Why Sharla will not compromise on taste

There is a good chance that during a trip to IKEA, you had meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce before you left. At least Sharla has. We talked to her about the coming plant-based alternative to the iconic meatball, being a flexitarian and why she is “eating the rainbow”.

What we eat has a big impact on our health and the environment but making positive changes to our eating habits doesn’t have to mean giving up on taste! If there is one thing that Sharla has learned while working with healthier and more sustainable food, it’s that it doesn’t need to be complicated. The more you know, the more complicated the decisions can seem, but some very simple principles will keep you headed in the right direction without compromising on taste and taking pleasure in your food.

Soon a new member will be added to the IKEA meatball family — one that tastes and looks like a traditional Swedish meatball but is made with plant-based alternative proteins like yellow pea protein, potato, onion, apple and oat bran. Sharla Halvorson, Health and Sustainability Manager at IKEA Food, has tried the plant ball several times already.

“I have tried it in a dozen different recipes. I do like the traditional way with mashed potatoes, peas, cream sauce and lingonberries because it reminds me of Thanksgiving. Living as an American in Sweden is like Thanksgiving all the time, because at least once a week the restaurants are serving something with all of the Thanksgiving side dishes. My absolute favourite way to eat the plant ball, though, is in a polenta with a smoky tomato sauce,” says Sharla.

Sharla grew up in Seattle in a socially engaged family and she describes the city as one of the most progressive in USA when it comes to sustainable living. She believes this background is one of the reasons she ended up aiding bigger corporations in creating a positive environmental impact. After working with sustainability in various industries and businesses, she moved over to food. Last year she joined IKEA and the work with the coming plant ball.

She describes the plant ball as perfect for meat lovers who want a plant-based alternative that tastes the same as the traditional Swedish meatball but is better for the environment.

In what way has working with health and sustainability changed what you eat?

“I love food. For me, food is also about experiencing cultures and the hospitality that comes around food. I have had the fortune to work with a large number of nutritionists over the years. The one overarching theme that comes out in talking with them is moderation, making sure that you are eating lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains, not too much red meat and not too much salt or sugar. I always try to eat the rainbow.”

Eat the rainbow, what do you mean?

“I try to eat foods of as many different colours as possible to get the micronutrition I need, and the vitamins and minerals. That sort of simplifies things. Sometimes I go back and look at what I have been eating the last week. I don’t have to do long complicated calorie counting if I know that I eat the rainbow,” says Sharla.

A few years ago, Sharla and her family started to move over to a flexitarian diet — a diet that consists of mostly plant-based foods and reduced meat instead of avoiding it altogether. For Sharla’s family it means red meat maybe once a month, and fish or chicken once a week.

“When I was younger, I believed I really needed to eat meat to get the proteins. I have since realized that the bad feeling I had in my body was not because I didn’t eat meat, it was because I didn’t eat healthy. Now that I am really focusing on the whole grains, bringing in the beans and legumes, the nuts and seeds and only occasionally eating animal proteins, my body is reacting well.”

When was the last time you ate something even if you felt you shouldn’t?

“For sure lamb and beef. There was one point in my life where I did the paleo diet, which resembles what human hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago. It was a lot of meat and it felt so wrong. I felt so selfish. And now I feel much better both physically and mentally on my flexitarian diet.”

What about imported produce like strawberries in the winter?

“I do buy strawberries in the winter, and I don’t feel that bad about it. I don’t worry too much about where the food comes from, but if I look at something and think that this must be flown on an airplane to get here, I usually don’t go for it. That said, I have learned that the biggest carbon footprint comes from agricultural production, so if you really want to reduce your footprint, eating plants all winter long is the safest bet.”

So we shouldn’t eat only locally produced food?

“I get the question all the time — shouldn’t we produce it locally. In the absolute ideal world, we are only eating locally produced seasonal products. That would mean that Swedes would eat potatoes, oats and carrots every day all winter long. If a product is grown in the right climate and in the right soil, you can get a higher yield with fewer inputs.  That can mean lower carbon footprints, less water and it may even mean fewer fertilizers and pesticides.”

How does the plant ball fit into your flexitarian diet?

“It fits perfectly into our diet! We have of course tried all of the alternative proteins available. Some are good and some are… less good. Very few people are willing to compromise on taste and when we, as well as many other companies, develop delicious products like the plant ball we have the potential to really make a shift in the way people consume food.”

When we introduce food like the plant ball, does it mean that IKEA will remove existing products like the original meatball?

“We will not remove the meatball, but we do actually want to sell fewer meatballs! Our intention is that people who would normally choose the meatball will choose the plant ball instead, which might make the decision to eat less meat a little more appealing. Or at least open the up to the idea that a little bit less meat doesn’t have to be a compromise

Instead of removing products, Sharla says that the focus is more on improving products. One example is the mashed potatoes.

“We are looking at making the mashed potatoes with oat cream instead of milk to make the plant ball dish a more balanced and healthy meal. We have the veggie dog, but it would be interesting to have another alternative hot dog as a replacer for the meat hot dog. We are really looking at bringing in more plant-based options and making sure that the plant-based options are as delicious and tasty as the meat alternatives.”

The new plant ball will be in IKEA stores starting from August 2020 – served in IKEA restaurants and also sold in the Swedish Food Market.