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It’s early January, so we’re working out and watching what we eat again after the holidays. In 2018, gym rats and new calorie counters alike may start reaching for a new, trendy health food: plant-based proteins.
Last year, plant-based proteins became more mainstream, thanks to heightened interest from both consumers and investors. Just in the past few days, for example, the supposed health benefits of a vegan or plant-based proteins versus animal proteins earned coverage in influential lifestyle media like Shape, Men’s Fitness and Popsugar. Those outlets point to the buzz currently surrounding plant-based alternatives, the increasing popularity of vegan diets with athletes and the research suggesting better health outcomes linked to eating less meat.
At an industry event I attended in October, Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said animal activist groups are pushing alternative proteins as part of their mission to reduce meat consumption. The groups, she said, try to incrementally reduce meat consumption believing it prepares people to live in a vegan society.
Activists are winning commitments from foodservice companies like Aramark and Compass Group, among others, to serve more plant-based proteins at universities and hospitals, she said.The groups argue plant-based options are healthier (which, of course, means meat must be unhealthy).
The purported environmental and climate change-related benefits of plant-based proteins will also dog animal agriculture. Some year-end stories focused on what people can do to reduce their individual impact on climate change – including one published in the New York Times – advised that people should consider eating less meat or using more plant rather than animal based products.
They argue that animal agriculture – beef production, in particular – is a major contributor of planet-warming greenhouse gasses. Chicken production is shown to be comparatively more sustainable than other meats, and the industry should crow about it, however attention must be paid to how this climate message resonates with society at large. Especially as the door opens to sin taxes being applied to meat products.
Tyson Foods is notably backing Beyond Meat, one of the most promising plant-based protein companies. In December 2017, Tyson even upped its stake in the company to help it expand its product portfolio and distribution. For a diversified protein company – and an industry leader – the position makes sense.
Whether or not plant-based protein explodes in popularity or just winds up as another diet fad, animal agriculture should monitor the trend closely in 2018. Meat is still a key player in the American and global diet – and will continue to be – but the whole industry should be mindful of emerging alternatives and worthy questions about climate impact.