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Faux Meats Finding More Friends

Where’s The Beef? Alternative Proteins’ Growing Popularity

Has your doctor mentioned your cholesterol is high? Or that you need to cut back a little? But not ready to give up a juicy hamburger, or the cut of prime rib? Well, you might just be a member of the flexitarian club! Many Americans are aiming to eat healthier in 2021, but aren’t ready to classify themselves as vegetarians. As it turns out, there’s an increasingly popular in-between option – the flexitarian lifestyle – combining both plant-based and meat-based options.

Over the past several years, alternative proteins have experienced a major leap in popularity. Between 2017 and 2019, plant-based foods saw a nearly 30 percent gain in dollar sales, with the COVID-19 crisis causing an even bigger jump. Forbes estimated that there was a 255 percent year-over-year increase in fresh meat alternative sales for the last week of March, while Thebeet.com reported in September that meatless sales rose 35 percent from the start of the pandemic. 

This increase is particularly impressive given that only 5 percent of Americans describe themselves as vegetarians, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll. This number, however, is a bit deceptive. 

Last fall, Jacquelyn Schuh, Archer-Daniels-Midland’s product marketing director for alternative proteins & specialty ingredients, told the industry website Food Processing that: “today, 44 percent of North American consumers self-identify as flexitarian “prioritizing a reduction in overall meat consumption and adding more plant-based foods to their diets.” Similarly, a OnePoll survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of the participants stated that they plan to eat more plant-based meals – and this was before the pandemic!  

Meat The Substitutes

What are these meat substitutes? Alternative proteins come in many varieties, including plants, animal cell culture, microorganisms, and even insects. Among the plant-based protein brands, Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods probably are the most well-known, but beyond these companies’ burgers, you can find plant-based milks, seafood, cheeses and eggs in the marketplace.

The cell-based alt-proteins involve creating animal meat in a lab through a process similar to fermentation. While it is estimated that this hi-tech food concept is still 5-10 years away from general public availability, this type of “cultivated” alternative protein holds great promise for expanding the food supply. 

As Steve Myrick, a VP at the cell-based protein company Memphis Meats, explained to Greenbiz.com: “The food system is almost more vast than any of us can really grasp (and) we’ll still need a lot of different food production methods to keep feeding” everyone in the future. Moreover, cell-based proteins can be made without being as land- or resource-intense as meat or even plant-based proteins. This is all important because population estimates suggest there will be another 2 billion people to feed in 30 years.  

The range of alternative proteins extends from algae and insects to hemp, alfalfa and various types of oilseed crops. Almonds hold great promise for being a popular base ingredient too because they have significant levels of protein and can be used in numerous products. For example, almond protein blended with pulse-based legumes (like beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dried peas) could potentially raise the percentage daily value for certain nutrients in food items, while also adding health-positive ingredients for label-reading consumers. 

Another positive aspect of alt-proteins is that companies can more easily adapt to supply chain shortages and price instability since they can sub in different alternative proteins. “Plant-based beef can be far more agile because we don’t really have to use the same ingredients all the time,” Impossible Foods’ head of impact strategy Rebekah Moses revealed to Greenbiz.com. “So now we use what we have, but there’s nothing saying we can’t use tahil or fava beans or any of a rich array of inputs that are out there.” 

The Attractions Of Alt Proteins

One factor, according to several scientific studies, influencing the dietary shift away from meat is animal welfare. An estimated 75 billion animals are killed each year as the demand for meat is increasing at double the rate of the population, so it’s easy to understand then why carnivores are not good for animals’ health. A research paper published in the online academic Sustainability stated, even meat-eaters admitted that vegan and vegetarian diets improve animal welfare. 

Human welfare is a factor too. People are more knowledgeable about the link between eating animal products (especially red meat) and such chronic illness as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. They are aware too that pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics are used in the livestock production process. 

Alternative proteins also promote dietary diversity, which is vital to a sustainable and nutritious diet, as noted by  a group of nutritionists in a recent Sight and Life magazine report. However, these nutritionists also remind consumers that alternative protein doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Alt-protein-based products frequently don’t have the significant nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 as well as possibly containing numerous less-than-wholesome additives (typically to enhance taste and texture), so it’s recommended to read labels. 

An alt-protein diet does provide healthy benefits for the entire planet. Eating plant-based or other types of meat substitutes instead of animal meat can serve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Lower demand for beef would lead to fewer cows and fewer cows means less methane being released into the atmosphere. This is significant because methane gas is nearly 30 percent more destructively potent than carbon dioxide to the ozone.

This dietary shift, furthermore, affects climate shifts as fewer of the earth’s resources, such as land, energy and water, will be used to raise livestock. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, for example, both tout how sustainable their product is. Impossible states that its burger utilizes 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, and 89 percent fewer GHG emissions than a typical beef burger, while a Beyond burger takes 99 percent less water 93 percent less land, and 90 percent fewer GHG emissions than a quarter pound beef burger.

Sustainable diets are significant because they promote food and nutrition security now and for the future, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

The future looks bright for alternative proteins. Currently we are seeing more and more alt-protein products in the mainstream marketplace, and JP Morgan made a pre-COVID-19 prediction that plant-based meat could easily exceed $100 billion in 15 years. Impossible, you say! Barclays’ prediction for alternative proteins is even “beyond” JP Morgan’s. The multi-national investment bank and financial service company views the alternative meat industry to hit around the $140 million mark in just 10 years.  

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