In 2023, we tasted some next-level vegan food. For one, we hit Taco Bell more than once to try its dairy-free nacho cheese sauce on just about everything. For dessert? A handful of Reese’s new plant-based peanut butter cups was a must. And we couldn’t get enough fungi-powered foods from mycelium-made chicken breasts to animal-free cream cheese.
But what does 2024 have in store? A lot more exciting innovations, according to CD Young, the founder of Wild Thing Restaurant Group.
Young, who grew up eating her fair share of meat in Iowa, is the visionary behind Chicago’s Spirit Elephant, which just won Chicago Tribune’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Plant-Based Menu. Young is also behind the restaurant’s fast-casual spinoff Elephant + Vine, where Impossible Beef burgers are available alongside homemade black bean patties, plant-based chicken sandwiches, and more.
Elephant + Vine
With this eye on both plant-based innovation and tradition, Young has gained vast insights into the ever-evolving world of plant-based dining. For Young, keeping things fresh and exciting is imperative for mission-driven companies that want to make animal-free food the norm.
“I think with plant-based food, more than any other cuisine type, innovation is the most important component,” Young tells VegNews.
“You can have the healthiest and most creative menu around, but if it isn’t delicious, and if it doesn’t invite omnivores into the fold, you’re dead in the water,” Young says. “To stay on top of the best-tasting and overall best options, we closely look at every innovation that comes out.”
This means that the year ahead will be full of as much, if not more, innovation as the year we leave behind. Here are the four trends Young thinks will dominate in 2024.
1The cheese revolution
This year, we saw major advancements in the realm of plant-based cheeses, and Young says the trend will experience an upward trajectory in 2024.
One company, Northern California’s Climax Foods, is using the power of artificial intelligence to create dairy-identical cheeses. Climax released its flagship vegan blue cheese earlier this year. It is working with dairy giant Bel Group to develop improved vegan versions of its most popular cheeses such as Laughing Cow, Boursin, and Babybel.
Helmed by astrophysicist Oliver Zahn, the startup has also figured out a plant-based source of casein—the protein that gives cheeses their melt and stretch.
“Advances in cheese like Climax Foods, or others, are really changing the game,” Young says, noting that she also uses cheese from innovators such as Rind to build plant-based charcuterie boards.
“Where we’ve started and where we’ve come with respect to dairy in general is jaw-dropping,” Young says.
How does Young know that vegan cheeses will be a big trend in 2024? For one, a major pioneer in the industry, Daiya Foods, has shifted its cheeses to a more dairy-like formulation (called Daiya Oat Cream) that relies on fermentation.
“[This move] will also help to make plant-based cheese more desirable for everyone and much more widely available, too,” Young says.
2Beyond traditional meat alternatives
The transition from soy and gluten to novel bases for meat alternatives, such as mycelium (the root system of mushrooms), marks a new era in vegan cuisine, Young says.
At Spirit Elephant, Young is embracing this innovation with the introduction of vegan steak as a filet mignon on its New Year’s Eve menu. Made by Colorado company Meati Foods, the quality of these products, and their ability to replicate the texture and flavor of meat, is what puts this trend of next-level meat alternatives on the map for Young.
Products like Meati’s—which include vegan chicken, steaks, nuggets, and jerky—are also allergen-friendly, providing them with broader appeal.
“In our restaurants, we are inundated with requests for gluten-free, and to a lesser extent, we get requests for soy-free,” Young explains. “This new product ticks both of those boxes and is a game changer in that respect.”
As more consumers seek simpler ingredient lists, 2024 is likely to see increased innovation in this area, with plant-based meats becoming indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts.
3Seafood that saves the oceans
Plant-based seafood alternatives are the next frontier in vegan cuisine. In 2023, some major advancements developed in this realm, as well, with the launch of frozen sushi from Konscious Foods, whole-cut salmon filets from Oshi Foods, and a wide range of koji-based seafood from Boldly.
In the pipeline for a 2024 debut is ultra-realistic vegan fish, also made from mycelium, from Aqua Cultured Foods, which counts French Michelin-starred chef Laurent Manrique as a partner.
“I have no doubt there will be much more coming in the seafood realm and it’s so needed with our oceans in peril,” Young says. “We talk to innovators of plant-based seafood often and we are really excited to showcase the best products that come out.”
In the meantime, Young is also excited about crafting seafood alternatives from scratch for the menu at Spirit Elephant, where a nostalgic tuna salad will be available for lunch starting this January.
“King oyster mushrooms make a mean calamari, and hearts of palm and artichoke with some Old Bay work wonders to imitate crab,” she says.
4That plant-based is no longer a trend
The last trend? Young says plant-based is headed toward no longer being a trend—which is a good thing. Addressing rumors about the decline of plant-based trends, Young confidently states: “It’s just getting started.”
Elephant and Vine
She observes that as veganism becomes more mainstream, it may receive less media attention but will continue to grow steadily. The increasing availability and diversity of plant-based options in restaurants and supermarkets reflect this trend.
“Today, everyone has some friends or family who eat plant-based or plant-forward or who avoid certain foods in the animal realm due to health, environment, or personal ethics,” Young says. “But because it’s now mainstream, it doesn’t get quite the attention and that can be interpreted as less trendy.”
Elephant and Vine
Young believes that as innovations continue to emerge, plant-based food will become a standard part of the culinary landscape.
“I think as the innovations continue, plant-based food will just be more and more in the mix, and that will just help our mission,” she says. “We will continue to do our thing—serve delicious food that’s good for you, the planet, and all its inhabitants.”