Are We In An Alt-Foods Bubble?
The rise of plant-based alternatives calls for speculations on the future of food.
On a typical morning I take my cereal with a splash of oat milk. For (desk) lunch I almost always order something with cauliflower rice from one of New York’s interchangeable bougie salad chains (Dig Inn, Sweetgreen, Chopt). When I’m feeling indulgent I get by CHLOE.’s Guac burger with the black-bean-quinoa-sweet-potato patty. Then wash it all down with Pressed Juicery’s new vegan soft serve.
What a time to be alive. Ten years ago my dietary preferences would have earned some serious side-eye but today I’m spoilt for choice. And I’m not even lactose-intolerant, gluten-sensitive or vegan. So why the fake dessert and unnecessary nut milks? I’m an unfortunate victim of the “effervescent pixie” lifestyle endorsed by brands like byCHLOE which have me eating out of the palms of their vegan missionary hands. I identify with the variety of veganism that is unabashedly dirty, deriving sick pleasure from @uglyvegan’s steady stream of baked bean pizzas and avocados on hash browns.
But for full-time omnivores who wouldn’t be caught dead eating anything called the v-word, the vegan industry has been quietly rebranding to “plant-based,” the Washington Post reports. Maybe you’re looking for a protein-rich substitute to rice, and farro has a nice ring to it. Or pea milk’s lighter carbon footprint won’t weigh as much on your guilty conscience. Or the occasional tempeh order helps relieve the meat-laden shame you’re carrying around from watching some horrifying documentary about animal cruelty.
Between 2012 and 2018, new U.S. food and drink products that mentioned “plant-based” grew 268%, according to market research firm Mintel. If plant-based is just vegan reincarnate, it’s time to channel our inner Regina George (“is butter a carb?”) and question the faith we put in so-called plant-based alternatives.
Don’t get me wrong — I love my BBQ jackfruit “pulled pork” sandwiches as much as the next Goop-buying millennial. But nothing is ever as it seems in our new organic, non-GMO, anti-processed, cruelty-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, hormone-free, all-natural world. Endless food labels and agriculture’s growing environmental impact have made it increasingly difficult to decide which foods are good for us and which aren’t.
Arby’s can scoff at the meat-free meat trend all it wants, but investment firm UBS projects plant-based protein and meat alternatives to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030. Moreover, the industry gets weirder with every start-up. What began as Beyond Meat’s stock soaring nearly 600% since its original IPO has turned into NUGGS, an internet-inspired no-meat nugget created by 19-year-old tech bro Ben Pasternak as a “chicken nugget simulation with texturized pea protein technology.”
We’re in a full-blown alt-food arms race, from alternative milks (Oatly, Malk, Elmhurst, Milkadamia, Mooala, Ripple) to rice (Banza, RightRice, Fullgreen, Seapoint Farms) to entire meals (Soylent) and even water (Spindrift, Ugly, Recess, Rambler, Bubly). The seltzer bubble as The New York Times calls it, is curious for a country that once liked to buy the world a sugar-spiked Coke.
As consumers continue to replace guilty pleasures with faux foods that mimic the real thing, they would be wise to be wary of “disruptive” brands whose cash-strapped social media marketing teams seduce with on-point aesthetics, tasteful art direction and shiny influencers. Hubble serves as the perfect cautionary tale of the trendy online business whose poorly made contact lenses bypassed federal regulations and gave its customers mysterious eye issues. That’s why the new Instagram-worthy alternative cereal Magic Spoon — a “high-protein, low-sugar, keto-friendly, non-GMO, gluten-free, grain-free, soy-free, wheat-free, nothing artificial, childlike cereal for adults,” as the website states — demands a closer look.
Can we have our cake and eat it too? The closest we can come to understanding which foods are good for both people and planet are through labelling practices and industry certifications. But even those aren’t without complications. In an NPR’s Life Kit episode about breaking down food labels, sustainability consultant and author Rebecca Thistlethwaite says, “Labels are like Band-Aids. They’re superficial, kind of feel-good solutions to systemic problems.”
Last week, the United Nations released a new scientific report that warns of a hotter, hungrier future threatening our food security on an unforeseen scale. A world food crisis looms dangerously close if we don’t change the way we eat, farm and protect our forests. Sure, cutting back on red meat is part of the solution, but what good are our plant-based alternative diets if there aren’t any plants left to alternate with? We should all be making more environmentally conscious consumer choices, but voting with our wallets won’t have nearly as much of an impact as voting with our votes. The real need of the hour: electing into power officials who will hold entire governments accountable for carbon emissions and implement environmental policies that tackle worldwide climate change.