Keto, Paleo, sugar-free, meat-free, dairy-free, vegan, gluten-free, hemp… all words that a decade ago were hardly even on the food manufacturer’s radar.

Today – they are opportunity.

The Kiwi of yesteryear may not in fact even recognise today’s New Zealand food landscape. A global ‘meat retreat’ has seen alternatives solutions open up entirely new market categories in, well, meat-free meat as well as a host of other categories that can no longer be termed fads – they are here to stay.

And although we are definitely still a meat and dairy nation as a majority, the rise of other consumer categories cannot be ignored as they all continue to ‘trend up’.

Pak ‘n Save’s recent announcement that they are to soon screen a Keto-based television commercial says it all. The market is there and ripe in many of these new segments and the powerhouses of the local grocery landscape are paying them attention.

In Christchurch, a vegan sausage has sizzled its way to the top of the 2019 FoodStarter competition in an impressive display of South Island food innovation dominated by a plant-based and vegan theme.

The ‘Bambina’ sausage was one of 121 entries to the FoodStarter competition, a partnership between Foodstuffs South Island and the Ministry of Awesome (MoA), based at the Te Ōhaka Centre for Growth and Innovation, at Ara Institute. Over 90% of entries had a health, environment and dietary awareness focus, with four of the top five products being vegan.

The winning Italian-style sausage was created by Ananda Simply Wholefoods founders Fernando Gutierrez and Marita Lopez, after they felt there was a gap in the market for a tasty vegan sausage that wasn’t trying to imitate meat. “When we first arrived in New Zealand from Argentina seven years ago, we realised there was a gap in the market for a good, high protein, plant-based product.”

Foodstuffs South Island ceo Steve Anderson, says, “All the top five entries showed stunning innovation, but Ananda Simply Wholefoods vegan Bambina sausage was exceptional. You can’t tell it’s plant-based – we thought there must be some kind of meat in there, but there’s definitely not. The balance of flavours and textures make it a truly worthy winner.”

Fellow judge Marian Johnson, ‘chief awesome officer’ at Ministry of Awesome says it’s the first vegetarian sausage she’s had that stands up to a traditional meat sausage. “I often buy vegetarian sausages and I’ve tried many, but this was amazing – it actually tasted like a lovely spicy pork sausage,” she says. “It held together really well and had the kind of texture you’d expect from a good sausage. It was an incredibly tough competition, and we saw an outstanding display of innovation, invention and passion from all five of our finalists.”

Gutierrez and Lopez both grew up watching their parents cook and share food with family and friends, and believe vegan products will increasingly become part of the family food landscape. “Marita and I have extended family all through Europe as well as Argentina; the idea of food as a way to bring people together is a common thread all over the world, including New Zealand,” says Gutierrez. “New Zealand is all about barbecues and sharing plates, and more people are looking for alternatives to meat, which the Bambina is. It’s slightly spiced with fennel seeds and paprika, is lovely and chewy, and gets crispy when it’s shallow-fried.”

Although the Bambina looks and cooks much like a meat sausage, there’s none of the grit or meaty flavour found in some vegan and vegetarian options on the market. “We never wanted to make something that was pretending to be meat,” he says. “This is not pretend meat, either in looks or smell.”

The concentration on plant-based and locally sourced ingredients was very much a running thread at the FoodStarter competition, which is in its second year: “The entries showed just how impactful the current trend for plant-based and vegan is,” says Johnson. “We’re in the early adopter phase at the moment, but we are seeing a lot of startups in that area.”

Things, they are changing.