When the Raynor family eats at home, their menus include fresh and local fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and vegetable-based proteins. But when young Jamie and Alva are invited to their elementary-aged classmates’ birthday parties, they join right in and munch on Happy Meals with Chicken McNuggets or cheeseburgers. They’re flexitarians — a growing movement in which people espouse healthy, plant-based eating as a general rule but aren’t so purist as to be outliers when the social situation invites meat-eating.
I haven’t eaten red meat since 1980 — but I’m not the target audience for the alternative protein market that’s on the rise. Only a small percentage of people in the US are true vegans or vegetarians — in a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5% said they were vegetarians. New plant-based food companies are hoping to entice the taste buds of flexitarians, that group of consumers who are interested in reducing the amount of meat they eat.
Vegans and vegetarians like me are always on the lookout for interesting new meat alternatives — these items make eating out and designing meals alongside meat eaters easier. But flexitarians are in the process of discovery and it is they who the alternative meat companies are working to capture. They’re the people who have spent a lifetime eating meat, but who now are curious about how to adjust their menu choices one or more days a week. Restaurants and grocery stores are responding eagerly to the changing demands of consumers who are moving away from eating meat — after all, it’s a new market demographic to capture.
It wasn’t very long ago that veggie burgers were bland, veggie sausage was coarse, and veggie fish was non-existent. Recently, however, alternative meat companies Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger appear on roughly 5% of the menus of all restaurants around the country, and 71% of people polled in the US say they have tried a plant-based burger or other meat alternative.
Orders for plant-based products from large food distributors were up 20% in June, 2021 from the same time in 2019, according to the NPD Group.
Less processed grocery store food choices like fresh fruit sales have climbed nearly 11% and fresh vegetables 13% since 2019, according to Nielsen IQ. So, too, have sales of alternatives to cheese, dairy milk, and fresh meat — in double-digit rates for at least the past 2 years. Almond, oat, soy, and other nondairy products make up 14% of milk sales.
Mary McGovern, the chief executive of New Wave Foods, whose shrimp made from seaweed and plant proteins will be on restaurant menus this fall, sees a shift in the demographics of those interested in trying new plant-based foods. “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years, and I’ve not seen anything like the tectonic change we’re seeing in the market now,” she said.
What’s Important to Know about the Meat You Eat
While it’s good to recognize the importance of meat and dairy products as sources of high-quality protein and essential nutrients, their intensive production comes at a high environmental and health cost.
A group of researchers has created a Health Nutritional Index to convert data about eating meat into minutes of life lost or gained per serving size of each food item consumed. For instance, they found that eating one hot dog costs a person 36 minutes of “healthy” life. In comparison, they determined that eating a serving size of 30 grams of nuts and seeds provides a gain of 25 minutes of healthy life – that is, an increase in good-quality and disease-free life expectancy.
The study also showed that substituting only 10% of daily caloric intake of beef and processed meats for a diverse mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and select seafood could reduce, on average, the dietary carbon footprint of a US consumer by one-third and add 48 healthy minutes of life per day. This is a substantial improvement for such a limited dietary change.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, the researchers found striking variations both within and between animal-based and plant-based foods.
- For the “red” foods, beef has the largest carbon footprint across its entire life cycle — 2x as high as pork or lamb and 4x times that of poultry and dairy.
- From a health standpoint, eliminating processed meat and reducing overall sodium consumption provides the largest gain in healthy life compared with all other food types.
Therefore, flexitarians might consider eating less of foods that are high in processed meat and beef, followed by pork and lamb.
Drilling Down on Livestock Production
Sometimes we don’t want to know the background details on what we eat — ignorance is bliss and all that. Yet we really need to peel back the layer as we consider how our food consumption choices affect the environment and our own health.
Livestock production methods are considered one of the main drivers of environmental damage, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Meat consumption is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide. These gases contribute to global warming.
Livestock farming contributes to these greenhouse gases in several ways:
- The destruction of forest ecosystems: This process releases enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
- Raising livestock: Animals such as cows and sheep create large amounts of methane as they digest food.
- Decaying manure: The manure that ruminant animals produce also releases methane.
- Fertilizer use: Many fertilizers used in soybean production are nitrogen-based, and these produce nitrous oxide emissions.
Final Thoughts about Flexitarians’ Impact on Food Consumption
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable diets as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” This means 2 things:
- Our systems need to produce food that is both nutritious and safe in quantities sufficient to feed the entire globe.
- It must be done in ways that will allow the earth’s limited resources to sustain food production in the future.
Ensuring the future of global food security will require changes in the way we produce our food as well as in what we eat. Increased consumption of protein-rich plants, such as soy and legumes, can be part of the solution, and plant-based meat substitutes can fill in the desire for meat without the impact on mammals, land, and atmosphere. It goes without saying that all food production should seek to use the earth’s natural resources as sustainably as possible.
And maybe the Raynors whom we met at the beginning of this article could bring along some Impossible Nuggets to the next birthday party they attend. In a taste test conducted in Irving, Texas, 201 participants rated regular chicken-based nuggets versus the new Impossible Nuggets — 70% preferred the plant-based eats.
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