Plant-based meats account for less than 1% of overall meat sales in the United States.
Although this seems negligible, the industry's growth has been exponential in recent years, suggesting that a major transformation is underway in how we produce and consume food.
US consumers bought 157 million units of plant-based meats last year, allowing the industry to grow 23% compared to the year before.
That sort of double-digit growth will remain the norm over the next several years, according to Zak Weston, food service analyst at the Global Food Institute. In fact, GFI predicts that plant-based meats will grow to $6.5 billion by 2025.
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“Plant-based meats are starting to hit that sweet spot where they are competitive with the animal-based meat products that they’re replacing on the basis of taste, price, and accessibility,” Weston said. “If something is just as delicious and just as inexpensive and just as accessible, in terms or being in a grocery store or restaurant, and easy to cook or use in your cuisine, a lot of people are going to buy it.”
The very concept involves an obvious contradiction. How can meat, which comes from animals, be created by plants?
But if the criteria is taste, texture, appearance, and amount of protein, than many emerging plant-based products would safely be categorized as meat. In the years ahead, that line will continue to blur as the industry matures.
Here are nine trends that are ensuring that plant-based foods will be the food of the future.
1. Ingredient breakthroughs
When companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods say that their plant-based products taste like real meat, they’re not exaggerating.
After years of experimentation, brands have developed convincing meat replacements with plant ingredients like soybean roots and pea protein. Impossible Foods gets its burger to “bleed” by adding an iron-containing molecule called hemoglobin, and the Beyond Burger relies on beets to create a similar outcome.
Restaurants like Terri NYC use improved versions of seitan, derived from wheat gluten, to create convincing “chicken” sandwiches, and other vegan locations like By Chloe spice and prepare tempeh in such a way to resemble ground beef.
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“Companies are really starting to innovate on the products,” Weston said. “So 10 to 20 years ago, maybe the alternative was tofu, or a soggy black bean burger, but today those products are taste-forward. There’s something cravable and indulgent about them, and they fit very easily into our diets.”
He added: “They’re easy to understand.”
2. Major investments
The most encouraging sign that plant-based meats are here to stay is how major meat producers are investing in plant-based alternatives.
Multinational giants like Tyson, which is the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, have invested in plant-based meat companies.
A $100 million venture capital fund was created by New Capital Crops in 2018 to improve the manufacture and distribution of plant-based meats.
And even consumer goods giants like Unilever are making bets. The conglomerate recently bought the plant-based meats company The Vegetarian Butcher.
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These investments have helped the companies significantly reduce their overhead costs and expand their production.
“There are hundreds of different startups who are offering plant based dairy, eggs, and meats,” Weston said. “Some are just getting started and some are really serious, raising capital and expanding their production and earning millions of dollars every year.
“They’re part of this wave of new generation of plant-based products,” he said.
3. Mainstream recognition
Just a few years ago it would have seemed preposterous for fast food chains to sell plant-based meats.
But White Castle carries Impossible Burgers at its restaurants, Burger King is rolling out Beyond Burgers to its nearly 7,300 restaurants, and other brands like Wendy’s have experimented with meat alternatives.
Big-name endorsements like these help to lend credibility. If Burger King is willing to let an Impossible Burger share the iconic “Whopper” title, then they must be good.
“Burgers were the perfect way to enter the market,” Weston said. “You have great margins, a familiar and comfortable food, and you can make it taste great.”
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4. Markets of scale
The US agricultural system is overwhelmingly designed to support the meat industry. In fact, the vast majority of crops in the US go toward feeding animals that are then slaughtered for food. The same pattern plays out around the world, especially as emerging economies embrace Western diets that are high in meat.
“Our entire food system is geared toward growing feed crops that are then transported and fed to animals that are then processed,” Weston said.
“When we divert so much of our crops into animal feed, we drive up the price of food for everyone, especially the folks around the world who can afford food the least,” he added.
As the industry grows, the agricultural sector is shifting accordingly, allocating more space to the production of crops designed for human consumption, Weston said.
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5. Product placement
While it might seem trivial, product placement has a big impact on sales. When supermarkets began carrying plant-based milks in the dairy section, for example, sales skyrocketed, Weston said.
As supermarkets begin to place plant-based meats in the general meat section, sales are expected to similarly increase.
6. Consumer preference
The majority of people who eat plant-based meats are not vegans or vegetarians. Instead, they’re omnivores who want diversity in their diet.
“Most people really do want to reduce their meat consumption a little bit and replace it with more plants, and they want to do that with something that’s delicious and affordable and easy to cook,” Weston said.
“We’ve seen that it cuts across age, location, where you live, income levels, education levels,” he added. “Almost two-thirds of people in the US are reducing at least one type of meat.”
The vast majority of people buy plant-based meats for health reasons.
In recent years, a growing body of research has linked the consumption of red meat to problems such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Processed meat, in particular, has been found to be dangerous to human health.
By incorporating plant-based meats into their diet, ordinary people are able to cut down on their weekly meat consumption, improving their overall health in the process.
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A Nepalese farmer couple eat their lunch while they take a break while working in a paddy field in Khokana, Lalitpur, Nepal, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Agriculture is the main source of income and employment for most people in Nepal, and rice is one of the main crops.
The environmental benefits of plant-based meats can’t be overlooked.
The meat industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the world, according to the United Nations. On a calorie-to-calorie basis, beef contributes 17.7 times as much GHG into the atmosphere as tofu, 50 times as much GHG as beans, and nearly 180 times as much GHG as nuts.
Meat production also leads to deforestation, land degradation, and water contamination, the UN adds.
Weston said that producing a single calorie of meat requires huge amounts of resources, from water, to crops, to land. For example, producing one calorie of chicken requires nine calories of feed from crops. If those crops were instead used for plant-based foods, the world would be able to generate far more calories on less land.
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Shifting land away from meat production would also allow large swaths of the planet to recover from resource extraction. Currently, livestock require 80% of the world’s agricultural space.
Dedicating some of this land to plant-based foods would reduce the amount of crop land required to feed the planet and also allow farmers to grow crops that regenerate landscapes.
“There are enormous ecological benefits to plant-based protein and those translate into very human benefits for some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” Weston said.
9. World hunger
As the plant-based meat industry grows, it could help the world avoid long-term food insecurity.
Globally, 815 million people are undernourished and an additional 2 billion people are expected to join these ranks by 2050, according to the UN. As climate change diminishes agricultural output around the world, the UN encourages countries to make their food production systems more sustainable by growing more nutritious crops instead of investing in meat production.