Since when did plant-based products become so technology driven and where do food science and old world plant-based practices “meat”?
The year was 2014 and I was sitting down to one of my first meals in Thailand. I was accompanied by my brother, who was living there at the time, and he boasted that this was one of the best restaurants in the area. Curiously, the only protein on the menu came in the form of faux animal products. I thought to myself, why would we go to a vegetarian restaurant? We are a family of meat maniacs and this particular region of Thailand was known for its fried chicken and seafood. As it turned out, the food was phenomenal and the faux meat tasted well… like meat.
Fast forward to the year 2021 where I am now living in the Bay Area, a stretch of land nestled between the sea and the Central Valley; a region known both for its food and start-up culture. In fact, it is home to Impossible Foods, a leader in food science. Not unlike the restaurant in Thailand, Impossible Foods is introducing consumers to plant-based proteins that function as a proxy for meat. And they’re not alone; so many brands are getting into the plant-based game and their strategy is to imitate the flavors and textures originally attributed to animal products: creamy “cheese”, juicy “beef”, crispy “chicken”, lucious “milk”.
As big food science companies continue to invest millions of dollars in the pursuit of plant-based meat so meat-like that it “bleeds”, I can’t help but wonder what will become of the original plant-based proteins: good ol’ tofu, black bean burger patties, mushroom stir-fries, just to name a few. It’s worth reminding ourselves that not all plant-based proteins are the latest in food innovation; many have been around for centuries. Tempeh, a fermented soy-bean product, is said to have originated in Indonesia prior to 1800. The Indonesian word “Tempeh” refers collectively to a variety of fermented foods (typically tender-cooked legumes) bound together into compact cakes. Seitan, or flavored wheat gluten, was created by vegetarian monks in China almost 1500 years ago. Based on data from the Good Food Foundation, in 2017–2018 plant based meat sales grew by 18.4% whereas tofu and tempeh grew by only 7.8%.
I don’t want to pit the two schools of thought against one another. Whether using traditional products or leaning on modern food science, the results “meat” in the same goal: minimizing our dietary reliance on industrial meat sources that tax our ecosystems and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
I am sure there are some die hard meat-eaters out there who wouldn’t dare eat plant-based for life, and as much as I love my whole milk lattes, I am deeply intrigued by the plant-based movement. I can’t help but wonder what’s in store for the future and how much of an environmental impact it would have for us as a global society to lean in to this trend. The ultimate debate in plant-based seems to be weighing nutrition, flavor, and sustainability.
And that is what the dialogue has to be about. We lose our audience when we try to make appeals to our individual nutritional needs. In fact, A study done by Harvard University states that plant-based and cow-based milks have roughly the same nutritional value. Nutritionally, the same is roughly true of a plant-based burger patty and a beef patty. As such, invocations about heath and diet fall flat under cursory scrutiny. The big difference — and the big opportunity — is promoting understanding of the ecological implications of a plant-based diet.
So what does the future hold for plant-based proteins? What if we can undertake the societal paradigm shift away from animal proteins? In the current and ever growing market of plant-based food, the taste, price, and accessibility are on par with animal-based products. I imagine a world where humans shift back to completely plant-based diets as we had at the beginning of agricultural times with a facade of being the carnivorous beings so many of us are. Perhaps purchasing animal products will become less accessible and affordable and mostly maintained through small scale producers. Maybe in the future plant-based society, there will be an increase in vitamin supplement consumption that vegetarians or plant-based consumers currently take such as B12, Omega3 oils, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, Zinc.
An example of a brand currently paving the way to the all plant-based future is Starbucks who is launching a plant-based restaurant in 2021. Could we see more of this among large restaurant brands in the United States and globally? All in all, it’s exciting that the plant-based movement is becoming largely adopted at a global scale. I do wonder whether old world plant-based traditions will be recognized and if the food science hacker method and technology driven plant-based future will pay homage to the original geniuses of the plant-based revolution. Perhaps, as human beings, we knew what was sustainable and healthy all along…