More and more people are realising the benefits of a plant-based diet. But it was not always this way, with the plethora of plant-based alternatives only commercially available for the past century or so. The first of which, launched in the US in 1896, was a canned “meat” made primarily from peanuts – a far cry from what we know and love today.

It was not until 1985 that we would see anything recognisable to current alternatives hit the supermarket shelves. Quorn, launched by Marlow Foods in the UK and arguably one of the most famous options for plant-based food, was created in response to food supply fears due to global population growth in the ‘60s – a fear still relevant today, as the world is predicted to reach its maximum capacity by 2050.

However, no longer are the days where plant-based alternatives are so limited – from supermarkets to restaurants and fast food, the options now seem limitless, with the Food Market Report stating that the vegan food market is now worth $12.6bn in 2022. A comforting fact, considering the United Nations World Food Council estimates that, of the resources used to feed livestock, transferring 10–15% to humans is enough to raise the world food supply to feed the current population. Not only that, but the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the reduction of meat consumption by 50% in high-income countries could lower the number of malnourished children in developing countries by 3.6 million.

Plant-based food may not be for everyone

The development of the plant-based industry has been helped by the rise of meat alternatives, increasing general awareness of its benefits and encouraging the average meat eater to try something different. According to Vinciane Patelou, director at European Plant based Foods Association, the industry and reception to plant-based alternatives has changed monumentally over the past 15 years. Plant-based food, says Patelou, “is no longer seen as specialist for people with allergies or for people who are vegan or vegetarian – it’s really for everyone”.

Originally, she says, the focus of the association was to bring awareness about the benefits of a balanced diet and plant-based alternatives, but they were often met with misunderstanding about the concept as a whole. “Unless people had a child who was lactose intolerant or a friend who was vegetarian, they wouldn’t know about the products,” Patelou adds. Now, however, “they’re really becoming mainstream”.

Rachel Dreskin, CEO of the Plant Based Food Association (PBFA), the first and only trade association in the US representing over 350 leading plant-based food companies, agrees, adding that the industry has seen tremendous growth in the past few years alone. “Consumers are purchasing more plant-based foods than ever before. In the past three years alone, US plant-based retail sales have grown 54%. In fact, growth of plant-based foods continues to outpace total food sales,” says Dreskin.

For Dreskin, after joining PBFA in 2021, her aim is to help support the growth of the plant-based industry and promote global sustainability in human consumption. In her opinion, the growth of plant-based foods is driven by the nature of the market. “The plant-based food industry is constantly evolving and changing to meet growing customer demand.” PBFA, according to Dreskin, has over 350 members consisting mainly of plant-based companies who help create an abundance of options to attract the curious consumer. And with this onslaught of plant-based options, there has been significant nutritional development as well. “We’ve seen an increase in nutritious ingredients like mung beans, oats, peas, chickpeas, lentils, artichokes and fava beans – and the potential for innovation is truly endless.”

But are all these plant-based options for the best? Do they truly serve as a healthy alternative? It is well documented that plant-based meats are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol compared with, say, beef. This helps contribute to the healthy “aura” of plant-based eating, says Patelou. But Patelou warns not to get hung up on a false impression of these alternatives. They are still, after all, high in salt with very few long-term studies on their benefits. “It’s all about the balanced diet,” states Patelou.

Julieanna Hever, a plant-based dietitian and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, agrees, stating that the general perception of plant-based food is misleading. “I think there’s a health halo where they think, ‘Oh, well it’s plant-based, so it’s healthy’. And that’s not necessarily true.”

In a study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which examined the dietary data of 209,000 adults, the results found that choosing a plant-based diet was not necessarily the healthiest option if it is not based on healthy plant foods. “There’s still a gap between just switching to a vegan version of an animal product that you’re used to and cooking healthily or eating a healthful diet,” says Hever.

“The scientific literature now is clearly extraordinary for the benefits of eating plants. But it’s going to change over time. If someone eating a vegan diet would be considered just in comparison to an omnivorous diet, they’re going to be eating very similar, nutritionally speaking.”

Earth-saving potential

One thing that can be said for plant-based meats is the environmental and sustainability benefits it offers. According to a study by the University of Oxford, it found that eating 75% less beef and 90% less pork globally would keep global warming below two degrees this century.

If anyone needs more convincing of the earth-saving potential of plant-based alternatives, then the infamous Beyond Meat burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land and 90% less emissions compared with a beef burger. Switching to this alternative can alleviate the water crisis facing many countries and help the environment. It is this potential for sustainability that, along with health and animal welfare, drives such growth in the industry. “Consumer demand for values-aligned, plant-based foods is soaring,” says Dreskin.

According to a report by Healthline, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, 57% of which comes from animal production alone. With the UN predicting that food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050, the best way to reduce these emissions is by relying less on livestock and more on crops.

“By growing foods for direct human consumption, we can mitigate the impact on the planet and create innovative solutions to feed the world’s rapidly growing population,” concludes Dreskin.

For her and PBFA, it is imperative to help companies meet this demand: “The question is really how can we support innovative start-ups, as well as mid-size and more established companies to scale so they can meet growing consumer demand, and how can we work with policymakers, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders to ensure that the system supports a decisive shift towards a plant-based future.”

Environmental awareness and plant-based alternatives are part and parcel for the avid consumer, then – something that Patelou warns could trip up the sector with new businesses making their way on to the market. “I think that consumers would not be forgiving if they found out that, in terms of environmental sustainability, the products were not delivering what they expect them to deliver,” Patelou explains.

“I think that if consumers feel that they’re being misled or deceived, and that the products are not meeting the expectations in terms of the holistic sustainability, and […] fairness, health environment, and so on. I think this could be damaging not only for the few companies that will not pay attention to that, but for the entire sector.

“In terms of one of the challenges for the sector going forward is that it doesn’t lose its identity and its values,” says Patelou.

Exponential growth

So, what are the other main challenges facing the sector? For Patelou, it is about gaining an equal playing field. “We want at least equal taxation, because if you look at a number of European countries, you have a reduced VAT for meat and dairy, so 3% or 4%, but you have full VAT at 20–21% for plant-based products because they’re considered a luxury and not essential.

“We don’t want favourable treatment, we want at least equal treatment,” Patelou adds. “We’re seeing a lot of regulation coming our way. You know, the unnecessary regulation on product naming saying that people are confused about a veggie burger.”

For Dreskin, her concern is focused on supply troubles as the industry was impacted greatly due to network delays and challenges from the pandemic. “Supply network interruptions and pandemic restrictions that create widespread volatility in the food industry are likely going to continue as we move forward, but the plant-based foods industry is uniquely positioned to overcome these challenges.”

In spite of these challenges, the industry is still growing exponentially. With the global market expected to grow at a CAGR of 8% by 2026, the plant-based industry shows no sign of slowing down.

“The potential for growth in plant-based foods,” says Dreskin, “comes with many exciting advances not only in products available on the shelf but transformation in the broader food system.” Whether its Quorn, Beyond Meat or Impossible foods, there are a wealth of options available.