Can Plant-Based Foods Save Our Food System?

Can Plant-Based Foods Save Our Food System?

Few topics rile people up quite like politics. This election year is indeed no exception. But if there’s one subject that rivals the intense vitriol of political name-calling and Amendment waving, it’s the case against eating meat. Or rather, the case for eating more plants.

While politics may stay a heated battleground ad infinitum, one groups is working to heal the dietary rift between steak and stalk eaters. And the proof is in the growing demand for plant-based foods that satisfy–even fool– the most committed (and critical) carnivores.

It’s a trend that is only going to continue, says Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) —the trade group for producers of plant-based meats, eggs, and nondairy milk products.

With more than fifty member companies since the group launched last winter, the PBFA is giving a long overdue collective voice to the plant-based foods industry, and the growing number of consumers who want more of these products.

“These foods are really important,” says Simon. And a growing body of research supports her statement.

Meat consumption has been linked to serious health risks including heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, while an increase in consuming plant-based foods shows numerous health benefits, namely decreasing the risk of many of those diseases caused by excessive consumption of animal products.

But raising animals for food is also a serious health risk for the planet, as animal agriculture is one of the leading producers of greenhouse gases.

There are many expert predictions about what effects a warming planet will have–not only on our weather patterns–but also on our food and water supplies, and our ability to fight off common infections. Raising livestock is immensely resource intensive; with more than ten billion animals raised for food annually (not including fish), the required amount of fresh water, grains, grasses–and medically important antibiotics—is simply staggering. And it’s unsustainable.

While bucolic imagery of happy grass-grazing cows and frolicking chickens dominate the marketing campaigns of Big Meat and Dairy, ninety-nine percent of all animal foods in the U.S. come from dark and crowded, air- and water-polluting factory farms. Working in a factory farm, slaughterhouse, or meat processing facility, brings some of the highest risk of serious job-related injuries including amputations and accidental death.

That’s not to say the livestock industry isn’t changing—it certainly is. It’s been a most victorious year for egg-laying hens—at least, the ones who will be laying eggs in 2025–the deadline set by most major supermarkets and leading fast food chains including McDonald’s, to transition away from tiny and cramped battery cages, the egg industry norm for more than a half-century.

Demand for pasture-raised and organic meat, eggs, and dairy products are also on the rise. Advocacy groups like the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute continue to spotlight abusers of the organic label when it comes to animal welfare violations. But transforming animal agriculture isn’t enough—particularly when the environment, and our health are at stake. Ethical and environmental improvements to our food system are not only vital to consumer demand, driven primarily by a millennial interest in cleaner food, but also to shareholders.

Tyson Foods, the largest producer of chicken, beef, and pork in the world, recently made headlines when it announced a five percent stake in Beyond Meat, the El Segundo, Calif., based outfit making “real meat made from plants,” as its product labels boast.

Beyond Meat and other plant-based startups like Impossible Foods, are reimagining, among other staples, the iconic veggie burger. The ubiquitous vegan offering often compared to hockey pucks, is today, nearly indistinguishable from beef. Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods recently launched veggie burgers that “bleed,” thanks in part to pulverized beets and carefully formulated recipes designed to mimic the flavors and textures of traditional burgers. Products like these are bringing more meat eaters to the category, even if they don’t give up meat entirely. And while some vegans find the burgers too close to the real thing for their taste, there’s no denying the impact products like these are having on our food system.

“Nothing will force businesses to change faster than the risk of their financial backing being pulled out from under them,” Leah Garcés, director at Compassion in World Farming USA, told Food Navigator.

Worldwide, sales of plant-based meats surpassed $4 billion this year, up 42 percent from 2010, according to Reuters. That growing interest is enough to warrant the efforts of the PBFA to bring more support and funding to the industry. Like other trade groups—think those representing animal products, sugar, soda, and tobacco—the Plant Based Foods Association is focused not just on critical policymaking, but also on education, and bringing more consumers to plant foods.

Simon says we shouldn’t look at plant-based foods as punishment for all of our meat-eating damage to the planet or our health. It’s not bland retribution. It’s deliciousness and doing good all in one.

“What’s so cool about the plant kingdom is just how big it is, how many options we have,” says Simon. “The animal [food] world is focused on only a few animals, and we have the whole entire plant kingdom just filled with possibility.”

A look at some of the PBFA member companies proves that indeed there are a seemingly limitless number of plant-based options.

“We’re seeing incredible innovation drive these categories,” says Simon.

“For so long we’ve been thought of as a category just for vegans and vegetarians,” says Brad Lahrman, Marketing Director at Lightlife, a member of the PBFA, “but that’s only a small number of our consumers.”

Lightlife, which produces dozens of meat alternatives including Smart Dogs, the number one selling meat-free hot dog, has been around since the 1970s. Like many early meat alternative brands, it was relegated to a corner in the refrigerated case of supermarkets and health food stores, “typecast as being just for ‘alternative’ diets,” says Lahrman. Products like Smart Dogs, or the ubiquitous meat-free Thanksgiving roast made by Tofurky, another PBFA member company, have been longtime punch lines of many jokes poking fun at the vegan and vegetarian diet. And while the jokes may still persist (as does the common misspelling; there’s no “e” in Tofurky), consumers continue to embrace plant-based proteins at a record pace.

“Our industrial way of raising animals for meat is ruining the planet,” says Simon. And, she explains, it’s not just tree-hugging vegans who care about how animals are treated, or finding alternate sources of protein, “meat-eaters care just as much about where their food comes from.”

Lahrman agrees, and points to significant growth in conventional grocery channels like Walmart and Kroger, where he says Lightlife sales are up 21 percent, “most of that isn’t coming from vegans,” he explains.

Aside from basic fruit and vegetable consumption, on the rise thanks to an increase in farmers markets and efforts to whittle down the number of food deserts in the U.S., nondairy milk is the leading plant-based category, and it’s taking a toll on conventional dairy.

“Driven by negative health perceptions, reduced retail prices and exports and a growing number of non-dairy alternatives, the US dairy milk market has declined in recent years,” reports Mintel. Dairy sales in the U.S. dropped more than seven percent in 2015, and are expected to decline another eleven percent by 2020. At the same time, nondairy beverage sales grew at more than nine percent, hitting more than $1.9 billion in 2015.

The cheese alternative category has too seen tremendous growth. Miyoko’s Kitchen, a founding PBFA member company, has grown from four to forty employees in under two years. The company has led the way in traditional cheesemaking procedures using nondairy milks. Now with a slew of imitators, Miyoko’s products have transformed the category from what was once a waxy, greasy, and utterly unpleasant nonmelting nondairy cheese experience, now to one of the most exciting areas of the plant-based industry. Fermenting and aging cheeses, and Miyoko’s newest product called VeganMozz that’s nearly indistinguishable from dairy mozzarella, are category game-changers, pivoting traditional dairy eaters toward nondairy alternatives that are better for their health, and for the planet.

Upton’s Natural, another founding PBFA member company, recently put a little known and quite large south Asian fruit on the plant protein map. Jackfruit, with a pulled pork like consistency and, much like tofu, the ability to take on the flavor of any seasonings or sauces, has become a favorite plant alternative in tacos, sandwiches, and more. It’s fun and exciting—two factors millennials also look for in their food choices.

Lightlife, while nurturing its growth of longtime favorites in both natural food stores and supermarkets, is also busy expanding into another category still sparsely populated with meatless alternatives: jerky. It launched its plant-based Smart Jerky at the second largest natural products trade show last month. And it’s certain to have a fair share of competitors in the coming months as well.

“The sky’s the limit,” says Simon. “We’re really just at the beginning.”

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.