A simple Google Trends search shows a clear turning point: In 2016, Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat rolled out vegan meat alternatives, and with significant marketing power behind them, searches for the term “vegan” began rising ship. As the plant-based market grew, mock meats—made mostly of soy and pea proteins—began to appear at backyard barbecues, on menus, in cars, and in pop culture via musicians and sports stars. Similar plant “analogs” – products intended to imitate not only meat but eggs and dairy products – have also gained prominence. Now the “plant-based” movement is in the mainstream.
But what was left out? actual plants. Fruits and vegetables for appetizers. Whole grains and whole beans, too. Herbs, spices, vegetable oils.
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There are 250,000 to 300,000 species of edible plants on Earth, along with 2,000 species of edible fungi. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that humans regularly consume only 4 percent of this staggering bounty. Just three plants — rice, corn and wheat — account for roughly two-thirds of the calories and protein we get from plants, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. How boring is that?
In recent years, vegan eating has become more associated with Silicon Valley and stock prices than it is in Salinas and Salisify Valley. With the lion’s share of venture capital investment, it’s no surprise that the companies that make these products have been shaping the global conversation. “The ‘plant protein’ culture has become all about alternative meats,” said Ujwal Arkalgod, co-founder of MotivBase, an AI-powered trend-setting tool. But there’s hardly any talk of the actual value, experience, or pleasure of eating plant-based foods.” Without a change in framing, the climate-smart food movement risks labeling itself, forever associating it with a handful of processed plant-based products rather than a wholesale rethink of a delicious, healthy, equitable and sustainable food culture. .
Through our work for the Food for Climate Association, a nonprofit research organization, we’ve learned that by changing the plant-based narrative to include an abundance of palatable plants and fungi, we can influence which products you invest in, and what ingredients and recipes for chefs and retailers choose to highlight. and ultimately on meals that people can access and enjoy on a regular basis.
The broader public’s embrace of “vegetarian” eating can positively impact human and planetary health while opening up a world of culinary experiences, from barbecue jackfruit sliders to baobab juices to adobo enoki mushrooms. French fries and chips contain not only the usual wheat and corn, but fonio, amaranth, millet, flax, and even sea vegetables, adding nutrition and a new range of flavor. Imagine spot bean chiles (tepary instead of the standard supermarket black tortoise bean) at the back gates or a limited-time show running on ramp pizza or pawpaw ice cream. Or perhaps students are producing ambassadors on college campuses, whole-grain missionaries on corporate wellness committees, and young farmers — from kelp, cowpea, peanuts, nobel, lentils and buckwheat — turned TikTok influencers around the world.
Focusing on whole plants would improve access to nutritious foods in a way that many of these meat alternatives do not. Because of the power of health halos—a phenomenon in which consumers attribute health benefits to foods that carry certain labels, from “gluten-free” to “low-fat”—many eaters see the term “vegan” as an automatic thumb-up. But the nutritional labels of many highly processed plant products require a Google search to decipher: methylcellulose, modified starch, and soy protein concentrate. Researchers do not yet know how much of these components act in the body over time. Meanwhile, a plant-based diet consisting mostly of whole, minimally processed foods has been linked to a range of well-studied health benefits such as reduced risk of chronic disease and obesity.
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A food culture that increases the abundance of edible plant species worldwide can also enhance food sovereignty and food justice movements by drawing attention to diverse food traditions, and amplifying the representation of the people who grow and prepare them. A variety of legumes and grains that can be stored on the shelves can become affordable ingredients, and will open the door to respect for food traditions where meat and cheese play the role of flavoring agents, while plants take center stage. It will also provide a space to honor the symbiotic – and often culturally traditional – relationship between responsibly raised animals, plants, and soil health.
Cultivation of a global food culture that requires a greater diversity of whole plants can also be a climate solution, through agroecological farming methods such as crop rotation and intercropping (planting two or more crops in close proximity). Agriculture, globally, is responsible for up to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Project Drawdown — an organization that lists dozens of solutions to reverse global warming — ranks plant-rich diets among the top three most effective. By their metrics, popularizing diets focused on plant-based foods could have a much greater impact on the climate than the widespread adoption of electric cars, for example.
To get there, the general narrative about “plant-based” has to change. According to Project Executive Director Jonathan Foley, their organization “has shown that shifting to more plant-based diets, along with reducing food waste, is a critical part of addressing greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture and food sector. But we need to.” Having a broader conversation about the larger diet. Participation, education, and broader communication will be key.”
People seem poised for the futuristic future of plants. The market size of legumes, mushrooms, beans and chickpeas is increasing, due in large part to their availability, lower cost and greater adaptability in different cuisines. And while venture capitalists may still be excited to find their next Impossible Burger, interest in vegan products appears to be expanding.
“I can tell you that in our first funding our focus was on finding a product that mimics meat, or other types of animal protein, as close as possible,” Lisa Feria, CEO of Stray Dog Capital — a company that has made more than 45 investments in the existing arena. On plants – tell us. She acknowledged that this approach “made some sacrifices” in terms of health and sustainability. She said the fund is now focused on investing in plant-based products that “still deliver all the memorable elements of the foods we love, but don’t have the downside of already processed or high-sodium ingredients.” One example she points to is MyForest Foods’ MyBacon, which is made with mushrooms and just five other ingredients: beet juice, coconut oil, salt, sugar, and spices. “We have a lot of different possibilities with plants that we’re just beginning to discover,” Vera said.
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You may have seen similar products – a new type of clean “third wave” plant-based food, with ingredients you may already have in your cupboard, and with more diverse flavors and ingredients. If Boca Burger epitomizes the first wave of vegan, and the second impossible, companies like Crafty Counter, The Live Green Co. and Akua kelp burgers among the new ranks.
“The food industry in the United States has long been creating foods to increase deliciousness over health and nutrition,” said Courtney Boyd Myers, co-founder and CEO of Aqua, in an email. “So in the quest to mimic meat, it’s no surprise that the biggest food companies in the plant-based industry are doing the same.” “More and more people are looking for healthier alternatives, and more food companies are creating nutritionally better products that live up to the occasion,” she added.
This could be a cultural inflection point to finally make the leap in sustainable eating beyond mass-market meat imitators to include more biodiverse and minimally processed foods. Companies like Impossible and Beyond have interviewed people where they are to make their vegan products easy to use, and they’ve proven that plants can be delicious and filling. But without expanding the plant-based narrative and encouraging investment in farming and food production methods that meet the needs of the global climate, this moment can pass us—and our food system can move forward, largely unchanged.
Eve Toro Bowl He is the founder and executive director of the Food for Climate Association and author of “Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning(BenBella Books, 2020).
Sophie Egan He is director of strategy for the Food for Climate Association and author of “How to be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet(Workman, 2020).
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