Jumping on the veggie burger bandwagon seems like a lucrative future for many food producers looking to expand their reach beyond domestic freezer aisles and restaurants. These meat alternatives are touted as delicious, protein-rich health foods promising to solve some of the problems consumers have with the meat industry, such as unsustainability, the slaughter of animals and health.
Plus, if plant-based foods can catch on in meat-loving America, the sky’s the limit.
The global market share of plant-based meat is currently estimated to be valued at $4.3 billion and could likely double in the next five years. Plant-based meat is projected to displace one-third of the $200 billion meat market by 2054.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) cites long-term epidemiologic studies that have shown that replacing red meat with nuts, beans, lentils, peas, soy and other plant-based protein foods (many of which go into plant-based foods) can lower risks of chronic diet-related diseases. It is also more energy efficient to use the calories from soy to make vegan hamburgers and completely bypass animal farming, according to Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment. It takes 25 plant calories to produce 1 beef calorie, 15:1 for pork, 9:1 for chicken — so why not just eat the plants instead of feeding them to cattle?
But food manufacturers thinking of expanding into this growing area need to grasp the entire picture, including its global implications.
For starters, satisfying the growing flexitarian appetites for processed plant protein likely means tapping into the global supply chain of soy and palm oil, two heavily used plant-based ingredients. But soy, depending on its source, can be adulterated by pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Palm oil, meanwhile, carries the stigma of harming the rainforest.
Gerardo Figueiredo Jr., a Sao Paulo-based lawyer and Brazilian food security specialist, explained that the problems are quite nuanced and complicated.
“There are ‘good’ producers, considering those who seek to reconcile production with sustainable techniques, respecting the environment and good practices,” he said. “But then there are those who maintain an outdated culture and often compromise the international image of the product itself.”
Before jumping on the plant-based meat trend, there are international implications to consider.
Thus, beyond punishments, his hope is that these “bad” producers can be motivated to become “good.” Brazil’s extremely strict legislation for the protection of the environment can hopefully drive some of this transformation. Figueiredo explains that “most of the Amazon forest is preserved and other biomes are being recovered by government and private individuals.”
Another issue for plant-based protein alternatives, especially if you’re considering exporting the product, are some of the food additives used in their manufacture.
One of the main market obstacles in competing with meat is that plant-based patties, nuggets and sausages are either too gummy or chewy for consumers and require extensive processing to live up to their animal-based versions. Challenged by mimicking meat’s flavor, texture and appearance, some producers use food additives that have caused a recent stir.
Nationally, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group, is challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the substance used to make the vegan Impossible Burger appear to “bleed” like real meat.
Other common plant-based additives include propylene glycol, magnesium carbonate and erythrosine, aka Red No. 3. Although FDA generally recognizes food additives as safe, other food safety agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have blacklisted many of them. The banned food additives could tank several already-launched U.S. products in the global market.
There is also a wide gap between the health benefits of actual plant-based foods and their highly processed meat replacement frenemies. Consumer advocacy groups, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, note that “veggie burgers don’t grow in the ground. They’re made in factories” and “can have over 50 chemical ingredients.”
For U.S. producers of plant-based meat alternatives to succeed globally, they have to un-process and future-proof them by anticipating the effects their ingredients have on food safety, the environment and their trading partners.