It used to be kale, then Brussels sprouts, then avocados. Some attempted to make fiddleheads a thing. But now, in 2018, the trendiest vegetable is the humble, Charlie Brown-headed cauliflower.
The cruciferous veggie has exploded in the last two years. Whereas it was once considered the bland version of broccoli, today cauliflower is heralded for its many uses: as a chic meal centerpiece (whole roasted head), Keto Diet staple, and even as a healthier latke ingredient.
And it’s not your imagination: It really is everywhere. Nielsen data found the ingredient across 36 different grocery store categories, in everything from dried pasta to frozen foods. Sales for packaged cauliflower products grew 71% last year.
Granted, it’s part of a booming plant-based food industry that is growing at a rapid 20%, but cauliflower has excelled far beyond its farm competitors. That’s because it’s a nutrient-dense and versatile vegetable that possesses varied texture as well as an ability to take on numerous flavors. So it’s no surprise that plenty of new food startups are centered solely around cauliflower.
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Caulipower, which substitutes the vegetable for a flour crust, is now the fastest-growing pizza brand. The line is available at roughly 15,000 grocery stores, including Kroger, Walmart, and Safeway, and recently surpassed sales of 10 million pizzas.
“(With cauliflower crust pizza) I wanted to show that the concept wasn’t cauliflower as a vegetable, but revolutionizing the use of vegetables as ingredients,” Caulipower founder Gail Becker told Forbes earlier this month.
It competes against similar pizza-centric brands, including, Cali’flour Foods, Outer Aisle Gourmet, and, well, Oprah Winfrey. The icon, who also has a stake in Weight Watchers (now rebranded as WW), recently released a line of frozen cauliflower-crust pizzas topped for her brand O, That’s Good!.
Then there are the varieties of of “cauliflower rice,” which is more or less shredded cauliflower made to resemble the popular grain. The category spans several independent brands, like Cauli Rice, but pretty much every big brand (Whole Foods, Bird’s Eye, Green Giant) rolled out their own edition of the versatile side dish. Last year, “cauliflower rice” jumped 60% jump in U.S. search queries, according to Google Trends. (It’s become so popular that the rice industry attempted to get cauliflower companies to stop using the word “rice.”)
Others, meanwhile, see cauliflower as an easy way to “health-ify” meals that have seen declining sales. Roughly 67% of Americans said they now prioritize healthy or socially conscious food purchases, according to a recent survey by Label Insight. That’s likely why Kraft, for example, added a quarter cup of cauliflower into its famous Mac & Cheese.
Cauliflower’s popularity is nothing new, but analysts believe it’s only the cusp of what’s to come. Cauliflower grew 8% annually from 2011 to 2016–up to $357 million in annual sales, and forecasters believe there’s far more opportunity beyond rice and crust. The more Americans opt for low-carb, gluten-free, plant-based diets, the more the versatile vegetable will show up in new categories.
“Expect it to move past the freezer section and into the chips and cracker aisle–typically thought of as the least healthy section of the store,” predicts Well+Good in its annual trends report.
It’s already happening: Gaea sells pouches of pickled cauliflower marinated in olive oil, lemon, and sea salt; Vegan Rob’s probiotic cauliflower puffs look just like Pirate’s Booty but are made “to support digestive and immune health; while Halen Brands’ newly released brand From the Ground Up sells cauliflower powder-based pretzels, crackers, and crisps in flavors like sea salt and cheddar.
“What we’re going after is giving you that same type of look and feel [as conventional favorites] but giving you the ingredient deck you’d always hoped you’d get out of these snacks,” Halen founder and co-CEO Jason Cohen previously told Nosh. “They haven’t changed one thing about [pretzels] since the day they were created.”
But fret not, carb-lovers. Cauliflower-based products are unlikely to replace flour, rice, or bread. As Nosh notes, it’s still a rather pricey vegetable, limited in stock. That makes it hard to mass produce, especially at a very low price point. So while super trendy, it will, at its current status, remain a rather exclusive trendy product.