Is Meatless the Future of Food?
Global meat consumption reached 360 million tonnes in 2018. While meat consumption still remains quite high, there’s a slow but steady change occurring, too. And it’s happening thanks to plant-based meat or alternative meat. So is meatless the future of food?
There are a number of factors that are contributing to the rise of meatless meat. For those who don’t know, meatless meat or plant-based meat is a protein derived from plant sources. With innovation, such products are becoming more and more like the real deal without the possible health hazards.
With dozens of health issues directly linked to diet and a growing threat of food insecurity, meatless seems to be the savior the planet needs. How and why? Let’s discuss.
State of Meat Consumption
We can’t talk about meat alternatives without understanding what meat consumption is like in the world right now.
For years, the meat industry has been growing, more so than the rate of population growth. Whether it’s poultry, beef, or pork, every segment of the industry has seen growth.
The numbers are simply staggering. In 2018, Americans consumed 220 pounds of meat per capita, creating a new record, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The same year USDA reported that Americans were consuming more meat than recommended in the dietary guideline for Americans.
It’s a similar scene in many other nations, including China, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia. So it’s safe to say that meat consumption is actually on the rise in many parts of the world.
We’ll discuss the implications of this growth later. However, the reasons behind this massive growth are many. From a growing middle class to mega corporations ramping up production, several factors are causing this rise.
The data you see here is for 2018, and by many accounts, the production of meat has decreased in 2019 and 2020. Nevertheless, it’s a trillion-dollar industry that’s not going away any time soon.
Why is Meatless the Future of Food?
With such massive numbers representing meat production and consumption, you might think that meatless meat cannot come anywhere near that. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not correct either.
There has been a strong surge in public interest in alternative meat products. And that’s evident from the moves some of the biggest names in the food industry are making. Unilever recently announced that it aims to increase plant-based meat and dairy sales to $1 billion. There have been similar announcements from other big companies as well.
You know something is causing a revolution when corporations want in on the action. That’s exactly the case with healthier meat and dairy alternatives. So it’s clear that even though the meat industry is raking in billions, it’s now faced with some tough competition from meatless protein options.
So what’s driving this change, really? A number of factors!
Negative Impacts of Meat
Climate enthusiasts have been warning about the environmental impact of beef production for ages. Doctors have been linking red meat consumption with deadly diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. These negative impacts of meat have also helped push the need for vegan meat.
Here are some of the most notable negative impacts of meat:
Meat consumption, especially red meat, has been linked with a myriad of medical conditions. Processed meat, in particular, is a big culprit behind some of the deadliest diseases in the world. Research shows that red meat can increase the risk of certain diseases like colorectal cancer, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also increases the overall risk of mortality in both men and women.
Processed meat can cause the formation of certain nitrates and other compounds in your body that are simply bad for your health. For instance, frying bacon or grilling sausages results in the production of nitrosamines. These nitrosamines have a strong link with bowel cancer.
Sodium Chloride or salt is also present in processed meat excessively. Higher long-term consumption of salt can result in high blood pressure, which, in turn, can cause heart disease.
Then you also have an increased risk of carcinogens. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) formed during cooking can raise the possibility of these cancer-causing substances.
Cattle farms have resulted in a huge surge in deforestation. Over the last few decades, the world has lost a significant portion of its forests to urbanization and farming. In Brazil, over 450,000 sq. kilometers of land has been deforested.
Not only is meat resulting in less absorption of carbon dioxide, but it’s also responsible for adding more methane to the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is responsible for increasing temperatures around the world. Cows can produce anywhere from 250 to 500 liters of methane per day.
Because of these factors, cattle farming has been equated with the pollution created by cars.
Shifting Attitudes Toward Protein
There has long been a debate about what is the best kind of protein. Sure, meat is the primary source of protein in the traditional Western diet, but its side effects as discussed above, leave room for a healthy alternative.
With growing awareness about the health risks of consuming meat, there’s a shift happening to healthier forms of protein. This doesn’t just include plant-based alternative meat but also other plant-based natural and whole sources. These include soy, beans, legumes, chickpeas, and even some nuts.
People are realizing that they can get the protein necessary for them through plant-based whole foods. Even athletes and bodybuilders are vouching for a plant-based diet, especially the protein it provides. This general awareness is one of the contributing factors for the growth of the meatless industry.
In 2020, the plant-based food retail industry reached $5 billion. It’s a strong indication that consumers are showing more interest in healthier foods.
It’s interesting that it’s not all vegetarians or vegans driving this growth. A growing number of so-called flexitarians are also causing the growth of alternative meat products. One report cited that 36 percent of Americans are eating animal protein only part-time. In other words, they have reduced their consumption of animal protein in recent years.
While both the meat and meatless plant-based industries were seeing growth in the last few years, 2020 changed that drastically. The global Covid-19 pandemic hit the meatpacking industry pretty hard. With state lockdowns and virus spreads in meat plants, the industry saw its production decline, and so did the revenues.
On the other hand, the plant-based meat industry saw a whopping increase of 264 percent in sales, according to Bloomberg. Similarly, other sectors within the plant-based food sector, like plant-based milk products, saw a sudden surge as well.
Yes, it’s still only a small portion of the overall meat industry, but these giant leaps in the aftermath of coronavirus lockdowns indicate that the public interest is rising.
There could be several factors behind this growth in pandemic days. The most obvious one is the closure of many meat-producing plants. It could also be perhaps because of a growing need for people to start eating healthy.
Another reason is an ethical awakening in people. When the pandemic began, and lockdowns forced meat plants to close, thousands of animals were euthanized. This made people rethink their eating habits and how their meat consumption is affecting animals.
Did you know that the United Nations predicts that the world population will grow to 9.7 billion? Hunger is already rampant in many parts of the world, including the US. Scientists and experts are predicting that at the current rate of consumption, there won’t be enough food to feed the growing population.
This looming threat of food insecurity is pushing for innovation in the food sector. Plant-based meat is part of that revolution. These processed meat options can help bridge the gap between meat production and demand.
With so much pollution attributed to meat production, we also need to take that into account. If production keeps increasing to meet the growing population, it would be a climate disaster.
What are the Plant-based Meat Options?
The meatless meat industry is still in its nascent stages, so there’s a lot of potential. However, it’s dominated by some of the big names that helped cement this movement.
Beyond Meat is one of the biggest players, famous for its Beyond Burger. The alternative protein company was valued at over $1.5 billion when it went public back in 2019. While their Beyond Burgers have become a brand on their own, they also produce a variety of other meatless meat products, including Beyond Beef, Beyond Sausages, and Beyond Meatballs.
Another plant-based meat alternative company, Impossible Foods, has seen massive growth even before the pandemic era. Their Impossible burgers are even popular among non-vegans. They recently partnered with Kroger to sell their products at all Kroger stores. Interestingly, Starbucks added an Impossible patty sandwich to its menu.
In terms of products, you have plenty of meatless options, from burger patties to sausages to even meatless grounds that you can use in your lasagna. Most alternative protein products are made from vegetable protein extract or soy protein. The former is more common these days to cater to those with soy allergies too.
However, there’s also another kind of plant-based protein called mycoprotein. It’s a single-cell protein obtained from the soil. Quorn, the British alternative meat company, is behind this innovative and safe protein. Like Impossible Foods, Quorn also produces a wide range of products to meet the many needs of both vegans and non-vegans. One can easily incorporate these into dishes that traditionally require animal protein.
While Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Tofurky are established names in the alternate protein industry, various startups are introducing new technology and foods into the world.
There are even startups creating alternative seafood. Good Catch Foods produces vegetarian tuna, fish patties, and crab cakes. The company has raised over $51 million in funding with some celebrity backers as well.
Similarly, New Wave Foods, backed by Tyson Ventures, makes shrimps from algae. It’s helping address the growing supply chain problems of the global shrimp industry, which results in a lot of waste and increases emissions.
Is Meatless Meat Better For You?
By all accounts, meatless meat is a healthier, eco-friendly alternative to meat. Those who go plant-based can significantly reduce the risk of certain life-threatening diseases.
These alternative meat products have a lower carbon footprint. More importantly, with advancements in technology, they are starting to taste just like meat. Even the protein composition is comparable to the real meat, as you get the same amount of protein per 100 grams.
However, if you notice, none of these products would qualify as whole foods. That’s because they are, after all, processed. No matter the ingredients or the technology, plant-based meat is essentially a processed food type. This does raise the same concerns as do other processed foods.
Although if you compare these products with processed meat, these are far healthier as they don’t contain trans fats and don’t pose the threat of carcinogens. Nevertheless, they can’t beat the healthiness of whole foods.
So when compared with meat, meatless meat may be better for you. However, if we’re comparing it with whole foods, it’s definitely not better.
You need to adopt a balanced diet that doesn’t include too much meatless meat products. Focus more on whole foods like veggies, fruits, nuts, lentils, and beans. You can even cover your daily protein intake through just veggies, soy, legumes, or nuts.
Is meatless the future of food? If we go by the current industry stats plus future prediction, it sure does look like it. The meatless alternative meat industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Since it’s relatively healthier than real meat, it can be a viable option to enjoy meat flavor and texture without actually consuming it.