College students are some of the strongest and most vocal consumers of alternative proteins. Like many other groups, they can opt out of a meat-based diet for various reasons: concerns about the environment, sustainability of the global food supply, personal health, animal welfare, and cultural beliefs.
The retail sales of plant-based meat alternatives in the US increased by 38% between 2017 and 2019. Although plant-based alternatives to meat make up only 3% of total retail protein purchases, the market growth potential is high, and steady growth in consumer demand is expected to continue.
By 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health had highlighted the links between healthy diets, sustainable agriculture, and environmental degradation. The Commission has been setting universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet. Why is this necessary? Because humanity’s dominant diets are not good for us, and they are not good for the planet. The EAT report explicitly calls for increased plant protein sources and lower red meat consumption to manifest transformation in the global food system.
Plant-based foods can deliver environmental and sustainability advantages over animal-based products — a complete lifecycle assessment of plant-based burger production indicated over 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land impact.
Lots of demographic groups, including college kids, are listening. Ecology-oriented meat-reducers and vegetarians/vegans are typically young, urban, more liberal, and have a higher proportion of female adherents. Gen Z college students have embraced plant-based foods, with 20% college students follow some form of special diet, ranging from semi-vegetarian to vegan.
College Students Need their Protein!
In the book How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, Michael Greger argues, “The best way to minimize your exposure to industrial toxins may be to eat as low as possible on the food chain, a plant-based diet.”
Gen Z listens to their bodies, and the growing popularity of a plant-based diet means it’s like any other healthy way of eating — except without any meat. Yet college students who choose a plant-based diet must be intentional as they design meals so they’re nutritious and balanced.
“Vegetarians are less likely to be overweight and carry a lot of chronic diseases later in life like heart disease, diabetes, morbid obesity, hypertension, and cancer,” says Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, clinical outpatient dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “The foods they’re choosing tend to be higher in fiber, plant-based, virtually free of cholesterol, lower in fat, and very low in saturated fat. But you do have to pay extra attention to get extra vitamins and minerals in.”
Plant-based college students should consider a variety of food ingredients daily:
- protein at each meal
- whole grains
- at least 3 servings of fruit
- 3 to 4 servings of vegetables
- 2 daily servings of calcium
- a few servings of healthy fats
The Importance of Protein
As emerging adults, college students are exploring their food environments and developing dietary patterns to last a lifetime. In some situations, increasing the availability of choices to include environmentally friendly options can facilitate the promotion of such options on campuses.
The brain continues to develop between the ages of 18 and 26, and protein is a necessary building block for this growth. It’s found in brain cells and the connective tissue around them. Proteins are crucial for synaptic strength, which is vital to learning and memory-building. The amino acids found in protein build neurotransmitters, which are essential for expanding knowledge.
Some examples of plant-based proteins include nuts and seeds, tofu, and other soy products, peas, beans, greens, and quinoa. Vegetarians may add in eggs. “Beans would be my No. 1 recommendation,” says Zumpano. “Any of the beans would be a great source, but soybeans specifically are a good choice,” she says, noting that they can help add diversity to your diet. Then there are packaged meat protein alternatives like chick’n, tempeh, and seitan.
As they respond to the devastating advance in climate change, says Tastewise CEO Alon Chen, many companies are working to reduce the significant climate footprint of the animal-farmed meat industry. Innovating ways to move away from animal meat is taking precedence.
Some of the most popular mainstream vegan proteins are:
- Gardein (Conagra): chick’n strips, beefless ground beef, toona, meatless meatballs
- Beyond Meat (publicly owned) offers a variety of meatless meats
- Morningstar (Kellogg): veggie dogs, grillers, sausage patties, chorizo crumbles, popcorn chicken
In addition to proteins, college kids can consume a more than adequate amount of calcium through soy products like Silk, leafy greens, tofu, and dried figs. Healthy vegan fats are easy to find in avocados, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, coconut oil, and chia seeds.
What Variables Are Associated With College Kids & Likelihood To Try Plant-Based Proteins?
What makes certain college kids more likely to adopt or at least try a plant-based lifestyle? A July, 2021 research study analyzed associations between demographics, environmental concern attitudes, and consumption to determine variables statistically associated with trying the plant-based alternatives. The cross-sectional study surveyed enrolled students aged 18–30 years who were physically attending classes at Iowa State University as of March 2020. Of the 1,907 students who started the survey, 1,434 (75%) provided complete data for the variables of interest (mean age 21.4 ± 2.7 years).
The results were really interesting.
- 55% had consumed a plant-based alternative to meat.
- A significantly greater portion of out-of-state students, those with higher fruit and vegetable intakes, and vegetarians or vegans had eaten plant-based alternatives.
- Students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences were significantly less likely than those from other colleges to have tried these foods.
Reasons for eating plant-based food choices varied.
- Two-thirds stated that they liked to try new foods.
- Over half indicated curiosity about the food products.
- Taste and encouragement of friends or family were drivers for approximately 40% of consumers.
- About 30% indicated that they were trying to eat less meat and that plant alternatives were better for the environment.
- Only 20%–25% specified health, animal welfare, or cost as reasons.
Significantly higher percentages of those who had tried plant-based alternatives agreed that:
- these foods are better for the environment
- provide adequate protein
- nature’s balance is delicate
- knew metal packaging is easier to recycle than plastic compared to those who had not eaten these food products
Based on the data analysis, the authors offer the following conclusions:
- The largest effect on increasing consumer preference for plant-based meats was in providing facts on environmental and animal welfare benefits.
- Opinion research with other college students has shown that exposure to climate change science leads to stronger beliefs and support for climate-protective actions.
- Education on environmental issues can lead individuals to take action to change.
- Institutions can implement plant-based alternatives into daily menus to decrease their carbon footprint, model environmental behaviors, and save money.
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