Amy Brown reports on how green-minded millennial and Gen Z consumers are boosting the boom in meat alternatives

Plant-based diets are rapidly gaining ground in the US and Europe, amid changing consumer demand and growing concern over the climate impacts of beef production. Much of the new food innovation is coming from start-ups, attracting a flood of investment, but traditional food companies are also getting in on the action.

The number of people committing to a strictly plant-based, or vegan, diet is on the rise, as well as those who define themselves as “flexitarians”, or occasional meat eaters. Although fewer than one in 10 Americans follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, a Gallup poll found that there were 3 million more vegans in the US in 2018 than in 2012. And sales of alternative meat products are growing at an annual rate of 24.5%, according to Nielsen Total Food View.

One third of Britons have scaled down or stopped meat purchases altogether, according to supermarket chain Waitrose. And consumers in France, Germany, Spain and Sweden are also cutting back on meat as attitudes shift, with Euromonitor predicting that sales of meat substitutes globally will grow 22% by 2023.

Generation Z consumers really care about the whole supply chain, from the farm to the warehouse to the supermarket shelves

Drivers of the plant-based diet trend include consumer preferences for greater choice, health benefits and, for a growing group of consumers, concern about the environmental impacts of food production, including climate change, biodiversity and animal welfare.

“Today, the consumer has a real voice in the food choices available to them,” says Phil Lempert, a US food marketing expert known as the Supermarket Guru. “People care about where their food is coming from. They care about the values of the people who make that food and if they align with their own values. This is especially true for millennial and Generation Z consumers. They really care about the whole supply chain, from the farm to the warehouse to the supermarket shelves.”

A number of recent reports, including from the EAT-Lancet Commission and the World Resources Institute, recommend deep reductions in animal protein consumption due to the climate impacts of livestock production. (See Securing the future of food on a planet in peril)

Today's consumers care about where their food is coming from. (Credit: Igorsm8/Shutterstock)

The EAT-Lancet report, published in the British Medical Journal in January, called for a 50% reduction in meat and sugar consumption as part of a diet that is healthy for humans and the planet.

There has been some pushback in nutrition and science circles against EAT-Lancet’s recommendations. Dr Frank Mitloehner, an animal scientist from the University of California, Davis, argues that meat has been disproportionately linked to climate change emissions, citing statistics from the US Environmental Protection Agency that agriculture represents about 9% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with livestock roughly 4% of that.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) withdrew its sponsorship of the commission’s launch in March after the Italian representative to the Geneva-based organisation questioned its scientific basis, and warned that it could lead to the loss of millions of jobs linked to animal husbandry, the production of “unhealthy” foods, and the destruction of traditional diets.

Venture capitalists have committed $1.3bn to food tech in the first five months of 2018, compared with $1.5bn in the whole of 2017

However, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) describes the EAT-Lancet report as the “first to connect scientific targets for global healthy diets with those for sustainable food production”, and produced a summary of its findings for business.

Asked about WHO’s decision to pull out of the EAT-Lancet launch, Diane Holdorf, managing director of food, land and water at WBCSD, said: “People make decisions about food based on how it tastes and if they believe it is good or healthy for them. Those are the biggest drivers in the trend for plant-based foods. But the signals we are seeing from the science are really critical.” She added that more work needs to be done in nutritional research, but reports like EAT-Lancet help companies prepare for the coming shift.

There is no question that money is flowing into the alternative-meat sector. Venture capitalists committed $1.3bn to food tech in the first five months of 2018, compared with $1.5bn in the whole of 2017, according to a June 2018 Pitchbook report.

Beyond Meat is one of the meat-alternative products attracting big investment. (Credit: Beyond Meat)

Attracting the biggest dollars are US firms Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Impossible Foods raised $450m from investors, including Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, and Beyond Meat raised $240m in an initial public offering in May.

Both companies assert that their products not only taste better and more like real meat than any previous meatless alternatives, but are also far better for the environment.

According to an Impossible Burger spokesperson, its burger requires 87% less water, releases 89% fewer greenhouse gases, contributes 92% less water contamination, and spares 96% more land. Similarly, Beyond Meat claims it takes 99% less water, 93% less land and 50% less energy to make its plant-based burgers, and they emit 90% fewer greenhouse gases. Both companies have published lifecycle assessments to back their claims.

Impossible Foods’ burgers are flying off the shelves so fast it has experienced a shortage in the US

Whether consumer demand for these products is driven more by environmental concern or health reasons, both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are having a moment. Impossible Foods’ burgers are flying off the shelves so fast it has experienced a shortage in the US. Burger King announced it would begin testing sales of the Impossible Burger at its St. Louis locations this spring and then roll it out to its more than 7,000 locations nationwide this year.

Beyond Meat’s burgers and sausages are carried by more than 12,000 restaurants and food-service outlets in North America as well as at national chains such as Whole Foods, Kroger and Target. Mexican fast-food chain Del Taco announced it would add the first plant-based meat on its menu this year, with Beyond Tacos, made with Beyond Meat.

While it is too soon to tell whether the plant-based trend is a true disrupter of conventional animal proteins and dairy milk, a number of major food companies and retailers are hedging their bets. Tyson Foods, the biggest meat processor in the US, recently announced it would introduce a meatless protein product in coming months.

Impossible Foods' burgers are selling so fast in the US, they experienced a shortage. (Credit: Impossible Foods)

Major UK retailer Tesco recently announced it would start selling vegan and vegetarian foods in the meat aisle “to promote health and sustainability”, following competitor Sainsbury’s, which did so last year.

And Danone is moving decisively into plant-based beverages. In 2016, Danone North America acquired WhiteWave Foods, maker of Silk brand soy and nut beverages, and earlier this year opened the largest plant-based yogurt facility in the US.

Some food producers are also seeing the opportunity in blended products of half mushroom and half ground beef, to meet consumer demand for a healthier, more sustainable meal. Sonic Drive-In is the first to offer a blended burger at all of its over 3,500 US locations. Food service company Sodexo is replacing up to 25-30% of the beef in its school-served burgers with mushrooms. And in March, Applegate Farms, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp, introduced its Great Organic Blend Burger at nationwide retailers like Kroger and Sprouts.

The use of the term 'meat' does not sit well with the beef and farming industry groups

The Impossible Burger uses an ingredient called heme, short for leghemoglobin, a molecule found in all living organisms, and highly abundant in animals, to create its product’s beefy, bloody appearance. The firm uses the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants, taking the DNA from soy plants and inserting it into a genetically engineered yeast.

Beyond Meat does not use heme, or soy or GMO ingredients for its burgers, opting to use only plant-based ingredients.

Danone North America owns the largest plant-based yogurt facility in the US. ( Credit: Danone North America)

The use of the term “meat” does not sit well with the beef and farming industry groups, which are lobbying to make it illegal to call lab-grown or plant-based meat-alternative products “meat”.

According to Danielle Beck, senior director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) in the US: “Our members welcome competition, innovation, and consumer choice, but … the federal government must ensure that fake meat companies are held accountable if they make baseless, unscientific claims.”  

The group adds that “high-quality scientific evidence shows that beef provides high-quality protein and nutrients like iron, zinc and B vitamins, offsets nutrient deficiencies and serves as an integral part of healthy diets.”

Alternative proteins are more than a fad. We simply don't have enough protein in the world to meet growing demand

Alan Bjerga, spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation, says plant-based beverages must not be called “milk”. “The dairy industry doesn’t oppose the existence of these products, but it does oppose their mislabelling,” he said.

Nevertheless, overall meat consumption is increasing globally, due to rising affluence in developing countries including China and Brazil. And in the US – the world’s biggest beef eater, according to the OECD – per capita consumption is growing.

“Alternative proteins are more than just a fad, it’s a shift that is well under way, accelerating at a breakneck pace,” says Maria Lettini, executive director of FAIRR, an investor network that raises awareness of the material environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities caused by intensive livestock production. “We simply do not have enough protein in the world to meet growing demand, and while producing animals intensively may provide a short-term and inexpensive means to that end, the irreparable damage to the environment and human health will result in a significant economic cost over the medium term.”

'All nutrient-dense foods have a role to play,' Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.

Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, which represents over 100 farmer and rancher-led organisations and agricultural partners, believes it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.

“Given the global landscape, I think there is room for both traditional beef and animal proteins and dairy as well as plant-based foods and drinks. There are many ways to achieve a healthy and sustainable diet that is affordable and accessible, and all nutrient-dense foods have a role to play. We should not limit any nutrient-dense food as an option,” she says.

Lempert agrees. “It will never be as big as beef or chicken, but it doesn’t have to be. If we take just 20% or 25% of our diet and convert that to plant-based foods, people will feel the health benefits and it will be good for the planet as well.”

Amy Brown is a journalist covering sustainability and responsible business with a particular interest in sustainable agriculture. She also works occasionally as a freelance writer preparing reports for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.

Main picture credit: Foxys Forest Manufacture/Shutterstock
Plant-based diets  veganism  Generation Z  EAT-Lancet report  WBCSD  Impossible Foods  Beyond Meat  Danone  Coller FAIRR  World Resources Institute  US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance 

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