Plant-Based Diets Are the Future of Food

With a rising global population and its impact on the environment, our natural resources are at risk. The US food production system alone uses approximately 50% of the country’s total land area and about 80% of its fresh water. In order to wisely steward the environment and alleviate consumer concerns, it is vital that food and agricultural companies promote efforts for sustainability. Producing foods that follow plant-based diets is one way to do just that.

Many consumers are aware of the fact that plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets commonly practiced in Westernized nations. Eating plant-based requires less water, land, and energy than the alternative. Most of the world already lives on primarily plant-based diets largely due to shortages in resources such as fresh water and cropland.

Plant-based diets are also effective in preventing and improving various health conditions. For instance, a whole foods plant-based diet has been shown to significantly improve cardiovascular health. Research also indicates that a whole foods plant-based diet may result in greater reduction of BMI and weight compared to standard care for overweight patients, even without patients’ restricting caloric intake or increasing exercise.

A plant-based diet brings these significant health benefits while avoiding the burnout that can occur when individuals have to count calories or maintain strict exercise regimens. A recent study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes explains, “The main advantage [of a whole foods plant-based diet] is in eating to satiation without restricting the amount of food eaten.”

As researchers and institutions validate the benefits of plant-based diets on the environment and human health, consumer preferences are changing in favor of plant-based foods. The recently coined term, “flexitarian,” provides evidence of this shift. Similar to vegans and vegetarians, flexitarians focus their diets on plant-based foods. Flexitarians, however, allow themselves to eat meat every once in a while.

The meatless meal movement also offers evidence of growing consumer interest in decreasing meat intake. 38% of US consumers now incorporate meatless meals once a week. Innova Market Insights reports that “. . . already 120 million Americans . . . eat meatless meals, offering a sizeable market opportunity to reach a wide audience.”

At a very general level, people simply eat less meat than they used to. Nutrition Business Journal, for instance, reported that 26% of consumers said they had less animal meat in the last 12 months.

It’s safe to say plant-based foods are driving a lot of growth in the food industry.

Take the broad category of plant protein, for example. According to Innova Market Insights, product launches with plant protein claims have risen significantly over the past few years. In 2014, the number of product launches with plant protein grew at nearly double the pace of product launches with animal protein.

Furthermore, Lux Research predicts that, by 2054, several alternative protein sources could represent up to a third market share of the overall protein space, and Markets and Markets projected that the meat substitutes market will experience a CAGR of 6.6% from 2016 to 2022, reaching $5.96 billion by 2022. Plant proteins have also become more popular among athletes because such protein sources require less energy to digest, reduce inflammation caused by exercise, and are full of nutrients.

Within the plant protein space, barriers still exist, however. Consumers report that barriers to adoption of plant protein include taste, nutritional sufficiency, product availability, not knowing how to cook with plant proteins, convenience, and cost. 60% of consumers list taste as a benefit to animal protein. It is noteworthy that, although consumers recognize the environmental and health benefits of plant protein, taste still keeps some of them away. This finding is reminiscent of another survey which found that consumers rank taste as the top factor when making food and beverage purchases.

In addition to growth within the plant protein category, increasing consumer preference for plant-based foods can be seen in other areas.

Mentions of veganism and vegetarianism have become more mainstream on social media, for example. In 2015, foods with vegan claims numbered 7.5% of new food and beverage product launches. Such foods cater to not only vegans but also vegetarians, flexitarians, and anyone in-between. Food Navigator USA explains that “. . . most growth of vegan products are not coming from vegans, but rather [from] meat-eaters who are cutting back.”

No doubt the rise in plant-based diets will have ripple effects within the food industry. For instance, research indicates that a certain strand of probiotics may aid the digestion of plant proteins that cause indigestion for some. It is not hard to imagine, then, that probiotics will take off if their use in plant-based food grows.

With the well-documented environmental and health benefits of plant-based diets, the plant-based food category is taking off without a near end in sight. Food and beverage manufacturers would be wise to heed the ample evidence pointing to the growing demand for plant-based options.