According to Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, reforming food production systems, reducing food waste, and relying more on a plant-based diet are among the top ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Nowadays, there are an increasing number of plant-based substitutes for animal products, but what might surprise you is that these new items were not created with the eco-consumers in mind. According to Tastewise, an Israeli-based food research firm, health concerns are the primary driver for the “Alt-protein” market, not sustainability. However, plant-based protein substitutes have become a fast-growing market segment, even though they’ve been around for nearly 20 years.
Dairy products were the first, and still the fastest growing part of the animal-substitute food space. Driven by allergy and diet concerns, almond, soy, and more recently, oat milk were the first commercialized products, as the texture and viscosity of milk were easier to replicate than meat proteins. Today, dairy substitutes represent 18% of the dairy market, and this segment is growing as retailers like Starbucks and ice cream chains begin to offer more varied product alternatives.
Meat alternatives, such as the popular Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat brand, have only recently found shelf space in mainstream supermarkets. According to Taylor Sokol, Strategic Partnership Manager at Impossible Brands, meat-alternative products are more often driven by animal welfare and sustainability concerns. The market growth of this sector has been fueled largely by millennial and Gen Z consumers, “that really care about this stuff.” But most importantly, he adds, “the foods have to be tasty and have similar ‘mouth feel’ to the replacement”, which until recently has been a challenge to food engineers. But for those consumers concerned about environmental impact, these plant-based alternatives are great, as plant proteins require less land clearing and fewer inputs in terms of water and feed required to raise livestock. It takes about 25 lbs. of feed and 1800 gallons of water to yield one pound of beef. Compare that to chicken, where the feed conversion rate is 4.5 to 1..
New products are continually emerging in the alternative food space, including cultured chicken meat grown in a laboratory. Whether this approach is more sustainable than raising chicken remains to be analyzed. Analysis of the entire product life cycle of lab-grown meat protein is still a bit away since commercial channels for these products are in their infancy.
Bringing these products into the mainstream market has been a challenge, as meat alternatives are viewed as less tasty, or just for vegetarians, rather than as a primary choice. Companies have penetrated the market by using influential chefs that test the product and then serve as brand ambassadors to the food service industry as opposed to selling to grocery stores and the retail sector, which is difficult and expensive. Given that the consumer demographic for meatless products is younger, Impossible Brands has even worked with TicTok Influencers to gain market familiarity.
There are new ways to do health and climate-friendly “Meatless Mondays” this New Year. Take a leap in 2023 – the next time you’re wondering what’s for dinner, consider experimenting with plant-based options!