore, other plant-based cheeses lacked the right flavor profile, often tasting acidic or earthy. The team at AFP was determined to create something that would mimic the flavor profile and performance of dairy-based cheese sauces, ultimately settling on chickpea as the key protein and ingredient. The cheese sauce is manufactured aseptically, meaning the cheese sauce goes through continuous heating at an elevated pressure and is cooled and then packaged in a commercially sterile environment—to create a shelf-stable cheese sauce that can be stored in any kitchen without the use of preservatives.
The AFP Innovation Team recommends some new ways to build craveability into a menu, like adding Muy Fresco® Plant-Based Cheese Sauce to loaded zucchini fries, cauliflower, or Brussels Sprouts. Chefs and operators can also add the cheese sauce to the menu as an upcharge over dairy-based cheese, which is a nice way to achieve higher margins.
“You can put it on literally anything,” the AFP Innovation Team says. “The great thing about the cheese sauce in general is its versatility across menus. There is no limit to where it can add value and excitement to a menu.”
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