On the plant-based roller coaster
What I talk about when I talk about the downfall of retail sales, eating squirrels, and another reason to change your diet sooner rather than later.
There’s the quandary over calling things vegan. (Most New Foods avoid the V-word at all costs.) There’s the newer issue that today’s phrase “plant-based” means little. There’s what everyone really wants to talk about: whether these products are healthier than traditional animal-based counterparts. Mostly they are, but not if you eat it everyday, not if you don’t also eat your fruit and veggies, and not if it’s potato chips and KitKat’s.
As a new distraction, there’s the hot topic of what the recent dip in plant-based sales means—IRI reported that refrigerated plant-based meat sales were down 3.1% in Q3 2021 compared to the same period in 2020—as if a drop in sales somehow conveys that people are no longer intersted in eating these foods. (Wrong.) One of the problems is that we’re using a few key players to decide the whole category’s success. Because Beyond Meat is the most public-facing poster child for plant-based, and it’s listed on the stock market (NASDAQ: BYND), when the Los Angeles company projects a down quarter it’s as if the whole sector is tanking.
Then there’s our love for comparing apples to apples. Except that when we’re talking about those pesky pandemic years, there are no apples. There was full lock down, minor traveling, when the supply chain sucked, when food service was almost completely closed, and then when it was back on track. These all mean something in our shopping and eating habits, but what exactly?
Bloomberg newly reported that a few key fast food partners including Del Taco and Dunkin’ had dropped Beyond Meat from their menus. One reason, the chains said, was to streamline their offerings and make online ordering easier. (Makes sense.) Another reason was supply chain disruptions. (Also makes sense.) What they didn’t highlight was the primary goal of getting more people in the door. The only way to do this is to offer customers innovation. (How much money does Taco Bell spend to come up with the next Doritos Locos Taco?) In any event, McDonald’s just expanded its McPlant Beyond Meat rollout, and KFC still has its Beyond nuggets. We can only guess that Beyond will be back up soon like a plant-based yo-yo.
The scrutiny of the plant-based industry is wrongly focused on sales. Instead we should be looking at the bottom line environmentally, digging into transparency, figuring out the final word on the good-for-you or better-for-you $100-dollar question.
Outside of getting us to pivot away from thinking about food only in capitalistic terms, let’s get more players in this space, more healthy and delicious options. We need cheap red meat to be a thing of the past, and this will open the door for new twists on plant proteins. Where are the new twists? The plants I’ve yet to try? Make me something that’s not a burger, sausage or a nugget!
In my freezer right now I have kelp burgers from Akua, hemp burgers from Planet Based Foods (I haven’t tried them yet), plant-based patties from Incogmeato and an “orange” burger from Actual Veggies. I have Cajun sausage from The Very Good Butchers and fish filets from Good Catch. They’re all plant-based, but they’re still only the plants I know.
A chocolate milk update: It’s hard to believe, but a fourth grade class at a school in Vacaville, CA, protested the loss of their lunch-time chocolate milk. The problem is twofold. First: What are the kids learning at home? How are they eating? Do they need help? Second: Why isn’t there better nutrition education in the school environment starting at an early age? So much to shake my fist here. But there’s good news. The school capitulated to the kids demands and are adding back chocolate milk to the menu one day a week, every other week. I like that kind of resolution!
A lot of my writing focuses on foods that are analogues to what we eat, but what if there was another path to lessening our reliance on industrial meat and staving off environmental damage at the same time? Thoughts on eating the grey squirrel that is driving the native red out of England? A chef that serves it on his menu said, “It’s mellow, nutty and a bit gamey.” Not into squirrels? In Texas there are feral hogs to deal with. In the Bahamas there’s lionfish and back in London there’s king crab crawling ashore. Read more in Mother Jones. (Don’t miss the recipe for rack of squirrel.)
The USDA is doubling down on advancing agriculture. (Chef’s kiss.) Last year, the agency awarded a 5-year grant worth $10 million to Tufts University to further develop cultured meat, or cell agriculture. But it pales in comparison to its 2022 announcement of earmarking $1 billion dollars to support pilot projects that promote climate smart agriculture. This will include, per the agency: “A wide cross-section of U.S. agriculture and forestry, including the meaningful inclusion of small and underserved producers and early adopters.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was just awarded a one-time gift of $15 million from Mackenzie Scott. I’m a fan of the groups work, they aren’t funded in any way by Big Food, and this money can do so much in the name of public health.
Changing your diet could add years to your life. High level: A woman eating optimally starting at age 20, could increase her lifespan by over 10 years. A man eating optimally from age 20 could add 13 years to his life. Here’s the CNN story, and here’s the study if you want to get into the nitty gritty. (Like why men live longer?!)
Where you can find me:
Attention New Yorker’s! Join me for my first east coast appearance on April 6th at Farm to People in Brooklyn. Panel, book signing, future bites. Get tickets before it’s sold out.
My book is available in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Amazing. Whoever gets it first to fact check it gets, um, something!
I presented to the Edible Education class at UC Berkeley on Wednesday. The students are so interested in where food is going. I hope they can right some of our wrongs. Watch the video on YouTube.
Monday the 21st, I’ll be on a panel titled “The Future of Food: Food Tech and Smart Farming” at the 10th Agrotechnology Conference in Greece.
Check out my Extended Sessions talk. You can rent and watch it anytime. Tired of my mug? The list is pretty amazing and includes Margaret Atwood, Dolly Parton and Bob Odenkirk.
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