Plant-Based Foods Go Mainstream: Healthy Eating Gets Easier with InnovationsFeb 28, 2022 ● By Carrie Jackson
Plant-based eating has seen an explosion in the past few years as consumers become increasingly aware of how their food choices impact their health and the environment and align with their ethics. According to market research firm SPINS, plant-based eating is now a $7 billion market in the U.S., with $1.4 billion represented by plant-based meat. Consumers can now expect to see veggie burgers at the ballpark, vegan dairy at the cafe, tuna substitutes in every grocery store and a plant-based entrée at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Whether vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian, almost 40 percent of Americans are shifting to a plant-based diet, according to a 2018 Nielsen report. While a plant-based diet supplies essential nutrients and reduces the risk for some cancers, consumers now rank the health of the planet as their number one concern, overtaking personal health, which has been the top priority in recent years, according to market researcher Innova Market Insights. Such an eating regimen can lead to a more sustainable use of resources, combat climate change and help preserve biodiversity. According to a University of Illinois study published in the journal Nature Food, animal agriculture is responsible for 57 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, which accounts for 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Plant-Based Companies Align with Values
Elysabeth Alfano, the founder of Plant Powered Consulting, sees a plant-based diet becoming a lifestyle as consumers demand a broader range of options. “It’s becoming increasingly normal to find plant-based foods and meat alternatives in every grocery store. Oat yogurt, seafood alternatives and vegan honey are now mainstream. People are seeing how inefficient and harmful meat production is and are making the connection between saving the environment and their lifestyle choices,” she says.
Alfano is also the co-founder and CEO of VegTech Invest, an investment management firm that is the first global exchange-traded fund of plant-based companies; it launched January 4 on the New York Stock Exchange, comprising 37 publicly traded companies actively innovating with plants and plant-derived ingredients, and producing products that are animal-free. “We believe that today’s investors want a more resource-efficient, climate-friendly and cruelty-free food and materials supply system, and want to invest their dollars in the same,” says Alfano.
Dairy and Seafood Alternatives Abound
In the grocery store, it’s never been easier to shop for plant-based options. Companies are getting creative and optimizing products that stand on their own merits, instead of just mimicking meat, fish and dairy. With alternatives such as oat, almond and even potato milk touting sustainable credentials, as well as a creamy texture, plant-based dairy is having a surge.
Sales in the plant-based seafood sector grew 23 percent from 2019 to 2020 according to market data from The Good Food Institute. Nestlé recently launched Vuna, a vegan tuna alternative made of pea protein, wheat gluten, rapeseed oil, salt and a flavor blend, and other companies are jumping on board as consumers are becoming more aware of the seafood industry’s environmental problems, particularly overfishing. While a handful are specializing in proteins derived from fermentation and others are developing lab-grown seafood, most are focusing on plant-based products. Due to their fibrous consistency, jackfruit and yam root are ideal fish alternatives for fillets and sticks. Vegan fish stock, as well as plant-based scampi and king prawns, can be found in vegan grocery stores and such online shops as Vejii and GTFO Its Vegan.
Mushrooms Become a Plant-Based Superfood
Mushrooms are having a heyday due to their versatility, and companies are harnessing them as a source of fiber, protein and antioxidants. Meati is a Boulder-based startup that uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to create a whole-cut product that offers the protein of animal meat with the nutrients of fungi. “We believe that systemic change can start with people replacing animal meat even a couple of times a week. Eating Meati chicken or steak shouldn’t feel like a huge departure from animal products, and the nutrition offered is superior to any food out there,” says Christina Ra, vice president of marketing and communications. “People can enjoy eating Meati and feel great about how they’re nourishing their bodies.”
With $50 million in recent venture capital funding, the company is building an 80,000-square-foot production facility and plans to start selling its substitute chicken and beef in national markets later this year.
Meati has drawn on ancient, natural processes to grow clean, sustainable sources of nutrition. “Mycelium is an infinite, self-replenishing food source. Made from a closed-loop system, Meati uses less than 1 percent of the water and land needed for animal meat production,” says Ra. The company grows and harvests the mycelium indoors in stainless steel fermentation tanks using only water, sugar and nutrients. Unlike the animal agriculture industry, no antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticides are used.
Vegan Coaching and Delivery Make It Easy
For people that aren’t ready to experiment with plant-based cooking themselves, vegan and vegetarian meal-delivery services are popping up. One such program is Plantable, founded by Nadja Pinnavaia and designed to give clients the tools to transition into a plant-based lifestyle. Customers sign up online for either a seven- or 28-day program that includes daily shipped meals, one-on-one counseling through phone calls and texts, and lifestyle recommendations to form new habits. “Our goal is to make plant-based eating so tasty and effortless that it becomes a way of life,” Pinnavaia explains.
She says the idea behind Plantable, which is based in New York, but will ship anywhere in the country, is to make plant-based eating less of a barrier for people. “Most of our clients are either looking to kickstart a new lifestyle and don’t know how to begin, or they are busy and want the ease of prepared meals made from scratch with real, clean ingredients. Our menu is a whole-food, plant-based way of eating that is filled with fiber and packed with nutrients. We focus on legumes, tofu and nuts as sources of protein,” she says.
Pinnavaia, who holds a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry, became interested in food and nutrition after having too many family members diagnosed with cancers. Since launching Plantable in 2016, she has observed more clients coming in on their doctor’s recommendation. “We’re seeing a shift towards more consumer-driven health care, where doctors are understanding that meal planning and nutrition are critical to overall health. The community in general is also taking more ownership of their own health and gaining more knowledge of the benefits of a plant-based diet,” she says.
Eating Out Gets Healthier
For people dining out, there is no shortage of plant-based options, and that goes beyond a salad and fries. Eleven Madison Park, in New York City, is the first vegan restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Even fast-food chains are getting on board, with McDonald’s introducing the McPlant burger and KFC debuting a Beyond Chicken made of soy and wheat.
Joe Hehl, the founder of Dragged Through the Garden, a Chicago-based company that consults with restaurants and breweries looking to expand vegan options, has seen an uptick in interest. “Adding a plant-based option or two on the menu can absolutely set some new eyes on a restaurant’s operation. Now this place will show up in searches for ‘restaurants with vegan options’ and appeal to an audience who potentially wouldn’t have eaten there otherwise. Plus, it’s not super-costly on the bottom line,” he explains.
He adds that the availability of meat substitutes on a menu, such as an Impossible Burger, makes it easy for people trying to cut down on their meat intake. “Mainstream substitutes are a little more accessible than something like a bowl of quinoa to someone who is not vegan. This new era of plant-based burgers offers an alternative for those who want to wind down their meat intake, but are unsure how to start,” he says.
Hehl also offers clients recipes and guides for recreating vegan versions of traditional fast food and kitsch menus. Past recipes have included a Vegan Philly Cheesesteak and the Vegan Chorizo Sloppy Joe, for which he offers step-by-step instructions and encourages followers to have fun and experiment with ingredients such as oat milk. “I grew up in a very meat-and-potatoes household and had no knowledge of cooking whatsoever. As I learned about some of the benefits of a plant-based diet, I decided to embrace it as a challenge to myself,” he says. “My favorite plant-based ingredients to use are garlic powder and smoked paprika! Some people are eating plant-based ingredients without even realizing it.”
Consumers have no shortage of options as plant-based eating and lifestyle choices continue to go mainstream. Companies are meeting the demand with creative, sustainable products and services that are better for the planet, healthier for the body and allow people to align their values with their purchases. As the interest increases, new innovations are likely to explode on the scene and the plant-based followers are ready.
Carrie Jackson is an Evanston, IL-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.