This Guardian headline, Burger King’s plant-based Whopper gets glowing review – from a meat lobbyist, was exactly what I needed to read last week as I was preparing for the launch of my new meat-free, plant-based food range. Behind the scenes, I have spent the last 18 months researching, sourcing, taste-testing, rejecting, confirming and generally angsting about plant-based products, with a little voice inside me whispering, “Are you MAD….you sell meat!" However, I recognised the need to give customers a choice, especially those who are trading down on red meat, rather than selling out, in favour of plant-based alternatives.
I count myself in this bracket - I love a great steak that's come from a sustainable farm, but generally, I can take or leave red meat in favour of fish, poultry and veggies. The reality of embracing more plant-based foods was hampered for me by the poor quality and abysmal taste of anything I’d tried – bland, weird textures, strange colours and flavours. I just didn’t like them. What I did recognise though, was that I had to double my efforts to find what does taste fantastic. I felt better meat alternatives and plant based products had to be out there, and whatever the effort, it would go some way to help consumers dial-down the demand for red meat, the production of which plays a significant role in global warming (particularly the non-sustainable kind which sadly ends up on so many tables across the globe).
The new flexitarian movement represents this change by re-balancing what we consume. This shift away from red meat to more veggies, grains and meatless alternatives seems to me like an ideal strategy for those looking for a middle ground. Demand for tasty, healthy alternatives to meat is massive but until now, meat-free products have been pretty awful and far from appealing. The good news is that this is all set to change.
When I watch change gain a foothold in the consumer market, it’s rare to see it reverse. I read in Marketing Week that, "Tesco sold four million vegan meals from the range within the first eight months, prompting it to double the range to 46 items". I love that food innovation and quality is finally catching up with what people want to eat - which is real food! We now see the perfect trifecta, with quality products, soaring demand and social acceptance meeting at the point where vegan and plant-based foods are now officially mainstream (and some would say, maybe even cool).
I find the scale of this rise in popularity really amazing. Even Birdseye, the home of fish fingers and chicken nuggets, now has a range of plant-based foods, with meat-free burgers and meatballs proving a big hit. Closer to home in Singapore, Marks and Spencers, Cold Storage, Fairprice and countless other retailers, eateries and restaurant groups have also enthusiastically joined the movement.
Linda McCartney was the trail blazer who, almost 20 years ago, launched the first impactful range of non-meat based products. Then in my carefree 20’s, I thought she was just a bit whacky; other than the hard-core vegans and vegetarians, who would voluntarily choose to eat a meat and dairy-free diet? In hindsight, I admire her vision and her cause which was at that time rooted in animal rights. Ironically, this meant nothing to me back in the late 1990's but it's hugely important now.
Wiser and older, here I am two decades later, scouring the market far and wide for the very products McCartney had the vision to create long before it became fashionable, or indeed time-critical for us to embrace a more plant-based diet. Her brand remains vibrant, steered by her daughter, Mary, who tips her hat to the pioneering legacy left by her mother in popularising meat-free foods.
Today, the legitimacy of the contemporary call to reduce our consumption of red meat comes on the coat-tails of global warming and the indisputable carnage being wrought on our planet. There are countless environmental villains, but amongst the toxic emissions most responsible is the methane produced by cows. Meat production and its by-product, methane, accounts for one fifth of global warming - cow flatulence and belches to be exact (my daughter loves it when I say this), but sadly, it’s little cause for humour.
Methane is 50 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide - making it a much stronger greenhouse gas over several decades, molecule for molecule. And now, we have a huge societal movement, largely in developed nations, trying to redress our historical abuse of the environment, one step being to cut down our demand for and consumption of meat.
This green food movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s inextricably linked to a maturing awareness of global warming and the horrors that go with it.
Let me share a recent anecdote. Leaving a certain Seattle HQ-ed coffee shop a couple of weeks ago, I was gently schooled by an 8 year old girl who spotted my daughter enjoying a take-away iced drink. The problem, she told us, was the plastic straw. Rather than take her “feedback” personally, I thanked her for the prompt and assured her that we have reusable bamboo straws at home, but I’d neglected to stash one in my bag that day. This chatty, earnest little girl was a superb example of our next generation who are growing up with a set of environmental convictions that my generation never had. Who can forget the extraordinary speech given by Greta Thunberg, who at the ripe old age of 15, blasted the United Nations for their lack of speed in taking action?
As for the little girl I met, she continued to tell me all about the damage that plastics (straws and water bottles, in particular) inflict on our world, extending her worries to the demise of bees, whales and the harm that cows inflict on the atmosphere (back to methane).
Her mum was listening quietly, and as we got chatting, we slipped into the topic of food, sustainability…and red meat. These guys were miles ahead of me, thoroughly enjoying a mostly plant-based diet for the last 12 months but eating sustainably farmed meat and fish once or twice a week. I was impressed, really impressed by this young family’s understanding of, commitment and solid action to changing what they buy and eat for the benefit of society, the environment, the future. “It’s not a question of should any more, it’s how and by how much. It's not exactly a hardship when we have so many non-red meat alternatives readily available”, the mum said.
Some Un-Fun Facts
As a fan of high quality, sustainable, grass fed red meat, it saddens me to acknowledge the true cost of eating beef (and less so, pork and chicken), but I cannot un-see the data:
Over the next year, more than 50 billion land animals will be raised for food around the world to meet soaring demand as the world population explodes (and is expected to grow from 7.1 billion people to 10 billion people by 2050). About 1/3 will join the middle class, which generally consumes more calories as incomes increase, many of which come from meat-based foods.
Feeding grain to livestock increases global demand and drives up grain prices, making it harder for the world’s poor to feed themselves. Grain could instead be used to feed people, and water used to irrigate crops. If we reduce demand for animal foods by half, that grain could feed an extra 2 billion people.
Industrial livestock farming, which is on the increase, relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection. In the US which is the largest market for beef, 80% of all antibiotics are consumed by the livestock industry. This contributes to the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance.
Myths About Plant-Based and Vegan/Vegetarian Diets
This is the point where everything we know is true about meat consumption collides with our human instinct to keep doing what we're doing. Even with all the compelling evidence that informs us we have to cut down on animal products, many of us remain reluctant. As I chatted with friends and customers about this, I was struck by the "iffy" factor, with lots of reasons why a change was difficult even though we unanimously concurred less meat was a positive step. There was lots I could relate to in this piece I found in Runners World (I hasten to add, I'm not a runner, I'm more of a trotter).
Myth #1 – I Can’t Get All My Proteins from Plant-Based Food.
Over coffee with a socially/foody aware friend last weekend, she told me her biggest hesitation in moving away from red meat was the risk of lower nutrition levels, specifically protein, which helps build, repair and maintain the body’s structure. She has a house full of rugby lads, so it’s not a chance she wants to take. I think this is probably the most common concern for many, knowing how rich red meat is in protein, iron, B vitamins etc. Why risk a nutritional depletion of any kind, especially when it comes to our kids.
This is complex and I am not a nutritionist. However, I had done some reading on this last year when I was talking with plant-based producers, so I revisited my notes; the short answer is we can get our necessary proteins from green/grain diets but plant and animal proteins are slightly different.
In general, when we eat protein, it is broken down into smaller amino acids, the building blocks of protein. We need a balance of 22 types of amino acids to function properly, so a “complete protein source” refers to a food that contains all 22. Sounds easy, but there are subtle differences in the proteins of meat and plants which is clarified well in this article that take into account other vital nutrients like iron, vitamins etc. We tend to view protein in isolation but it's important to look at the whole nutritional picture.
I recommend this superb article I found on Medium by Dr. Chana Davis of Stanford University, titled “Busting the Myth of Incomplete Plant-Based Proteins”. She has lots of practical insights into general nutrition/diet, and lots of myth-busting info too. I also found this piece on How to Get Enough Protein particularly helpful and have used it myself to get a sense of what we need at home by way of protein balance and intake.
Myth #2 – Global Warming Can’t All Be Blamed on Red Meat
I was cross-eyed by the time I’d waded through websites, news outlets and blogs trying to identify the league table of climate change villains. It’s true that there are many reasons driving global warming, and I think we all know the offenders – carbon dioxide, ozone depletion, industrialisation and pollution, deforestation, over-fishing....
However, the humble cow (and pig, chicken etc) sits at the top of this leader board, taking a massive toll on our climate by producing ungodly quantities of methane which is a root cause of global warming. I would add that sustainable farming practices allow us to enjoy beef without the hangover of damage to the environment, and I certainly advocate, if possible, for people to buy sustainably farmed beef.
Myth #3: Plant-Based Foods Damage the Environment as Much as Animal-Based Foods
I probably believed this for a while, what with all the water and land needed to grow crops... until I saw the data. Raising livestock takes the gold in terms of pasture and land use, guzzling an inordinate quantity of water which could be otherwise used on less enviro-harming food production and much needed land irrigation. Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle are, unlike plants, also off the chart. The truly sustainable beef farmers are limiting the number of cattle on their land to limit these effects; these are the farmers I am willing to work with.
There are lots of voices who claim that veganism - eliminating meat and all dairy completely - is the #1 answer to our environmental woes, whilst others vehemently disagree, citing hard data which paints villains like palm, soy, sunflower oils, fertilisers, and the depletion of pollinating insects like bees as culpable. This summary issued at the recent Wold Economic Forum captures the key facts in a really balanced way if you're looking for the facts, but as always, our media plays a big role in influencing the narrative; Why Avoiding Meat and Dairy Won’t Save the Planet was a particularly interesting read, but on the other hand, it was hard to find fault with The Guardian’s piece, Avoiding Meat and Dairy is ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Impact on Earth.
My point in sharing this range of views is to highlight the countless media and industry "influencers" on both sides of the fence, all battling to win our hearts and minds, not to mention the countless studies on what we, as consumers, should be doing. There is no absolute right answer. As always, it's a balance between what's realistic in our respective lives, what's affordable and what's available.
If our daily protein requirements can be met by eating more plant-based foods/grains and less red meat, and this offsets some of the damage to our environment, what's stopping us?
What Is Holding Us Back ?
Not many people like change and most of us struggle to embed new habits. Research shows us that plain old lethargy is a major reason why we hesitate in moving to a greener diet, and I certainly feel the lack of decent products has been a big hindrance.
However, there is also The Psychology of Vegetarianism to take into account (fascinating!) Going a step further, a team from the University of California’s Integrative Health team, has cut to the chase in The Five Phases of the Plant Based Journey, noting the human, psychological and social journey people go on when they decide to change their red meat habits. The reasons why many fall off the veggie wagon are also discussed.
Poor product offerings, for me, has been the biggest barrier. Anyone who tried a vegan sausage or burger about 18-24 months ago will know what I'm talking about, but honestly, the huge improvements in quality and flavour today will erase the bad memories.
With better products and understanding, you'd imagine we've now arrived at the point where the market is ready, but alas, we have the battle of the lobbyists underway. The powerful meat and agriculture industry is feeling the threat, just last week calling on the EU to prohibit the use of words like "sausage" from being used to describe plant-based versions to protect their interests. The Guardian reports that, "MEPs in the European Parliament's agriculture committee are now pushing to enshrine into law that only meat products can use words such as "steak," "sausage," "escalope," "burger" and "hamburger". I'm sure other governments and regulators, especially those tasked with framing the new lab-grown or cultured meat industry, will be under similar pressure. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, but it would be a shame for consumers to have yet another reason to delay action.
What About Singapore
The Little Red Dot has stepped up in a big way, with a very active and informative pro-plant foods organisation called Green & Healthy. They connect to other excellent sources like Animal Allies in providing guides and info on restaurants, recipes, stores and sources where meat-free, plant-based foods are increasingly available. I'm happy that Sasha's Fine Foods has now been added to these resources!
What about Sasha's Fine Foods?
After this long hunt for the very best, I'm delighted to introduce you to our new Plant-Based section of our website, our own family of meat-free, veggie packed products. We have kicked off with the Beyond Burger and our fantastic vegan One Planet Pizzas.
One of my best finds on a recent sourcing trip to the UK was a range of excellent, flavour-packed ready-made vegan meals from a super cool cafe in London and you can expect to see their range on our shelves within a few weeks. I also found a fabulous "meatless" company whose mince I honestly couldn't differentiate from the real thing!
I hope these carefully sourced products will interest ALL customers - flexitarians, vegans, vegetarians or those just looking for the odd break from meat.
My Personal Take
For those who've read my blogs on topical issues, you'll sense that I'm not an all-or-nothing person. I don't believe in having a rigid stance on anything and today's topic is no different. My personal plan is to continue cutting down on meat in favour of meat-free alternatives and way more greens/grains.
I can't see myself becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, but I guess I'm already comfortable with a flexitarian approach. I do want to be a part of this solution, and adopting the principles framed and supported by Meatless Monday works for me and my family.
Paul McCartney's interview with National Geographic mirrors perfectly my personal views. It's moderate, sensible and completely achievable. I love the simplicity of what he's got to say, especially that even going without meat one day a week has an impact.
I'm not sure if becoming a flexitarian or a vegan is enough to save the planet, but it's worth reminding ourselves that we have choice; that in itself is a luxury. I like to think that in the long run, minor changes to our first world diets can have a profound and positive impact on the planet, and I hope you'll be open to giving it a try.