From faux meat to fake milk, the plant-based trend still going strong

It’s not making news during the pandemic, but consumer interest in meat and dairy alternatives hasn’t waned

It’s not making news during the pandemic, but the popularity of plant-based foods is still growing, says an expert on global food trends.

David Hughes.
photo: Supplied

“Because of COVID-19, it looks like plant-based food has gone off the boil because you just hear less about plant-based food,” David Hughes said during a webinar hosted by the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta.

But it’s still a mega-trend fuelled by changing consumer attitudes, he said.

“The argument has been made and accepted that we need to change the food system and adopt healthier diets, lower-impact diets, and more responsible use of resources.”

It’s also part of what Hughes calls a fourth agricultural revolution, driven by the need to feed two billion more people on a stressed planet and new technology such as precision agriculture and gene editing, he said.

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“Big food is certainly doing this,” Hughes said, pointing to work he recently did for Italian food giant Barilla. The company, the world’s largest pasta maker, wants farmers who supply it to practise regenerative agriculture.

“It’s big and it has traction,” he said.

The target market of plant-based foods are not vegetarians or vegans, but flexitarians, he said.

“Ninety per cent of the U.K.’s vegan meals are consumed by meat eaters. There continues to be an astonishing launch of plant-based products across Europe. People believe they are better for their health, they like the taste, they think it’s cheaper or they’re driven by ethics around animal welfare and the environment.”

Prior to COVID-19, every single national government was pushing towards plant-based foods, he said. In Europe, major food companies are putting colour-coded ‘nutrition scoring’ on the front of packaging. The rating (A is the best, E the worst) is determined by an algorithm developed by France’s public health agency based on the ingredients in the product.

Environmental scoring is next, Hughes predicted.

“I would be very surprised that if in the next three to four years if we don’t see governments pushing to have an environmental score on most food products.”

Venture capitalists are also driving the movement.

“In the first quarter (this year), US$740 million went into plant-based meats. That’s astonishing,” he said.

It’s not just faux meats — plant-based versions of eggs and tuna are coming soon, he said.

“Every major chain restaurant has a plant-based product on offer, and in most cases, they’re doing very well.”

The biggest names in the meat sector have also piled on board, including JBS, Cargill, Smithfield and Tyson. Companies such as Nestlé, Stouffers and Danone have plant-based versions of popular products, KFC China is selling faux chicken, and Starbucks China has plant-based milk on offer.

“What shows me that this will have traction on a worldwide scale is that big food is into it big time,” he said. “Humans have an interest in plant-based foods. They also want to know how it was produced, where it was produced, and how were the ingredients produced.”

The pandemic has hurt this trend in a couple of ways — more people are suffering financially and buying more affordable traditional products while restaurants, which have helped popularize plant-based food will be slow to recover, he said.

But quite quickly, people will move back to desiring sustainable food, he predicted.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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