Why are so many food companies offering new alternatives to meat? Nina Gheihman on the mainstreaming of veganism.
(Originally published 2022 | 01.25)
McDonald’s recently completed U.S. market testing of the McPlant—as the name suggests, a plant-based burger—co-developed with Beyond Meat, one of the growing number of companies that have made good business selling meat alternatives in recent years. An expanding range of fast-food and fast-casual restaurants—including Burger King, Chipotle, KFC, and Panera—is meanwhile either offering or planning to offer new vegan-and-vegetarian-friendly options in their U.S. and global markets. More traditional meat alternatives, such as tofu or even veggie burgers, have been around for ages—as have moral aversions to animal-based food—but these newer plant-based products are getting unprecedented exposure and traction with consumers. Why is that?
Nina Gheihman is a sociologist—and a postdoctoral scholar at the Sustainable Food Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business—writing a book about the cultural emergence of veganism “from a niche subculture into a mainstream movement challenging the food system.” As Gheihman sees it, the expansion of meat alternatives is the result of a transformative cultural change over the past decade, largely centered in the U.S. but also visible in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Plant-based eating, which used to be associated largely with the animal-rights movement, is now perceived as a culturally acceptable—almost mainstream—way of life, with benefits for personal health and the environment. Though still far from the norm—no more than five percent of the U.S. population eats a strictly vegan diet today—the growing popularity of plant-based foods, especially among young people, suggests a generational shift in eating habits is underway.
Graham Vyse: Why are all these big food companies expanding their plant-based ranges?
Nina Gheihman: The plant-based phenomenon, which used to be niche, has become a big part of the mainstream food movement. It’s not a passing trend. There’s awareness of the benefits to public health and the environment, especially given that industrial animal agriculture is one of the leading drivers of climate change, and these companies don’t want to be left behind.
For decades, there were companies like the makers of Tofurky and Vegenaise catering to people who were vegan or vegetarian, often for moral or health reasons. Then came startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat geared toward omnivores. They’re not making your hippie grandmother’s veggie burgers. Their products look, feel, and taste like meat.
What’s happening with companies like McDonald’s is also happening within the conventional meat industry, with companies like JBS and Tyson Foods getting into this game. They know plant-based food could be the future of food to some extent. Some companies have put some of these Beyond Meat or Impossible products on their menus. Carl’s Jr. is an example. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is developing its own plant-based burger. If you have your own product, you’re not reliant on other companies. This is the hottest trend in American food—even more than gluten-free or any other kind of diet.
Vyse: How did the contemporary plant-based phenomenon begin?
Gheihman: Even the phrase “plant-based” is a new phenomenon. It’s really taken off in the last decade, because there’s a new movement emerging. Vegetarianism and veganism have been practiced in many Eastern traditions for moral and ethical reasons, and in the 1970s in the U.S., it became associated with militant animal-rights advocacy. You might think of black-clad, tattooed animal-rights protesters eating veggie burgers, but the food didn’t seem desirable. There was a turning point in the mid-2010s, when this social movement about morality and ethics began to transform into a lifestyle movement.
What distinguishes a lifestyle movement is its focus on consumption. In the environmental movement, it used to be that they’d ask you to recycle, take fewer showers, or be more mindful of what you’re eating. Now you can buy a Tesla and that’s seen as environmentally friendly. The plant-based movement is similar: You can eat a Beyond Burger and it’s seen as interesting and doesn’t make you a social outcast. In fact, you’re almost like a leader socially.
More from Nina Gheihman at The Signal:
“The people who are promoting this lifestyle now are different than the people who were promoting it in the past. Instead of animal-rights activists, they’re Instagram influencers, nonprofit leaders, TED Talk speakers, and CEOs. I often talk about what I call the three Is—icons, informers, and innovators. The icons are trying to end a cultural stigma for veganism and turn it into a more desirable way of life. The informers are trying to educate the public about why it’s important to consume this way, but they’re no longer interested in changing people’s morals or their identities. They’re only interested in changing their behavior. The message is, If you want to eat meat, you can eat meat, but eat this meat. And the innovators are meeting the demand—founding companies, making these products, and offering services, including coaching programs on how to become plant-based. ‘Plant-based’ is the more accepted term, even though, in practice, it often means vegan. ‘Vegan’ still has baggage.”
“In the early animal-rights movement, the message was that either you were perfectly vegan or morally defunct in some way. The emphasis now is on imperfect behavior, replacing meat with these new products. The thesis is, if you create alternative products that taste the same as or better than meat—and if they cost the same or less—then people will consume the alternatives instead.”
“For the most part, plant-based eating is healthier, though I think a lot of these foods should be thought of as transitional foods toward a more natural plant-based diet, with traditional proteins like chickpeas, lentils, legumes, etc. A balanced diet including those things is definitely healthier. If you replace every single meat you’re eating with Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, that still might be healthier, but I don’t know how much healthier it would be. Cell-cultured meat, hypothetically, could be a lot healthier, if you created real meat in a lab without hormones and additives and the like, but it’s a novel technology. We don’t know yet.”