By Greg Gonzales
Ask vegans where they get their protein these days, and eyes are sure to roll. Consumers, especially millennials, are adding more plant-based proteins to their diet than ever before. Their reasons vary, but tend to include health, sustainability and ethical concerns. “At the current trends of food consumption and environmental changes, food security and food sustainability are on a collision course,” says a 2014 American Society for Nutrition study. “Policies in favor of the global adoption of plant-based diets will simultaneously optimize the food supply, health, environmental and social justice outcomes for the world’s population.” Whatever their reasons for incorporating more plant-based protein into their diets, plant-based alternatives are one of the biggest trends this year.
According to Mintel’s 2016 Global Food and Drink Trends report, the increase in novel protein sources appeals to a wider variety of consumers, and indicates that the “alternative” marketplace might take over the mainstream animal-based market. As early as 2013, Mintel reported that more than one-third of U.S. consumers had purchased a meat alternative such as Tofurky or Beyond Meat. Seventy percent of Millennials consume meat alternatives a few times a week, with one-third of them consuming a meat alternative daily.
Some of them are switching to plant-based diets, or not eating as much meat, as a health choice. Recent research from the World Health Organization and other institutions have linked processed meat and red meat consumption to colon cancer, and other forms of cancer. Meat is also rich in saturated fats and sodium, which is bad for heart health when it dominates the diet. According to a Harvard study, replacing these fat-rich meats with foods rich in polyunsaturated fats, like nuts or seeds, reduced heart disease risk by 19 percent. Another study, from Imperial College London, showed that reduced meat consumption also helps prevent obesity in the long term. In addition, a look at the nutrition facts on meat versus peas or beans shows that the latter can provide more fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals without the extra fat the former adds. Reducing meat intake and substituting vegetables provides all the daily dietary requirements.
Consumers have also reduced their meat intake in the name of animal welfare and environment. For example, more than 8 billion chickens were slaughtered for meat in 2014, most of them living in cages too small to move around in. Some argue that this kind of pain and suffering of the animals is enough for them to make the switch, though consumers might also point to environmental factors as well. Chef and Restaurateur Dan Barber writes in his book, “The Third Plate,” that “Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing.” Barber argues in interviews, books and Ted Talks that agriculture, cooking and nature go hand-in-hand, that foods produced along with the local ecosystem are sustainable and even taste better.
Reasons for eating more plants and less meat aside, available alternatives to animal proteins run the gamut of protein sources. Quorn‘s patties and strips get their protein from a fungus to mimic the taste and texture of chicken, while Gardein’s formulation for chicken, fish and burgers do the same using vital wheat gluten. Beyond Meat’s products use a variety of sources, including pea protein, to mimic meats like chicken and beef. Vegans can still enjoy their morning eggs with Follow Your Heart’s VeganEgg, a completely vegan egg product made from algae that cooks up in a pan just like the real thing. Bean burgers, mushrooms, jackfruit, tempeh, tofu, seitan and texturized vegetable protein are just some of the other ways consumers are pushing meat proteins further off their plates. From Paleo to vegan and gluten-free, there’s something for every individual.
“People need the information so they can make their choice, even in the space of non-meat proteins,” said Minh Tsai, Founder and CEO of Hodo Soy. “Even now, there’s a lot of choices. With information, both in terms of what it tastes like and what the ingredients are, customers will have that info and make the right choice when it comes to taste, and when it comes to health.”