It’s relatively easy to get your hands on plant-based meat that looks and tastes the part. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, for example, can be found in abundance in fast food outlets, grocery stores, and restaurants across the U.S. and beyond.
The vegan meat substitute market reached $1.4 billion in 2020 according to new data released last month by the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute. But while there’s been a lot of excitement around the new wave of plant-based companies offering meat alternatives in recent years, they’ve also been the target of criticism for the high amounts of saturated fat and salt in their “too highly processed” burgers. (It’s worth noting that some research suggests plant-based burgers are healthier than their animal-based counterparts.)
Regardless, there’s no getting away from the fact that the vast majority of people love the taste of fat, salt, and sugar. The most successful plant-based companies know this, and they entice meat-eaters with like-for-like taste and texture, successfully mimicking the salty, fatty taste of their favorite fast food, meat-based staples.
I recently argued in Fast Company that most of us don’t actually want to eat healthy, and even the most nutritionally angelic among us want the option to indulge occasionally. This means that the success of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products compared to older vegetarian brands, such as Boca and Gardein, can largely be attributed to their nutritional profile, which gives them such a good taste.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who do want to eat healthily. According to one survey, 93% of consumers feel compelled to eat healthy at least some of the time, and 54% feel that including more plants in their diet makes them feel healthier. More than half of consumers say the reason they’d consider eating plant-based alternatives is because they’re healthier, according to research by Edlong.
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Some experts argue that consumers are becoming increasingly focused on both the health and taste of plant-based foods. As such, there’s a new wave of companies offering much healthier plant-based products containing only whole ingredients we can pronounce and recognize. These companies argue that plant-based foods can be both nutritious and delicious – and are out to prove it.
Jason Rosenbaum, chief executive and co-founder of Actual Veggies, stopped eating meat for health reasons in 2019. He hoped to substitute burgers for a plant-based alternative, but couldn’t find anything he deemed fresh, tasty and healthy enough.
He launched Actual Veggies earlier this year, aiming at others in the same position he found himself in. Now, the start-up has four non-GMO vegan burgers, each focused on one veggie. They don’t contain any oils, and are low in salt.
“We believe vegetables are delicious, and while health is important, we know taste is number one,” he says. “By creating a unique spice blend and a great texture, we’re able to bring the amazing taste of vegetables forward.”
However, Rosenbaum says it was an “uphill battle” to create burgers that tasted great and also had a good nutritional profile. But while he believes that consumers will increasingly look for healthier plant-based burgers, he expects to see a proliferation of both processed and healthier burgers on the market in the future.
But despite the perceived dichotomy between taste and healthfulness when it comes to plant-based food, some companies haven’t found balancing health with taste to be a challenge at all.
Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, founded in 1994 by heart surgeons Dr. Peter Praeger and dr. Eric Somberg, has been around for long enough to see the growing demand for tasty, plant-based substitutes for meat.
In response, the company launched a new product line in 2019 for consumers wanting cleaner, high-protein alternatives that don’t contain artificial ingredients. Peter Praeger’s son, Larry Praeger, says taste hasn’t been a huge hurdle for the company.
“We don’t find it challenging to balance taste with health,” he says. “We stay true to our veggie roots by sourcing delicious, clean ingredients that do not compromise on taste, but rather enhance it.”
Bolthouse Farms, who pioneered baby carrots and fresh carrot juice, has just launched a new line of carrot-based products, including riced carrot kits, noodled carrot kits and carrot dogs, a hot dog made from a whole carrot, with minimal processing.
AJ Bernstein, the company’s vice president of marketing, says the products balance consumer needs and taste.
“We believe that, no matter how healthy and nutritious any product is, if it doesn’t taste great, consumers will not buy it,” she says. “By increasing options for consumers, we hope to help them add more plant-based, simple-ingredient foods to their diets. We believe there’s room in the market for animal-based products, meat alternatives and plant-based products.”
In light of Covid-19, Bolthouse Farms was also able to adapt to recently changing health priorities.
“As a result of the pandemic, we saw that consumers were looking for products that contained more immunity-boosting ingredients,” Bernstein says.
While consumers looking to eat more plant-based foods may be motivated by both taste and health, it seems companies have, up to now, struggled to meet both needs.
But as the sector continues to innovate, boosted by increased demand and investment, not to mention awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet on the planet’s health, it seems this dichotomy may be coming to an end.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have recently launched healthier versions of their burgers, and there’s a proliferation of other companies focusing on clean ingredients who are confident their products taste great, too.
Just as the range of plant-based foods has widened exponentially in recent years, the intersection between healthfulness and taste looks to be widening, too.