Written for Daily Hive by Peter Fricker, Communications Director of the Vancouver Humane Society.
Is the rising popularity of vegan and vegetarian food just another diet fad? Evidence is emerging that it is not only taking root in a growing number of home and restaurant kitchens but also deep in the food industry.
Diners in Metro Vancouver have seen more vegan eateries opening and more plant-based options at many other restaurants. Shoppers are finding new meatless products appearing on supermarket shelves. Even fast-food joints are pushing veggie burgers. Who didn’t hear about A&W selling out of its new plant-based Beyond Meat burger within hours last summer?
The same is happening across much of the developed world. In Britain, the recent launch of a vegan sausage roll caused a national media sensation, as the product quickly sold out and pundits debated the merits of changing an iconic British snack (The U.K. overtook Germany this year as the world leader for vegan product launches).
Even France, the home of Brie cheese, has seen a rise in meatless eating. French supermarket sales of vegetable protein surged by 82 per cent in 2016, and are set to grow by another 25 percent a year through 2020, according to one study.
Nevertheless, some are skeptical about the attention being paid to plant-based food. The U.K.’s Times newspaper reported last year that the meat industry was scornful of the increased interest in vegan food, stating: “Livestock farmers are being told not to panic about the rise of veganism because it is a passing fad for many young people who are merely following the latest fashion.”
But there are clear signs that the “plant-based revolution” is real. And it’s not because of a few more vegan cafes and some popular veggie burgers. The real evidence of change can be found in food business journals, which are reporting a quiet but fundamental shift within the global food industry.
Last year, Ingredion, a giant U.S. food ingredients company, invested US$140 million in manufacturing facilities in Saskatchewan and Nebraska to create flours and concentrates from peas, dried beans, chickpeas and lentils. The company’s CEO explained why: “We’ve identified plant-based proteins as a high-growth, high-value market opportunity that is on-trend with consumers’ desire to find sustainable and good tasting alternatives to animal-based proteins.”
Other companies are doing the same, creating animal-free protein for use in bakery products, cereals, pasta, batters and meat substitutes. In 2017, the global plant-based proteins market was valued at US$ 10.5 billion and is estimated to reach a value of around US$ 16.3 billion by the end of 2025, according to analysts Persistence Market Research.
The egg industry is also being disrupted, as food companies seek to avoid the market volatility of egg supplies and prices, which are affected by disease outbreaks (avian flu) and recalls (salmonella). Many have turned to plant-based alternatives that fulfil the same function of eggs in baked goods or sauces without compromising flavour.
Other food companies have focused on improving the taste and texture of the new plant-based ingredients, such as removing the bitterness of pea protein or giving non-dairy ice cream the same creamy mouthfeel as the real thing – thus creating the potential to “veganize” just about anything.
These advances come on top of the already successful introduction of non-dairy milks, the launch of popular meat substitutes and high-profile investments in the sector by billionaires like Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing and Richard Branson.
While many ethical vegans and vegetarians welcome these developments, which open up the possibility of a future without animal slaughter, there are concerns about Big Food’s involvement, especially its over-processing of food.
That’s why many influential vegans and vegetarians advocate for a “whole foods” plant-based diet and recommend keeping processed foods to a minimum. Desiree Nielsen, a Vancouver-based registered dietitian and host of TV’s The Urban Vegetarian, has said “You can be a junk-food, cheesy-carb vegetarian, or you can be an Oreo- and candy-obsessed vegan.” She says eating processed meat substitutes once or twice a week is fine but diet mainstays should be simpler options like beans and high protein vegetables, preferably home-cooked.
Such advice is certainly having an impact. The rise in meatless products has been matched by an explosion in plant-based cookbooks and recipe blogs, suggesting many people are at least trying to avoid an over-reliance on processed foods.
Whether it’s led by convenient meat substitutes or homemade whole foods, the plant-based revolution looks like it’s here to stay. And keeping animals off your plate has never been easier.
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