As a young vegetarian, going to other peoples’ homes for dinner was a stressful experience, not only for my parents who had to explain why I wouldn’t eat the meal that our host prepared, but also for me, and the nose-wrinkling scrutiny that my veggie burgers evoked.
But, things have changed significantly. According to a new report from the Good Food Institute, more than half of American households purchase vegan versions of meat, eggs, and dairy products.
Given that an estimated less than 2 percent of the global population is vegan, these findings indicate that the average consumer has accepted plant-based food as a regular part of their diet. In short, replacing meat with the plant-based version or pouring oat milk in your coffee is becoming increasingly normal.
Meat, dairy, and egg alternatives no longer come from the specialty store; Kroger, the second-biggest name in the U.S. grocery space, has continued to expand its private-label plant-based food range. The Impossible Burger, which was available exclusively at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in 2016 upon its launch, debuted at Trader Joe’s and Walmart at its lowest price points yet.
Despite constraints and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report also shows that the U.S. plant-based food industry experienced rapid growth in 2020. The retail market grew 27.1 percent to $7 billion, almost twice the rate of the total retail food market. Retail sales of plant-based meat breached $1 billion for the first time, increasing 45 percent to $1.4 billion. On a global scale, plant-based meat sales hit the $4.2 billion mark, up from $3.4 billion in 2019.
Everyone Wants In On the New Protein Frontier
Investments in the plant-based food space also reached an all-time high, totaling $2.2 billion and welcoming a 196 percent increase in first-time investors.
The top fundraisers of the year include Impossible Foods, LIVEKINDLY Co., Sweden’s Oatly, Chile’s NotCo, Hong Kong’s Green Monday (owner of vegan pork producer OmniFoods), reflecting the dominance of plant-based meat and dairy products in the space. One seafood alternative brand, Good Catch, made the list. With Netflix’s Seaspiracy still on the tip of everyone’s tongue, don’t be surprised if you suddenly start seeing vegan fish sticks, shrimp, and fillets popping up in more grocery stores soon.
More than 800 companies across the world now focus on producing, or at least have departments for, foods that directly replace animal products.
In what may have been a surprising move just a decade ago, even meat giants want a cut. Cargill, Brazil-based JBS and Marfrig, Hormel Foods, and Tyson Foods have launched or expanded plant-based ranges. The latter even announced that it would remove eggs from its vegetarian Raised & Rooted line.
The onslaught of meat heavyweights entering the space shows that the mainstream idea of “protein” as something that comes exclusively from an animal is fading. Plant-based meat is meat—even if labeling laws seek to challenge that.
The Future of Vegan Meat, Dairy, and Eggs
Looking ahead, there is still plenty of white space in grocery stores for new plant-based alternatives, such as seafood and eggs, the latter of which has been dominated by California-based food tech Eat Just.
One of the biggest challenges for alternatives producers is creating products that consumers will want to buy as replacements for conventionally produced meat, dairy, and eggs. Although strides have been made, plant-based meat still does not exactly match the texture of whole muscle meat, and egg and dairy alternatives still don’t function exactly like the real thing.
But that will likely change very soon. Fermented protein, which involves using yeast and other microorganisms to produce proteins that are identical to the animal-derived version, is a fast-growing space.
Thirteen startups emerged last year, according to GFI’s state of the industry report. Berkeley-based Perfect Day debuts its first consumer good, Brave Robot, an ice cream containing precision fermentation-generated vegan whey and casein proteins, which gives it a taste and texture available to the real thing, without the ethical and environmental consequences (How sweet it is.)
San Francisco-based Clara Foods is set to launch its egg-free egg proteins and plans to target the foodservice space first, seeing it as the biggest way it can make an impact, rather than retail. Be on the lookout for bacon made from fermented mycelium (backed by Robert Downey Jr., no less), bee-free honey, and the first launch of cultured chicken in the U.S. this year—2021 is all about innovation.