Above: Pizza Guys, based in Sacramento, California, with 70 locations, co-brands with Impossible Foods to highlight its meat alternative toppings to customers.
Zak Weston, foodservice and supply chain manager for the Good Food Institute (GFI), headquartered in Washington, D.C., notes that he has been eating vegan for a couple of years now, and the thing he has missed the most is great-tasting pizza. Fortunately, new innovations in animal-product alternatives are giving him hope. “I’m really excited about a lot of the plant-based cheeses hitting the market, and a lot of the plant-based meats that can be used as toppings,” Weston enthuses. “But I still think it’s an area that’s very much open for innovation. I’m excited about what companies are working on, and to try what different pizzerias are coming out with.”
After all, he says, because pizza is such a massive category, plant-based pizza should be huge. “I think we’ve reached a point to where it actually has mainstream appeal to a lot of consumers,” Weston adds. “I hope to see more plant-based meat toppings and plant-based cheeses in the next few years.”
Read on for more of Weston’s insights regarding other strides being made within the plant-based space—from streamlined ingredient lists to increased profits for restaurants.
Need to catch up? Check out Part I and Part II of this Q&A series.
How does the demand for cleaner labels factor into the meat alternatives space?
I think that’s underway in pretty much every food company these days, and plant-based and alternative proteins are no exception. There’s a lot of reason for hope, too, because we’re still relying on a lot of the ingredients and equipment that are available today—and they weren’t optimized for this end application [of making protein alternatives].
So, as we’re able to optimize existing crops and hopefully leverage a whole host of new plant sources—as well as microorganism sources of protein, plus different things like fats, oils and different functional additives—for products, that will not only improve sustainability, but it’ll reduce the length of labels, making it easier for clean-label products to be formulated and still taste really good, overall improving products’ end quality.
There is certainly reason to be optimistic about the future there—but, on the flip side, part of what has made this category work is that we meet consumers where they’re at. In spite of decades of health education and nutritional advocacy, here in the United States, 79% of consumers still eat fast food at least once a week. And somewhere around 30% eat fast food on a basically daily basis.
There is something that’s attractive about food that’s inexpensive, convenient and easy to obtain. So I think if we’re really going to shift consumer appetites, we’re going to have to provide something that tastes really good, is really convenient and is priced affordably. It’s that sort of incremental type of progress that I think is offered by a lot of products in the category today that still rely on a lot of different ingredients.
They’re more processed than eating a salad, but the reality is that salad has been around for a long time, and anyone can go out and obtain, extremely cheaply, bowls of chickpeas and lentils. Most consumers don’t seem to take that option, so we need to position plants as very effective, high-quality protein sources. And I think a lot of these products, even if they are more highly processed, are really effective gateway products to do just that: get consumers to see plants as a viable, high-quality source of protein that’s every bit as effective as animal protein in giving them the energy and satiety they’re looking for.
Meanwhile, consumers can reap a lot of other health benefits from replacing animal products.
With food, you always have to consider the counterfactual: If they weren’t eating this, what else would they have been eating? In the case of meat alternatives, for the most part, what they’re replacing is animal-based meat consumption. For those situations, we see massive benefits, including health benefits: across the board, lower saturated fat; for some products, lower sodium (and for other products, about the same amount of sodium); and a lot more fiber compared to animal-based products.
You’re certainly looking at massive amounts of advantages on the sustainability side, from the greenhouse gas standpoint, land usage standpoint, and from a resource input and efficiency standpoint. So we think consumers swapping plant-based meats with animal-based meats is a very worthwhile trade for their health and for the environment.
And restaurant operators have found that it can make good business sense as well, in terms of profits.
Absolutely, and we try to point that out—that this only works if consumers want it, and so far, they really seem to want it and are really curious to try it. And for a pretty high percentage of them, that brings loyalty to the category—they’ll make it a regular part of their diet. They’ll have a plant-based burger one night and an animal-based burger the next night.
It’s something where few people are still giving up meat entirely, but a lot of them are integrating alternatives into their rotation, because we crave variety. The human palate loves diversity. We now add plant-based meats to our plate, just as people have chicken, pork, fish and beef for different occasions.
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