Nobody expected 2020. For many of us, time felt like a flat circle. But with the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine, the future is starting to look hopeful. This year felt like a blur, but looking back at everything that’s happened, you can see that there was a lot of progress in the food space. And rightly so: With so many of us self-isolating, there had to be developments that make dining at home more delicious. And 2020, bless its heart, definitely delivered on that. Here’s the top 2020 food news, from technological advancements to new vegan products and beyond.
Fast Food Goes (More) Vegan
In 2019, Burger King shook the fast food world when it launched the Impossible Whopper. No longer would busy, hungry people looking for a meat-free meal have to settle for fries and questionable iceberg lettuce “salad.” We have burgers now. Plant-based burgers that don’t suck.
2020 saw progress, too: The biggest of all was McDonald’s, which announced the McPlant (and received plenty of flack online for the name). According to the chain, the McPlant is a burger (and we need to wait until next year for it to hit US test markets), but in the future, the name could represent a number of plant-based menu items, including chicken, breakfast sandwiches, and more.
Pizza Hut US and UK both launched Beyond Meat toppings (but sadly, it’s only a trial in the US), Subway Canada launched vegan meatball sandwiches, and KFC in the US expanded its plant-based chicken trials.
Starbucks launched a vegetarian breakfast sandwich featuring Impossible meat, but a little shop just outside of Seattle has trialed a vegan version (plus dairy-free cream cheese). On top of that, Yum Brand franchises in China — Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC — put plant-based meat on the menu, signaling increased demand for alternative proteins in East Asia.
Due to COVID-19, many restaurants, both the big chains and independent operations, faced uncertainty this year. But with an approved vaccine rolling out, perhaps 2021 will be a year that the aforementioned trials and announcements hit permanent menus.
New Products (at Better Prices)
Fast food delivered, but so did the availability of new vegan products. Beyond Meat launched Breakfast Sausage Links, Beyond Breakfast Sausage patties, and Beyond Meatballs. It also closed out the year by announcing two new versions of its flagship Beyond Burger. The new patties are lower in fat and more nutritionally equivalent to beef, right down to containing vitamin B12.
Supermarkets are showing that they know the value of offering more vegan products. Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the US, expanded its private label vegan brand with 50 new products. Target launched private label burgers that look similar to the Beyond Burger. Trader Joe’s stepped it up with a bunch of new vegan products, from vegan milk chocolate to dairy-free mac and cheese, dairy-free milk, and, as always, plenty of snacks. Oh, and it carries the Impossible Burger at a more affordable price than other supermarkets.
And in the UK, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, and others introduced even more private label vegan products, making those of us who live stateside very, very jealous. Asda introduced dedicated vegan aisles to make finding products even easier. (That said, vegan products reel in cash even among animal-based counterparts: in a study, Kroger found that plant-based meat sales increase 23 percent when staged next to packaged meat.)
The New ‘Space Race’
Some of the most exciting news didn’t happen until the end of the year. While plant-based protein has firmly established itself in mainstream food spaces, cultured meat — also known as cell-based meat, clean meat, and lab-grown meat — is just getting started.
Cultured meat is identical to its conventional counterpart, but raising and slaughtering the animal is left out of the process. If you think that sounds like something out of a mid-century science fiction novel, you’re not far off: scientists take real animal cells, place them in a specialized environment, and feed them nutrients to help them grow real muscle and tissue — real meat, without the animal.
It’s still very much in its nascent stage, but late this year, San Francisco-based food technology company Eat Just earned the Singaporean government’s approval to bring cultured chicken meat to market.
This was shortly after Singapore-based startup Shiok Meats held a tasting event for cultured lobster meat. The scientist-led company seeks to also gain the Singapore government’s approval (the emergence of Singapore as a food technology hub is part of the nation’s plan to produce more food locally).
Land animals tend to be the center of conversations around the connection between animal agriculture and carbon emissions. But, the fishing industry is also a large source of carbon emissions. Plus, overfishing is a threat to marine biodiversity. The team at Shiok Meats aims to address that with cultured seafood.
That’s not all for cultured meat. Israel’s SuperMeat opened a small restaurant to serve its chicken and gain customer feedback. And protein isn’t all that’s emerging from the burgeoning cultured food space. Also in Israel, Meat-Tech 3D, the only publicly listed cultured meat producer, invested $1 million in cultured fat startup Peace of Meat as part of a full acquisition. Cultured fat has numerous applications. Producers could combine it with plant protein to create “hybrid” products with improved aromas, flavors, and textures compared to purely vegan meat.
Fast food is eyeing the cultured meat space, too. KFC announced that it is working with Russian biotechnology firm, 3D Bioprinting Solutions, to develop slaughter-free chicken.
Alternative Proteins = Big Money
Food technology is venture capital’s new best friend. This year, the alternative proteins — that’s plant-based, cultured, and fermented (think microalgae, mycoprotein, or plant-based fermented dairy proteins) — attracted a record $1.5 billion in investments. And that’s according to a report released by the Good Food Institute this September. Brands have attracted even more money since then. Hong Kong’s Avant Meats recently raised $3.1 million to make cell-based seafood. Tel Aviv’s SavorEats raised $13 million after going public on Israel’s stock exchange.
And speaking of going public, several companies — Canada’s Eat Beyond, Natural Order Acquisition Corp., Thailand’s NR Instant Produce Pcl, and The Very Good Food Company — carried out IPOs.
Innovation was all around us this year. In the grander scheme of the plant-based food space, the Netherlands is emerging as a leader in innovation. Plant protein has dominated the majority of conversations surrounding technological innovation up until now.
But now, we’re seeing more aspects of food technology enter the space, like fat, fragrance, and flavor, all of which also play an important role in producing food that tastes appealing. Heck, 40 percent of the world’s top food brands have plant-based innovation departments, according to a report from this summer.
AAK, a company that specializes in oils, is opening a plant-based innovation center in the Netherlands. There, it will leverage more than a century of knowledge to develop fats that make vegan food taste more appealing. Givaudan, a global leader in flavors and fragrances, and Swiss food technology provider Bühler Holding AG, announced a plant-based innovation center in Singapore. Manufacturers are exploring alternatives to carmine. This red food dye traditionally derived from insects could help plant-based meat change color from pink to brown when cooked.
A number of startups that are developing new types of alternative proteins have made progress. Nature’s Fynd, a startup that makes sustainable protein from volcanic fungi, raised $45 million.
Last year, market research firm GlobalData predicted that 3D printed meat would become more mainstream in 2020. And, progress did indeed happen. Startups such as Redefine Meat and SavorEats both raised millions to further R&D and to help scale up production.
Dairy won’t be left out, either. Progress has been made with vegan dairy. Several companies can now make plant-based whey and casein, the main proteins found in dairy, via fermentation. Perfect Day Foods launched Brave Robot, a vegan ice cream brand, leveraging this new technology. And Impossible Foods unveiled the prototype for Impossible Milk, and is taking a similar approach to its plant-based meat. Impossible Milk, it says, will taste and behave just like dairy (so it’ll blend seamlessly into your coffee).
Vienna-based cellular technology company Legendary Vish developed a process for 3D printed fish, which bodes well for sushi and fillets.
This changed the way we eat — food industry experts agree on that. But, it was also a year of behind-the-scenes changes paving the way for a brighter — and kinder — future.