Is it finally cauliflower's time to shine?
- Cauliflower is included in a wide variety of food products — among them pizza crust, pretzels and crackers — and has become a substitute for mashed potatoes and rice as well. According to Thrillist, the vegetable can be a healthier stand-in for other ingredients by offering lower calories, lower carbohydrates and no gluten.
- Cauliflower-crusted pizzas are particularly popular, Thrillist noted. The base, which is made from the shredded vegetable, cheese, egg and seasonings, is available on many grocery retail shelves, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
- Restaurants are also joining the trend, with California Pizza Kitchen offering a cauliflower crust since January of this year. Brian Sullivan, senior vice president of culinary innovation for the national chain, told Thrillist that it has become a permanent menu option and that 10% of all the company's pizzas are ordered that way.
Food analysts have been predicting cauliflower's rise for years now. And while the vegetable may not share the same level of fame as kale, it is now showing up in roasted and raw forms in trendy restaurants and in frozen ready-to-eat items in grocery stores.
This rising consumer demand has benefited farmers in the Salinas Valley of California, which grows about 90% of the U.S. supply of cauliflower, followed by Arizona and New York. According to Time magazine, sales of cauliflower hit $390 million in 2016, up from $239 million in 2012. Produce suppliers and grocery outlets are carrying more forms and even colors of the vegetable, which is a member of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae family, which includes cabbage, broccoli, cress, bok choy and Brussels sprouts.
Cauliflower's versatility is key to its growth. It is naturally low in calories and is considered an excellent source of vitamins C, K and B6, as well as fiber and antioxidants. The vegetable even lends itself to indulgence since those on a low-carb, gluten-free diet can still have pizza if they use a cauliflower crust.
There are 36 grocery categories featuring cauliflower as an ingredient, according to Nielsen figures cited by The New York Times. Sales of refrigerated dishes containing cauliflower as a major ingredient jumped 108% in the past year, and baby foods with the vegetable were up by 34%. Green Giant recently told The New York Times that cauliflower is one of its most popular items.
The vegetable is also gaining ground in the snack space. From the Ground Up just debuted a line of cauliflower crackers and pretzels at Kings, Fairway, Hy-Vee and Rouses, and the products are also available online via Amazon, Walmart, Jet, Boxed and Fresh Direct. They contain cassava flour and vegetable blend powders made from real vegetables and use vegan ingredients.
But some critics say that cauliflower doesn't work in everything. Josh Lang, who maintains an Instagram account focused on Trader Joe's, told Thrillist this past spring that he found the chain's frozen cauliflower pizza crust falls short of expectations as a healthy and gluten-free alternative. "It breaks apart too easily and has an overpowering taste of corn to it from the cornstarch and corn flour," he said.
A longer-term concern relates to cauliflower's ideal growing conditions. The cool-season vegetable is sensitive to temperature and won't grow well in unusually hot weather or drought conditions. That doesn't bode well for its future in California, where the six-year drought that was finally declared over last year was one of the worst ever recorded in the area.
As long as consumers want to limit the amount of calories and carbohydrates in their diets and opt for gluten-free ingredients, cauliflower is likely to continue its star turn as a favored vegetable and be included in more food products. Its continued popularity could also influence manufacturers to innovate with other vegetables in snack items and different categories and see how they do in the marketplace.