The Hype Around Plant-Based Foods Is Neglecting One Key Ingredient: Plants

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What comes to mind when you hear the term “herbal”? If you’re like most people, you probably fancy something that looks like a traditional burger but is made with plant-based protein. You’re much less likely to think of, well, a plant.

The term “herbal” has catapulted itself into the common vernacular. Used to describe both diet and foods that come primarily, if not entirely, from plants, the plant-based retail sector is now valued at $7.4 billion.

A simple Google Trends search shows a clear tipping point: In 2016, Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat launched their plant-based meat alternatives and, with a juggernaut of marketing dollars behind them, searches for the term “plant-based plants” started their rocket. rise of the ship. As the plant-based market grew, fake meats—made up mostly of soy and pea protein—started showing up at backyard barbecues, on bar menus, in drive-ins, and in the kitchen. pop culture via musicians and sports stars. Similar plant-based “analogues” — products intended to mimic not just meat, but also eggs and dairy — have also risen to prominence. Now, the “plant-based” movement is in the mainstream.

But what has been left out? Real plants. Fruits and vegetables, for starters. Whole grains and whole beans too. Herbs, spices, vegetable oils.

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There are 250,000 to 300,000 species of edible plants on Earth, as well as 2,000 species of edible fungi. Yet the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that humans regularly consume only 4% of this staggering wealth. According to the FAO, just three plants – rice, maize and wheat – account for nearly two-thirds of the calories and protein we get from plants. How boring is that?

In recent years, plant-based eating has become more about Silicon Valley and stock prices than Salinas Valley and salsify. With the lion’s share of venture capital investment, it’s no surprise that the companies making these products have shaped the global conversation. “The culture of ‘vegetable protein’ has become all about alternative meats,” said Ujwal Arkalgud, co-founder of MotivBase, an AI-powered trend-spotting tool. “Meanwhile, the culture of ‘plant foods’ is very different, closer to plants, but there is hardly any talk about the real value and experience or joy of consuming plant foods.” Without a framing change, the climate-smart food movement risks being pigeonholed and forever tied to a handful of processed plant products instead of a wholesale rethinking of a tasty, healthy, equitable and sustainable food culture.

Through our work at the research nonprofit Food for Climate League, we’ve learned that by changing the plant narrative to include the fullness of mouth-watering plants and fungi, we can influence which products receive investment, which ingredients and recipes chefs and retailers choose to highlight, and ultimately what meals people have access to and regularly enjoy.

Wider public adoption of the “plant-based” diet could positively impact human and planetary health while opening up a world of culinary experiences, from barbecued jackfruit sliders to baobab smoothies to adobo enoki mushrooms. The crackers and chips would not just contain the usual wheat and corn, but fonio, amaranth, millet, flax and even sea vegetables, adding nutrition and a new range of flavors. Imagine localized bean chilies (tepary instead of the standard supermarket black bean) at tailgates or limited-time deals on ramp pizza or papaya ice cream. Or maybe students are producing ambassadors on college campuses, whole grain evangelists on corporate wellness committees, and young farmers — of kelp and cowpea, peanuts and nopales, lentils and buckwheat – have become TikTok influencers around the world.

The emphasis on whole plants would improve access to nutritious foods in a way that many of these meat alternatives simply do not. Due to the power of health halos – a phenomenon in which consumers attribute health benefits to foods with certain labels, from “gluten-free” to “low-fat” – many consumers perceive the term “made from plants” like an automatic thumb. at the top. But the nutrition labels of many highly processed plant-based products require a Google search to decipher: methylcellulose, modified starch, soy protein concentrate. Researchers don’t yet know how much of these ingredients behave in the body over time. Meanwhile, a plant-centered diet made up mostly of whole, minimally processed foods is linked to a host of well-documented health benefits, such as a lower risk of chronic disease and obesity.

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A food culture that elevates the abundance of edible plant varieties around the world could also strengthen food sovereignty and food justice movements by bringing attention to varied food traditions and amplifying representation of the people who grow them and prepare. A wider variety of shelf-stable legumes and grains could become affordable ingredients and pave the way for respecting food traditions where meat and cheese act as flavoring agents, while plants take center stage. It would also make room to honor the symbiotic – and often culturally traditional – relationship between responsibly raised animals, plants and soil health.

Cultivating a global food crop that demands a greater variety of whole plants can also be a climate solution, through agroecological farming methods such as crop rotations and intercropping (growing two or more crops in close proximity). Agriculture, globally, is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Project Drawdown — an organization that lists dozens of solutions to reverse global warming — ranks plant-rich diets among the top three most effective. According to their measurements, the popularization of diets that emphasize plant-based foods could have a much greater impact on the climate than the widespread adoption of electric cars, for example.

To achieve this, the public narrative of “plant” must change. According to Project Drawdown Executive Director Jonathan Foley, their organization “has shown that shifting to more plant-based diets, alongside reducing food waste, is a crucial part of tackling greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect of the agricultural and food sector. But we need to have a broader conversation about the broader food system. And broader engagement, education and communication will be essential.

People seem ready for a plant-focused future. The market size of legumes, mushrooms, beans and chickpeas is increasing, largely due to their availability, low cost and increased adaptability in different cuisines. And while venture capitalists may still be eager to find the next Impossible Burger, interest in plant-based products appears to be broadening.

“I can tell you that in our first fund, our goal was to find a product that mimicked meats or other types of animal protein, as closely as possible,” Lisa Feria, CEO of Stray Dog Capital – a firm that has made more than 45 plant investments – told us. This approach, she acknowledged, “came with sacrifices,” in terms of health and sustainability. Now, the fund is focused on investing in plant-based products that “still provide all the memorable elements of the foods we love, but don’t have the downside of really processed ingredients or high protein content.” sodium,” she said. One example she cited was MyForest Foods’ MyBacon product, made with mushroom mycelium and just five other ingredients: beet juice, coconut oil, salt, sugar and spices. “We have so many different possibilities with plants that are only just beginning to be discovered,” Feira said.

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You may have seen similar products before – a new kind of “third wave” plant-based food, with ingredients you might have in your own pantry, and with more diverse flavors and ingredients. . If Boca Burger epitomizes the first wave of plant-based products, and Impossible the second, you can count companies like Crafty Counter, The Live Green Co, and Akua kelp burgers among the new ranks.

“The American food industry has, in large part, always created foods to maximize flavor rather than health and nutrition,” Akua co-founder and CEO Courtney Boyd Myers said in an email. “So in the quest to imitate meat, it’s no surprise that the biggest food companies in the plant-based industry have done the same.” She added, “More and more people are looking for healthier alternatives, and more and more food companies are creating nutritionally superior products that respond to this opportunity.”

This could be an inflection point, culturally, to finally make the leap into sustainable eating beyond mass market meat imitators to include more biodiverse and minimally processed foods. Companies like Impossible and Beyond have met people where they are to make their plant-based products accessible, and they’ve shown that plants can be delicious and filling. But without expanding the plant-based narrative and encouraging investment in farming and food production methods that meet global climate needs, that moment may slip away – and our food system may evolve, largely unchanged.

Eve Turow-Paul is founder and executive director of the Food for Climate League and author of “Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram influencers and our search for connection and meaning(BenBella Books, 2020).

Sophie Egan is Chief Strategy Officer of the Food for Climate League and author of “How to be a conscious eater: making food choices that are good for you, others and the planet(Worker, 2020).

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