May 8, 2019

Business gets on board the plant-based protein train

By Dianne Buckner 

You know protein alternatives have hit the big time when the CEO of a multimillion-dollar meat company insists he’s now running a “protein company.”

“We’re committed to both animal proteins and plant-based proteins,” says Michael McCain, CEO of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods. The company has recently invested more than $600 million in the new and growing segment of the food business.

Small businesses are capitalizing on the trend in a big way as well. Just four years ago Margaret Coons, of London, Ont., was selling her cashew “cheese” in small batches at local farmers markets. Now Nuts for Cheese products are available in 800 stores across Canada — and she’s just moved her 22 employees into a larger production facility.

“We’ve tripled revenues every year since we started,” says Coons, a former vegetarian chef. “I haven’t had a lot of moments to catch my breath.”

Grocery chains can’t get enough of the trend, either.

“It’s exploding,” says Mike Vaughan-Warford, a produce manager at a Sobeys store in London. “It’s a wide demographic, from students to retirees — we see it across the board.”

Meat alternatives are moving quickly to the mainstream, with companies marketing products to all types of consumers, not just vegetarians or vegans. Flexitarian is a new buzzword to describe people who avoid meat in some meals and enjoy it during others.

What gives? Anyone who tried a veggie hot dog or non-meat patty back in the ’90s may be shocked at the new-found popularity of plant-based food. Back then, the products typically lacked flavour and their texture was unpleasant to many palates.

But advances in food science and technology have produced an array of tasty treats. The addition of extra fat, salt and spices also enhances the flavour of many of the latest plant-based foods.

“Some of the products are formulated to have slightly higher fat levels or salt levels than an animal protein,” says McCain. “But they’ve got great taste and a great eating experience, and they fit into a dietary balance that could be chosen a couple of nights a week.”

The Beyond Meat burger popularized by fast-food chain A&W, for example, contains more fat than the chain’s Teen Burger with cheese and bacon: 29 versus 26 grams, according to nutritional information listed on the company website.

‘Perception of health’

When Health Canada released its updated Food Guide in January, it recommended consumers “choose protein foods that come from plants more often.”

Meat is a high quality source of complete protein, containing iron and important vitamins, but it’s also long been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, to name just a few of the health warnings given by doctors.

Market researchers refer to a “halo effect” when speaking about today’s plant-based foods.

“We’re dealing with a much more educated consumer who understands more about the foods that they’re eating overall,” says Robert Carter, of the NPD Group. “They’re looking for that perception of health and wellness, and these plant-based burgers really tie into that.”

His use of the word perception is telling, considering that there are a lot of tradeoffs in the decision to opt for an entree designed to replace meat.

Good for the environment

Carter says some millennials are also attracted to the idea that plant-based food requires fewer resources than raising livestock for meat.

“The younger consumer is really understanding the social and environmental impact of different kinds of foods that they’re consuming,” he says. “That’s helping drive the trend.”

Animal-based proteins — especially red meat — consume more resources and generate more greenhouse gases than nuts, beans and other plant-based proteins. A recent report from World Resources Institute, a global sustainability think-tank, found that producing beef uses 20 times the land and generates 20 times the emissions compared to growing beans, per gram of protein.

Maple Leaf Foods’ McCain believes the environmental advantage of plant-based foods will be less dramatic in future, however, as the meat industry adopts more sustainable practices.

“Our emissions footprint, our animal welfare commitment, our community commitments are all based on the expectation that we need to reduce our footprint into a sustainable environment,” he says.

Although the term plant-based protein isn’t especially sexy or appealing, market watchers says it’s better than vegan or vegetarian, which could only attract a small segment of the population.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in this industry,” says Coons.

“For a long time, people had to make a decision between having a product they really enjoyed, and eating the way they wanted to, based on their ethical compass or what their health required of them. So now it’s really nice that they don’t have to make that choice anymore.”