Plant-based food is the talk of the town. Slowly but surely, the concept of a diet based on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and other non-animal ingredients is transforming the way Western society eats. To some extent, the shift has come about thanks to a change in focus: unlike vegetarianism or veganism, “plant-based” eating isn’t about avoiding, it’s about enjoying. Rather than simply subtracting meat and fish from the equation, plant-based eating celebrates the wide variety of animal-free options out there – a list we’re a long way from exhausting.
The market is responding, too – everywhere from high-end restaurants to down-home diners to company lunchrooms, plant-based dishes are popping up on the menu, and they’re every bit as refined and creative as their “animal-based” counterparts. Even old-school chefs are getting on board with the new trend: Alain Ducasse, for example, has completely stricken meat from the menu at his flagship restaurant in Paris. Gourmet restaurants like TIAN in Vienna are helping redefine the way society views veggies, opening up whole new culinary worlds in which non-animal products are prepared, combined, and arranged in ways that make us wonder why on Earth it took us so long to break free of the old meat-potatoes-and-vegetables trope.
Plant-powered bodies, minds, and hearts
Plant-based dishes are becoming socially acceptable, and not just among hipster millennials, either. The public’s growing desire for local, sustainable products is spurring on the trend as well. Cities are seeing a big revival of the food-market culture, giving consumers a greater sense of empowerment. Today’s shoppers want to know where their products are from, and fruits and vegetables are easy to “locate”.
And then there’s the health factor: one of the few things doctors and nutritionists generally agree on is that eating more plants is a great idea. Ingredients like nuts, herbs, and legumes are nutritionally dense, with plenty of protein and complex carbohydrates. Besides helping us maintain a healthy weight and build muscle, protein is a crucial component of physical and mental health. Even top athletes like Ultraman triathlete Rich Roll swear by plant-based food. In his cookbook, The Plantpower Way, Roll extols the virtues of plants and offers inspiringly innovative recipies.
Wait, vegans can be ultra-athletes? A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around that one. A 2014 study by the New York Academy of Sciences revealed that people in the US and other industrial nations got around 68% of their protein from animal sources. That’s going to change in the future, though.
Imitations, substitutes, novel food
Established food manufacturers and innovative start-ups are flooding the market with plant-based products. According to Mintel, a global market research organization, the number of new foods and drinks labeled “plant-based” increased by 268% in the United States between 2012 and 2018.
Many of those are “plant junk food” – products that use the label to create healthy, environmentally friendly associations, but don’t actually live up to the name. Consumers simply need to look a little closer: “plant-based” food is meant to be as fresh and unprocessed as possible.
Many new “plant-based” foods imitate the look and taste of animal products, including beef, chicken, shrimp, or dairy products. Thanks to multidisciplinary research and an iron compound known as “heme”, potato- and soy-based Impossible burgers are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.
Side dishes are becoming main dishes, and main dishes are becoming side dishes. More and more people are going “casual vegan”, eliminating most, but not all, meat or animal products from their diets. Consumers now have access to an ever-growing range of plant-based recipes or even totally new (and extremely tasty) products. Transparent information on ingredients and new information about the positive effects meatless eating has on health and well-being are helping boost public acceptance of the idea.
In short, plant-based eating is just getting started. It’s a concept that brings together a whole range of social and ethical issues – factory farming, the health effects of excessive meat consumption, health consciousness and getting the perfect “inner glow”, food porn on Instagram – not to mention the simple joy of creative cooking and eating.