MOSS LANDING, CALIF. — Filipino flavors, fermented foods and fiber are among Kelly Swette’s top trend predictions for the year ahead. Ms. Swette is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Sweet Earth, a pioneer in the plant-based foods category and an independently-run subsidiary of Nestle USA, Arlington, Va.
“Nobody wants a brown plate anymore,” said Ms. Swette, a former PepsiCo executive who launched Sweet Earth with her husband, Brian, in 2011. “Overall enhanced quality and premiumization … in addition to color and texture — those are the things that really define the modern food movement and are separating it from what I like to call ‘noodle fatigue’ in the frozen aisle.”
Available in more than 10,000 retail outlets, Sweet Earth’s products include frozen burritos, bowls, breakfast sandwiches and meatless grounds, slices and strips made with seitan, also known as vital wheat gluten. This past summer, the brand added a line of frozen plant-based pizzas.
“For us, pizza was an important category that we really wanted to play in,” Ms. Swette told Milling & Baking News' sister publication Food Business News. “No. 1, it’s a huge category. No. 2, it was a category where there hadn’t been a lot of movement on the retail side in the better-for-you segment. All the innovation was happening around indulgence and cheesiness and bigger and more meat, but there was plenty of opportunity that was not being tapped into on developing more better-for-you pizzas other than the cauliflower crust phenomenon.
“What we wanted to do was bring this Sweet Earth sensibility and focus on both flavor and nutrition to add another dimension to retailers…. and for the Nestle portfolio, it adds another dimension to their pizza category. A better-for- you option.”
Nestle USA, the maker of Digiorno, California Pizza Kitchen, Tombstone and Jack’s frozen pizza brands, acquired Sweet Earth in October 2017 for an undisclosed sum. Ms. Swette and Mr. Swette, president, continue to lead the business in Moss Landing.
“We have been able to bring an innovative spirit to the Nestle organization and have gotten a chance to work with all the various brand teams and development teams across the different sectors,” Ms. Swette said. “I feel it’s a really positive collaboration and openness to a different type of thinking.”
In a recent interview, Ms. Swette discussed future plans for Sweet Earth, the plant-based food movement and her top picks for the ingredients and flavors to watch in 2019.
Food Business News: What’s new at Sweet Earth?
Kelly Swette: We’ll be introducing a new product this year, which we are calling Mindful Chik’n. It’s a really exciting new product and brings a top-of-the-line plant-based chicken-like product into entrees.
We’ll be introducing it in two bowls; one is called Chinese Mindful Chik’n with Black Bean Sauce … and the second bowl will be a Filipino Adobo Bowl … that is really tying into two trends — the rise of Asian food and Filipino food, in particular. This bowl also features a purple sweet potato and kabocha squash with pineapple and snap peas. It’s really vibrant in color and incredibly flavorful. We’re going to be hitting shelves in April… Our first launch will be with Target.
You also developed a line of frozen pizzas recently.
Ms. Swette: Our approach was to go after the crust. Fifty per cent of a pizza is the crust, so let’s develop crust that matters. Let’s get crust that has great flavor and different texture, not a cardboard thin flat crust, but crust with a little chew, interesting ingredients like ancient grains and psyllium and rosemary that also delivers high fiber.
One of our crusts is cornmeal with carrot and chia, so it has sweetness from the carrot and a different kind of chew.
And then we added zesty sauces, plant-based protein that we developed here… We also developed a cauliflower cream sauce that gives you this richly gooey sensation of cheese without cheese.
You were an early mover in the plant-based foods category. Now it’s exploding. What is your perspective of the competitive landscape?
Ms. Swette: As millennials become the most important segment of the market, they’re influencing everyone’s taste… I would say millennial-minded consumers are more adventurous, interested in ethnic cuisines, which tend to be more vegetable-centric, and tend to rely a lot on sauces and spices for flavor. That’s the kind of food that we try to make. Food that inherently is vegetable-based, inherently bright, vibrant, higher in fiber than what you would get with meat-based dishes, and it’s also visually very stunning.
A number of companies are going after more plant-based foods, and the reason is the consumer is responding very positively. They want foods closer to nature; they want more vegetables in their diet. Also it’s more time consuming to prep a lot of vegetables. That makes the convenience of frozen foods really important.
But it’s not just throwing a bunch of vegetables in a bowl; it’s picking recipes that are interesting, flavor-forward, nutrient-dense, and have texture and color. Those are components of what we call the modern food movement. We’re going to continue to push that through introduction of more plant-based proteins… in variety of flavors.
What food trends do you see on the horizon?
Ms. Swette: I continue to see the emergence of more Asian foods and more innovative Asian foods. I think there’s a lot of interest in Filipino foods now… I think part of it is it has been underrecognized and uses beautiful colors and a lot of vinegar, and vinegar is happening everywhere, whether it’s apple cider vinegar shots or drinks. Adobo sauce is vinegar and pepper and garlic and bay leaves. It gives you that really sassy flavor profile that’s not just sickly sweet or just soy. It’s got a lot of nuance. We’ll be introducing a product there, and I would expect to see more people entering in that area.
I also continue to believe that there is a fiber story still left to be told. Everyone has their protein claims front and center, but the next story is fiber, and it’s continuing to rise in consumer consciousness in the way they look and think about food, and it’s tied to growth and interest in gut health.
People recognize you can take probiotics and eat all these fermented foods, but you’ve got to feed the bacteria, and fiber is an important piece of it.
There’s no fiber in meat; it only comes from your fruits and vegetables and grains, so we think the fiber story is really important and continuing to achieve awareness among consumers.
Color is an indicator of nutritional vitality. It’s an indicator of antioxidants in really healthful foods. If you look at our bowls, they are very colorful. Our burritos are very colorful. I think you should look for more things happening in the color story. We will be doing something with the color story coming this summer.
Healthy snacking as a meal replacement or just replacing unhealthy snacks is continuing and starting to find more of a foothold in the freezer section … everything from quesadillas and empanadas and burritos to bites or pods … all kinds of interesting quick, convenient healthy meals that are really just little grazing snacks.
This doesn’t play out so much in our category, but using real food as sweeteners. Everyone will be looking at added sugars as it pops up on the label, so you’ll see things like fruits, dates, sorghum and alternative ingredients that are inherently sweet but also add fiber and color in a very natural way.
Can you be too trendy in this business? How do you know when the time is right to hop on a trend?
Ms. Swette: One of our bestselling bowls is cauliflower mac and cheese. We developed a vegan cauliflower cream sauce three years ago, and we couldn’t get a retailer to take it. Now it’s our bestseller, and we can’t make enough.
We will be coming out with another cauliflower bowl this year that I think is really exciting and playing on a number of trends we’re talking about. It’s called Curry Cauliflower with Forbidden Rice. We’re going to be using forbidden rice, which is probably unfamiliar to a lot of consumers. Basically a black Chinese rice, very high in antioxidants … and steamed cauliflower and tofu with a beautiful curry, coconut turmeric, lemongrass, lime sauce. Colorful, triple antioxidants with the forbidden rice, cauliflower, turmeric and curry … hopefully we’re not too far ahead with that flavor … I think cauliflower being such an ‘it’ vegetable right now, I think this should be a great seller.
We were early on one of our veggie burgers that we introduced three years ago, a za’atar burger. Now everyone is getting to know what za’atar is, a Middle Eastern spice. But we were maybe a little early on that.
I want to continue to push the boundaries and introduce consumers to new ingredients and new foods. We believe our consumer is more adventurous and loves the idea of trying something new. I think that’s one of the reasons frozen foods was stagnating; there just wasn’t enough newness. There wasn’t enough novelty. It wasn’t keeping up with what consumers were either buying at restaurants or making at home.