Although the number of American vegans and vegetarians have remained unchanged for a decade, sales of plant-based foods have skyrocketed. A 2021 survey found that more than 60 percent of Americans had tried at least one type of meat alternative in the past year. Plant-based meat alternatives, sometimes called meat analogs, are foods designed to replicate the taste and texture of meat products. Meat alternatives are usually made from soy or legumes, although the use of plant proteins has diversified considerably. Most products provide similar nutritional value as meat, as well as additional fiber.
Millions of people interested in reducing their meat consumption have turned to these products to replace at least one meat-based meal per week. Here are a few reasons behind this growing trend.
1. Health Risks of Meat-Heavy Diets
Despite recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable intake, the average American eats too little fresh produce and fish and too much red and processed meat. This type of diet is associated with numerous chronic illnesses. Studies have found a direct link between high meat consumption and a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and certain cancers. In an effort to reduce their meat consumption, many people now substitute plant-based alternatives for animal meat in dishes.
2. Environmental Concerns
As the Earth experiences more direct effects of climate change, including more intense storms and heat waves, people are becoming more concerned about the environment. A 2022 study found that 60 percent of Americans are worried about climate change. The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Forests around the world are cleared every year to make way for livestock and their feed. Additionally, animals themselves release tons of methane into the air. Animal agriculture is also water intensive. Eating less meat is one of the most impactful actions you can take on an individual level to address climate change.
3. Rising Food Costs
The meat industry is impacted by increasing costs of gas, oil, and grain. This has resulted in higher meat prices at the supermarket. The cost of meat and dairy had risen by more than 14 percent year-over-year as of April 2022, according to government statistics. At the same time, plant-based foods have increased in price only nominally. In reaction to increasing living costs, many people have reduced their meat consumption and turned to less expensive vegan options.
4. Social Acceptance of Veganism
For many years, veganism was associated with religious or very strong political beliefs. As the benefits of plant-based diets become better known, more people are going vegan for health reasons. This has increased the demand for vegan products and plant-based substitutes. Between 2020 and 2021, the global vegan food industry grew by more than $1 billion.
5. The Availability of Plant-based Options
Popular fast-food chains now offer meat substitutes to meet the growing demand for vegan options. Vegan food producer Impossible Foods partnered with Burger King to sell its plant-based burgers at locations worldwide. Other fast-food franchises have forged similar partnerships. The vast majority of customers eating these plant-based foods are non-vegans interested in decreasing their meat consumption.
6. Bioethics and Animal-borne Pathogens
Many people are also interested in improving animal welfare in the meat industry. As the world population grows, so does the demand for meat. This has created incentives for some players in the industry to ramp up production while cutting costs. This has exacerbated inhumane farming practices. Livestock are often stuffed in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Farmers may inject animals with hormones to accelerate their growth. These hormones can be passed on to humans through meat or dairy products.
Crowded conditions increase the risk of infectious outbreaks, so many factory farms dispense preventative antibiotics to livestock. This has greatly increased the risk that antibiotic-resistant pathogens could jump species and spread amongst humans. Eating less meat reduces demand on the meat industry and can force farmers to invest in more humane and sustainable practices.
7. Meat-Free Campaigns
Since reduced meat consumption is imperative for meeting global sustainability goals, several organizations have organized awareness campaigns. Meatless Monday is a popular campaign that has encouraged people to eat less meat since 2003. The campaign was inspired by a century-old movement to conserve meat for World War I troops.
The Food Ethics Council publicizes a one-day meat-free challenge, known as World Meat-Free Day. Held every summer, the campaign aims to encourage 10 million people to participate in the event.
8. Ripple Effect of COVID-19
For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic and the related public health protocols resulted in long-lasting eating habit changes. Since the virus is theorized to have originated from an animal meant for consumption, it has increased the public’s wariness of meat products. Additionally, COVID severely affect the meat industry’s supply chain. Many meat industry employees worked in conditions that facilitated and exacerbated COVID outbreaks. Many factories had to slow or shut down operations.
During the pandemic, interest in plant-based foods increased considerably. In the US, sales of meat alternatives increased by 27 percent in 2020.