The ascension of cauliflower

For Gail Becker, a former marketing executive who has two sons with celiac disease, finding gluten-free pizza that her kids could enjoy has long been a challenge.

So a few years ago, Becker started making her own, using a crust that contains cauliflower instead of white flour. Her sons loved her cauliflower creation so much that in 2016 Becker quit her job and launched her own company, Caulipower, which sells frozen cauliflower pizzas and cauliflower baking mix.

What Becker did not anticipate is how quickly it would catch on. Caulipower is now a multimillion-dollar brand, with cauliflower pizzas sold in 9,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Walmart, Safeway and Kroger.

“One thing that we were very insistent on when we started our brand is that we reference cauliflower in the name,” said Becker, who lives in Los Angeles. “We want to celebrate the vegetable. We’re not trying to hide it or sneak it in.”

As more and more health-conscious Americans adopt gluten-free, low-carb and plant-based diets, a growing number of food companies are capitalizing on the trend by using vegetables to replace flour, rice and other simple carbs. Consumers are turning to cauliflower in particular because of its mild flavor and versatility, using it to make an array of recipes that have spread across social media, from muffins and mashed cauliflower to gnocchi, casseroles, pizza and even chocolate brownies.

One of the most popular ways to prepare the cruciferous vegetable is to chop or pulverize it into grain-size particles, which many people use as a substitute for rice. According to Nielsen, the market research firm, sales of packaged cauliflower “rice,” zucchini noodles and other vegetable-based replacements for pasta and other simple carbs reached $47 million this year, with sales of cauliflower substitutes in particular doubling over the past year to $17 million.

Heather Smith, a nutrition expert and founder of theHAUTEbar, a company that tracks wellness trends, said one reason cauliflower had reached “veggie-celebrity” status is its nutrition profile. A 100-gram serving of white rice contains 150 calories, 34 grams of carbs, and one gram of fiber, while a similar portion of riced cauliflower contains just 25 calories, five grams of carbs, and triple the amount of fiber.

Others, like Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian in New York, say they like cauliflower because it absorbs the flavors of other ingredients. She tells her clients to pair riced cauliflower with dishes that have a lot of sauce and flavors, like curries, stir fries and chili. Some people even use riced cauliflower to replace the rice in sushi, stuffed peppers and taco bowls.

“It opens up the door for people to get more creative,” she said. “It’s just a great way to get more vegetables in your diet.”

Food industry experts say that the cauliflower trend is growing because it appeals to a broad spectrum of consumers following a variety of diets, from plant-based to Paleo. Many of them are drawn to vegetables and are seeking out so-called clean labels, or foods that limit additives such as sugar, salt, artificial sweeteners and heavily refined, synthetic or genetically modified ingredients.

According to Nielsen, there are 36 categories across the grocery store that feature cauliflower as an ingredient. The company found that sales of “cauliflower centric” refrigerated dishes rose 108 percent in the past year, and that cauliflower baby foods increased 34 percent. Green Giant, the century-old national food brand, says that cauliflower is among the hottest vegetables it sells today.

“The cauliflower trend is pervasive,” said Jordan Rost, the vice president of consumer insights for Nielsen. “We’re seeing it in everything from cream cheese to baby food. Products that contain cauliflower are experiencing faster growth in sales than their overall categories. It’s driving growth across all foods.”

Some national pizza chains, like California Pizza and Pie Five Pizza, have made cauliflower-crust pizza a standard item on their menus. There are also multiple brands of cauliflower pizza sold in supermarkets, including Caulipower and a brand called Cali’Flour, which sells plain cauliflower crusts and flat breads (including a vegan variety) for consumers who want to add their own sauce and toppings.

Many vegetable substitutes can be made at home with simple kitchen appliances. Riced cauliflower can be made with a food processor or a hand-held tool called a ricer. Another gadget called a spiralizer turns zucchini, peppers and squash into noodles. But the process can be messy and time-consuming, leading some brands to offer more convenient, packaged varieties.

In January, Green Giant introduced four lines of frozen “veggie spiral” noodles in grocery stores, with each line made entirely from zucchini, carrots, beets or butternut squash. The company also introduced 10 lines of riced veggies, including cauliflower, broccoli and kohlrabi.

When the company first introduced its riced cauliflower in late 2016, it was harvesting 5 acres of cauliflower for the product each week. Now it is harvesting six times that amount, 30 acres, equivalent to over 100,000 heads of cauliflower each day, said Jordan Greenberg, the vice president and general manager of Green Giant.

“One of the goals that we had from day one was to create products that offer consumers opportunities to add more vegetables to their diets while swapping out white carbs and less healthy side dishes,” he said.

Trader Joe’s, with more than 450 stores nationwide, started carrying its own brand of riced cauliflower last year that sold out so quickly that some of its stores reportedly instituted a two-bag limit on customers. Whole Foods, Birds Eye and Cascadian Farm also introduced their own lines of riced cauliflower.

But the products have also drawn the ire of the country’s $34 billion-a-year rice industry, which calls its new competitors “rice pretenders.” Now the industry and 10 members of Congress from six rice-producing states, including Arkansas, California, Louisiana and Texas, are trying to stop companies from labeling their cauliflower products rice, which they say is misleading and confusing to consumers.

In February, the lawmakers sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to create a “standard of identity,” or formal definition, for rice that defines it as a product containing or derived from rice or wild rice.

“Rice is a grain, not a vegetable that has been processed to resemble rice,” their letter stated. “While we recognize that consumers are entitled to select rice pretender products, we want to ensure this choice is not an error.”

The rice industry’s strategy is similar to tactics employed by the dairy industry, which started its own campaign last year — backed by lawmakers from dairy-producing states — against plant-based products labeled milk and cheese. Sales of cow’s milk have fallen in recent years, while sales of plant-based alternatives, like almond milk, have risen.

In May, USA Rice, a trade group, sent formal complaints to Green Giant and several supermarket chains informing them that vegetable “crumbles” marketed as rice were misleading. Shoppers might, for example, reach for a package of “cauliflower fried rice” in their local freezer aisle mistakenly thinking that it contains actual rice, said Michael Klein, a spokesman for USA Rice.

“If you want to call it cauliflower crumbles or minced cauliflower or chopped cauliflower, that’s fine,” he said. “But don’t call it rice. It is not rice. There’s a scientific definition of rice, and that’s not it.”

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