Can meat-dominated diets go plant-positive?

Sensemaking / Can meat-dominated diets go plant-positive?

Emily Stewart asks whether meat will continue to star in mainstream diets.

By Emily Stewart / 13 Oct 2016

In many global cuisines, meat is not only a staple and the primary source of protein, but thought of as the most important element of a meal. Terms separating out carnivores from vegetarians have created the impression that either one is firmly for meat, or against it. This dynamic is changing. On the one hand, protein innovations – from cultured meat to plant-based alternatives – are taking scale, and on the other, people are adopting ‘flexitarian’ diets, guided by awareness of the environmental and health impacts of different food sources, as well as other personal considerations. Is meat about to fall off its pedestal? 

Or, to put it differently, are plants about to enter their heyday?

At Forum for the Future, we are working with groups of businesses and NGOs in the UK and US to try to double consumers’ intake of plants by 2040. We have identified some of the big barriers: plants don’t command the same desire as meat; there aren’t sufficient plant-based options on the shelves or menus; there’s a lack of clear and consistent information about meat-free sources of protein in diets.

Happily, some pioneers are taking on the challenge of helping people recognise a greater range of options. And, thanks in part to a rise in flexitarians, their disruptive innovations are getting into the mainstream.

In the US, Beyond Meat has positioned its plant-based burger patties in the same supermarket aisle as the meat, calling for a simple yet seismic shift in consumer perception, assisted by supermarkets simply expanding their parameters from the ‘meat counter’ to the ‘protein section’. Impossible Foods has done the same, by taking its wheat, coconut, potato and heme burger to the chefs of New York’s burger scene. Consumers are attracted by choice, and allowing for meat analogues to be viewed as meat ‘comparables’ might allow retailers to provide their customers with even more, whilst also helping to shift their habits to more sustainable ones.

Menus of Change, an initiative developed by The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in collaboration with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has created a reimagined ‘protein portfolio’. It encourages chefs to rethink their formulations and includes culinary innovations such as serving meat as a condiment (just a little atop a plate of plants), and meatless options that don’t brand themselves as ‘meat-free’, but instead celebrate their deliciousness. In future, this might become commonplace dishes just so happen to be ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’.

Chef Bruno Loubet from leading London restaurant Grainstore adopts this philosophy by putting plants first on the menu, and he’s stopped serving beef altogether. But aware that there will still always be those who prefer meat due to cultural and taste reasons, The Blended Burger Project, a challenge hosted by the James Beard Foundation, strives to make burgers more healthy and sustainable by blending ground meat with mushrooms. The movement allows consumers to keep eating burgers but with more vegetables and less meat.

If we are to catalyse a shift towards greater inclusion of plant based protein in people’s diets, we need to inspire new preferences by driving the development and market-availability of attractive, accessible plant-based alternatives. For this, we really need to get close to consumers. Forum for the Future has turned to the curators of the food zeitgeist: chefs.

We’re challenging chefs to help bust the myth that protein is animal – by creating and using more techniques and ingredients in their cooking to unlock truly tasty alternatives. As the curators of the industry, the trend setters, and those with the handle on habits, chefs have the power to influence people’s expectations about protein.

We will be working with influential chefs to develop innovative and replicable plant-led dishes that will challenge and equip other chefs to properly balance their menus. We’ll also be working with culinary colleges to embed plant protein cooking techniques into their curriculums. All this, to create a peer-to-peer chef movement that will drive a widespread portfolio of tasty plant-based options across the food service sector.

Want to get involved?

We have a strong partnership with several organisations contributing to the Protein Challenge, and we are always seeking to collaborate with leaders. We’re looking for food businesses who want to attract consumers with healthy innovative dishes that reduce strain on the planet. To find out more, contact Simon Billing:

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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