Here’s how food trends are changing in the era of climate awareness

If you’ve been to the United States recently, you may have observed something interesting in restaurants and on the news channels in relation to burgers and, more generally, protein. Burgers that look and taste like those made from beef, but are made from plants, are appearing on menus across the country, and lab-grown meat (not currently available to buy) is being described as the potential next frontier in ethical eating.

To some, the future has arrived. To others, it may seem a passing fad, the latest in a long string of ever-changing diets promoted by celebrities and capitalized on by start-ups. Remember the cabbage soup diet, or the 2014 New Yorker article suggesting we had reached the end of food? Are these protein trends the same?

What’s going on?

With growing public attention on the need to tackle climate change, how we produce and consume food – particularly resource-intensive, animal-based protein – has been increasingly identified as an area where focused change can significantly reduce our impact.

And yet for consumers and organizations it can be a challenge to make sense of how it impacts their everyday lives. How we produce and consume food brings the threats and shocks of climate change to life for many of us. Consumer consciousness on resource-intensive animal protein has been identified as a significant lever for reducing our climate footprint; however, this must go hand-in-hand with a food system designed to deliver on sustainable, affordable, nutritious protein for the growing population.

Over the past few years, start-ups have focused on replicating the taste and texture of beef, chicken and other animal-based products – most recently seafood – using plants such as soy and peas as the base ingredients rather than animal meat. The intent is to curb the environmental impact of emissions, water and land use, among other environmental concerns.

These new products are not intended to be a consolation prize for the vegetarian joining dinner. Rather, many of these products target the plate of the masses – and in the United States, they seek to capture 95% of the population that isn’t vegetarian.

But the so-called veggie burger is not new. Some carnivores may remember tasting – and likely rejecting – the veggie burgers of the past because they didn’t match the taste or the nutrition they were seeking from their meat. Since those earlier tastings, however, a few things have changed, with this generation of veggie burgers coming closer and closer to mimicking their meaty counterparts – from look, to taste, to nutrient profiles – with a fraction of the environmental resources required to produce them. For these reasons, we feel this trend is here to stay.

Why the explosion of plant-based protein?

First, innovation. Recent alternative protein advancements have drawn parallels to software, with frequent “updates” to taste and texture as processes and ingredients are refined. And this is only the start of the opportunities for updates and reboots. Market leaders are already discussing future improvements to nutrition profiles, such as lowering sodium and unsaturated fat, and gearing production to allow for diversity in base ingredients such that this nascent industry can be built on crops locally available or in unplanned abundance.

Second, distribution. Start-ups are partnering with fast-food restaurants, big brands and food service providers to bring meatless meat to new locations significantly faster than they could by building the infrastructure and distribution channels alone. These partnerships are providing a critical first step in making products accessible to the masses.

Third, markets. Beyond Meat’s blockbuster IPO has ignited the plant-based food industry, and these markets have started to provide much-needed capital infusions to continue to expand and. And investors are finding more reasons to back these innovations, with expectations the investment trends will continue.

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