In July 2018, Canada’s iconic A&W chain had to put up a notice that disappointed many customers: many A&W outlets had completely sold out of their new plant-based option, the Beyond Burger — in some cases on the very first day it was added to the menu. While available, the Beyond Burger actually outsold other burger offerings in some locations.
This level of demand isn’t surprising. According to market research firm Nielsen, 43 per cent of Canadian consumers are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based protein into their diets. Canadian sales of plant-based protein products grew 7 per cent to more than $1.5 billion from 2016 to 2017, with sales from meat alternatives growing 15 cent and soy cheese growing 27 per cent. Plant-based chicken, seafood, and eggs are all poised to become top food trends in 2019 and beyond.
Demand isn’t the only thing that has shifted; the supply of plant protein products has evolved too. “Veggie burgers” used to mean mushy conglomerations that only a hungry vegan would eat. But the Beyond Burger is a new kind of product from a new breed of companies supplying flexitarian consumers with the meat they want, produced in a more sustainable way.
There will be about 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. How can we feed them all? One of our greatest concerns today is food waste. We often hear that 25, 30, even 40 per cent of food produced worldwide is wasted. But feeding our crops to animals and then eating the animals is vastly more wasteful. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of crops to get one calorie of chicken flesh.
If we are growing nine times more calories than people are actually consuming, we are using that much more land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. We’re using that much more fossil fuel to plant, harvest, and ship all those extra crops. And then we’re using even more fossil fuel to run the industrial animal farms, and still more to ship the animals to slaughterhouses.
Slaughterhouses are another reason why there is so much pent-up demand for tasty and satisfying plant-based meat. A survey by Oklahoma State University found that 47 per cent of respondents wanted to ban slaughterhouses, and over two thirds had discomfort about the way animals are used in the food system.
There are other surveys — including those focusing on a desire to eat a healthier diet — that show similar dislike for the current system. The bottom line is that most people currently eat conventional meat in spite of how it is produced, not because of how it is produced. People are hungry for meat produced in other ways.
Canada in the Lead
This trend has been recognized by Canadian companies for years now. Founded by a Canadian chef and culinary expert, Gardein makes a wide variety of plant-based meats, from Chipotle Lime Chick’n Fingers to Crabless Cakes.
Canada’s largest meat producer — Maple Leaf Foods — is also looking ahead. In the last few years they have acquired both long-time plant-based protein company Lightlife and newer plant-based meat producer Field Roast.
Previous veggie burgers tended to be made from soy and wheat because those were well-known crops. But companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have taken a new approach. They are breaking conventional meat down into its constituent parts — amino acids, lipids, and minerals. Then they look to the plant kingdom to find these same constituents, which often don’t come from soy or wheat.
For example, Beyond Meat has found that amino acids from peas are better able to replicate conventional meat. This has led to an increase in demand for pea protein — a global demand that Canada is eager to meet. Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development, has stated that plant-based protein “presents enormous potential for us” and the federal government is supporting a protein industries supercluster to drive crop optimization research for ingredients like pea protein and other lesser-known crops. This program is coordinated by an industry-led value chain non-profit consortium Protein Industries Canada. Carlo Dade, director of trade and investment policy for the Canada West Foundation, says Canada’s alternative protein industry has big plans: “Our goal is total world domination.”
Even with these great products now on the market, there is a lot more research to do to meet demand. The Good Food Institute has identified the top global universities for plant-based meat research, and Montreal’s McGill University made the list.
All this innovation has significantly changed the landscape for restaurants and food services. A&W’s experience with overwhelming demand for the Beyond Burger is the rule, not the exception. The Beyond Burger was TGI Friday’s fastest test-to-table menu item ever. The Impossible Burger is being used in high-end restaurants by top chefs, including David Chang, who had previously removed all plant-based entrées from the menus in all of his restaurants. The Impossible Burger is also at White Castle, where it has been a “home run,” quickly expanding from its test market to go nationwide.
The move to alternative meats is just getting started. The Globe and Mail just announced the results of a new Dalhousie University study that found an accelerating move away from conventional meat. For example, fully 63 per cent of Canadians under the age of 39 are actively cutting back — or cutting out — animal meat.
Combined with the new, uncompromising plant-based meats now available, this burgeoning demand for better protein gives Canadian restaurants and foodservices a chance to increase sales and profits. The Good Food Institute, has reviewed how best to ride this wave, which they detail on this Restaurants Canada blog post.