Plant-Based Patties not going away

Like it or not, plant-based patties are here to stay. Growth is expected to be close to $29 billion by 2025, and sales of plant-based products close to $12 billion this year, it is highly unlikely that this is a fad that will soon disappear.

According to market research firm Euromonitor, U.S. meat substitute sales in the packaged food industry, including frozen and shelf-stable meat alternatives, have risen an average of 15.4% each year between 2013 and 2018, outpacing the 1.2% average annual growth of processed meat over the same period. U.S. meat substitute sales in the packaged food industry, including frozen and shelf-stable meat alternatives, have risen an average of 15.4% each year between 2013 and 2018, outpacing the 1.2% average annual growth of processed meat over the same period.

This is evidenced by fast-food restaurants and grocery chains selling the patties and major food companies such as Cargill Incorporated and Tyson Foods investing in companies that produce these patties. Conagra said that it’s doubling down on its Gardein plant-based meat substitute brand, and its sales have quadrupled over the past four years. Kellogg owned Morningstar has expanded its offerings of products to compete with the growing marketplace.

Concern about ingredients and “Highly Processed.”

Despite the growth, there has been some backlash regarding the patties. Specifically against the Impossible burger with Consumer Reports

questioning the long-term safety of the ingredient, leghemoglobin, which gives the patty its meaty look and feel. Consumer Reports points out that the ingredient is derived from soybean roots and nodules that “have never been part of the human food supply,” and its effects on human health are not known. Impossible Foods contends that the 28-day study conducted by Consumer Reports was insufficient despite it showing changes in the blood chemistries that could indicate kidney problems.

In addition to the ingredient leghemoglobin, Consumer Reports has expressed concern about heme iron. According to the article responding to Rachel Konrad – Impossible Foods’ PR chief, “heme iron may contribute to the increased risk of colon cancer and other health problems that have been associated with red meat.” Konrad contends that heme iron is essential for the body that carries oxygen in your blood.

Consumer Reports is not the only company expressing concern regarding these patties. Both the CEOs of Whole Foods and Chipotle have stated the patties are highly-processed. Kelsey Piper in her article for Vox argues that the term “processed” is vague in context stating, “the term can refer to any food that’s been modified — to preserve it, to enhance its flavor, to add nutrients, or to make plant proteins taste like a hamburger.” Piper defends the plant-based patties by comparing them to the fact that foods that add vitamins or are pasteurized, such as yogurt are highly processed. Therefore, processed foods can also be healthy.

Critics state the patties are highly processed in the fact they contain 21 or 22 ingredients. University of California/Davis professor Frank Mitloehner when speaking to AgriTalk host Chip Flory stated, “that you are hard-pressed in identifying the difference between those items, versus let’s say, pet food.” To illustrate his point, he posted the following on his Twitter account:

patty and dog food

(FYI – the middle is the dog food)

To counteract this claim, Konrad made this point on Twitter:

beef retort

 

I will counter that the ingredients listed in Konrad’s tweet are naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, lipids, and steroids. Here is a comparison of the Impossible Burger with a beef burger for nutrition:

comparison

(image courtesy of https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/impossible-burger#nutrition)

Each has its own benefits, but it should be noted that while the Impossible Burger has more vitamins and minerals, they are added to the product versus a beef burger. Also, the Impossible Burger has a high amount of salt, with 16% of the daily value and carbohydrates.

Update: The Center for Consumer Freedom has launched a campaign calling plant-based patties “ultra-processed imitations”, and comparing them to dog food. Rick Berman, the center’s executive director wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal stating that it was no healthier than meat. The piece can be found here.

Are they good for the planet?

According to Impossible Foods, the company’s burger uses 87% less water, uses 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than ground beef from cows. Beyond Meat, meanwhile, reports its meat uses 99% less water, uses 93% less land and generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, Impossible and Beyond Meat received the United Nations Environment Planetary Health Champion of the Earth Award.

If these studies are true, then it appears to be a boon for the environment. The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems was commissioned by the makers of Beyond Meat to study the environmental impact of the patty to a comparably sized beef patty. They conducted a “cradle to distribution” study with the information provided by its suppliers and a study commissioned by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (Thoma et. Al., 2017). The study found:

Based on a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with the 2017 beef LCA by Thoma et al., the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.

However, these facts have come into question. Dr. Mitloehner told CNET

“that we also have to think about the impact on air and water quality when evaluating whether plant-based or animal meat is better for the environment,” Mitloehner says there is not a simple way to determine objectively, which is better. He also notes that U.S. ranchers raise cattle that have the least impact on greenhouse gases compared to other countries, so that could have an impact on the study.

Conclusion

Regardless, if it is better for the environment or there is a question of the safety of the ingredients, these plant-based patties will continue to grow in sales. Despite the NCBA petitioning state legislatures to change the labeling not to read “burger,” these plant-based patties are not going away. The patties are not marketed solely for vegetarians, but also towards meat consumers as an alternative. There is the expression, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Perhaps farmers should consider contracting with some of the processors of the ingredients in these patties by planting more peas, canola and sunflowers for oil.

Update: The Wall Street Journal just published this article regarding the meat industry fighting back against plant-based patties

 

 

 

 

Terroir, Landrace and Identity Preserved Could they be a value-added marketing tool for farmers?

Several weeks ago, I was conducting an interview with Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies regarding their app for selling soybeans to animal feed producers in Asia. During our conversation, Schott mentioned that soybeans grown in North Dakota have a higher crude protein that buyers wanted. Schott’s desire was to have farmers recognized for this quality and receive a premium for their product. During our conversation, the concept of terroir occurred to me.

Terroir, aside for being the buzz-word for wines, is the concept of a sense of place. It is the unique environmental qualities of the soil, weather, variety selection and farming practices that make a product distinct from others. Not only is this concept applied to wine, but it has been applied to cheese, coffee, chocolate, tea, hops and wheat. Commodity Grains, a company in Oakland, California is applying the concept of terroir to the pasta it produces but under the label of “Identity Preserved” (which I will describe below). The company lists the pasta variety, where it is grown and the specific farm. It may sound like a gimmick, but according to Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab, wheat varieties and growing conditions do contribute unique flavors. When conducting tastings with bakers, chefs and random people, they notice differences in milled 100 percent whole wheat describing such flavors as “nutty”, “earthy” and “chewy.” The concept of terroir in pasta is also being applied to wheat grown in the Abruzzo region in Italy with a pasta line called “Primo Grano” or first grain.

Perhaps terroir is just a clever marketing tool as some believe. There are instances when a seed or plant originated in one area but was perfected in another area of the world. Take the case of the Zinfandel grape. We never knew its origins until recent DNA testing revealed that it is most closely related to a grape variety from Croatia called, Crljenak Kastelanski, before that we thought it was the Primitivo variety from Italy. The only knowledge we had was that a Boston nursery advertised a grape variety named Zinfandel in 1830 and it made its way west to California during the Gold Rush. Today some of the best Zinfandels are produced from Sonoma County and the Lodi area of the Central Valley. In the case of wheat, a variety called Red Fife originated in the Anatolian region of what is now Turkey and was planted by Dave Fife in 1842 on his farm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It is renowned for being a fine milling and baking wheat. Most bread wheat grown in Canada owe part of their genetic lineage to Red Fife.

Although they originated in another region and perfected in another, there is some genetic variability that allows it to grow and adapt under a variety of growing conditions. More specifically, it is called a landrace or what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes as “a plant with historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems” (more in the case of Red Fife, but I would argue that Zinfandel could apply). The term landrace when broken down, is “land” or the ground the crop is grown on, and “race” which in biology means “distinct population within the same species.” The FAO further defines landraces into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary landraces are crops that developed through what is termed as in situ grower selection and not subjected to formal plant breeding. They can be either autochthonous or grown in an original location developing its unique characteristics through grower selection; or allochthonous, an introduced crop locally adapted and has developed its unique characteristics through grower selection in another region (such as the case with Red Fife). A Secondary landrace is a crop that has been developed in formal plant breeding but is maintained through repeated in situ grower selection and seed saving. Due to their adaptation, farmers will use these selections with other improved varieties due to factors such as lower cost, hardiness to local conditions, disease resistance, and culinary preferences. Although this defines landraces in a broad context, what if this concept could be applied to other crops? While there are landrace crops still grown around the world, farmers are planting cultivars for such factors as high yield, drought and disease resistance, and other factors for commercial production.

There is another program that perhaps could be a step-up from landrace and could be used as a marketing tool to not only preserve crops with their own unique characteristics but give farmers the recognition for their product. It is a USDA designation called Identity Preserved. It is described as, “a voluntary service that provides participating companies with independent, third-party verification of the identification, segregation, and traceability of their product’s unique, value-added characteristic.” The Northern Food Grade Soybean Association is trying this program for its soybeans grown in North Dakota.  According to Ken Bertsch, N.D. State Seed Department Commissioner, it is a program that “preserves the genetic and/or physical identity of a product by providing traceable identification of a field crop from planting, production, storage, handling and delivery of the product.” The program has requirements such as having seed source verified, planting after other crops (specifically after GM crops), inspections for genetic and varietal purity and keeping those soybeans in a separate area of a handling facility. While it may be labor intensive for farmers with added extra paperwork or confuse consumers with another label on the package, it is one more thing for farmers to be recognized for their products and meet consumer demand. This could work in conjunction with landrace seeds as consumers are growing aware of where their foods come from.

The difficult parts are these types of tools is consumer awareness, scalability and whether people are willing to pay a premium for these types of products. As far as price, consumers are willing to pay extra for organic foods or products with the “Non-GMO” label. As far as scalability and awareness, it is up to the agriculture industry if they want to implement programs such as these for the potential of being recognized for producing a unique or superior product.