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2021 started and will end in the midst of a pandemic. Vaccinations saved lives, as well as our peace of mind to some degree; meanwhile, the Omicron variant and supply chain disruptions continue to remind us that COVID-19 isn’t in the rearview just yet. As many have predicted, the way forward isn’t so much a “return to normalcy” as it is the task of establishing a new normal.
But as plenty of folks have pointed out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some facets of our industrialized society, and especially our foodways, have long been overdue for an update to better suit the concerns facing our modern world – such as the climate crisis. Now, whether it’s all the time spent at home or a kick in the collective pants from COVID-19 anxiety, we’re starting to see those wheels gradually spinning faster and faster.
A lot of trends that we saw planting seeds last year have come to fruition, from the explosion of new plant oils and milks to the introduction of more vegan fish substitutes. Looking ahead, we can expect to see these trends continuing to grow – and a few new ones starting up as well. Here are some of the most significant developments to take place in 2021, and what I’m betting we’ll see in 2022.
Veggie-meat hybrid foods
As a flexitarian, my thinking has long been that it’s better for the planet, people, and animals, if we can help a lot of people make small, positive changes in their shopping and eating habits. So, while folks in the plant-based food space often talk about replacing meat with alternatives that are 100% vegan, meat companies are beginning to turn toward a sort of compromise: hybrid meat-veggie foods. For those who aren’t happy with vegetarian meat substitutes, but are paying mind to their own health and that of the planet, a burger or chicken nugget made with a combination of meat and veggies could be just the thing. Applegate has released their Well Carved line of burger patties and meatballs that include veggies like cauliflower and kale right in the mix – and thus, less meat. Chicken titan Perdue is currently debuting their Chicken Plus line of nuggets and tenders, which similarly combine chicken with a blend of plants like chickpeas and cauliflower. Instead of pushing back against plant-forward, earth-friendly food altogether, these mixed veggie-meat foods are a clever way meat brands can adjust to suit the needs of a rapidly changing society. I think we’ll see even more examples of this popping up on grocery store shelves in the coming months.
Vegan butter is better
And where the corporatized animal agriculture industry refuses to adjust, it’s fighting a losing battle. In the ongoing saga of vegan food brands facing lawsuits over calling their plant-based products things like almond “milk” or vegan “butter,” this summer saw a win for Miyoko’s Creamery, maker of plant-based dairy alternatives, in federal court. The food industry and government regulators, whether they like it or not, are going to have to accept what consumers already know: language is flexible and fluid, especially as it applies to rapidly changing aspects of culture. No one is being tricked by plant-based milk and butter, and the dairy industry doesn’t have an exclusive claim to those words. They’re going to have to face the dairy-free competition without any unfair advantages in the law. And in the meantime, brands like Miyoko’s are going to get a little bit of breathing room to experiment with new products, ingredients, and marketing strategies without Big Dairy breathing down their necks.
…and now, potatoes are milk
As odd as it may sound, Waitrose named potato milk a trending product for 2022 in their recent year-end annual projection. Although, honestly, it shouldn’t be too surprising at this point – even your nearest bodega is probably stocking soy, almond, oat, rice, cashew, and even pistachio milk these days. We would be wise to keep an eye out, and an open mind towards new and surprising innovations in plant milk and other products.
Around this time last year, there was buzz around “adaptogens” and “nootropics,” a category of substances which supposedly help the human body return to homeostasis and mitigate stress. Now, the conversation is a little more focused: functional mushrooms like reishi, lion’s mane, and cordyceps are appearing everywhere. Shroom coffees, teas, and tonics may be trendy, but the trend has roots in traditional Chinese medicine. Lately we’ve seen industry-leading wellness brands like Moon Juice go all-in on functional mushrooms. Before the end of 2022, chances are we’ll see even more brands debuting new and inventive uses for fungi.
Veggie-friendly food service
2020 was a brutal year for the restaurant industry across the board, with many being forced to shutter temporarily or even permanently. Fortunately, despite the ongoing pandemic-related concerns and precautions, the National Restaurant Association estimates that 2021 sales will add up to $789 billion – almost a 20% increase over the previous year. And as consumers have returned to their favorite fast food joints, some of the biggest national chains have debuted more and more vegetarian or vegan options. In 2021, Long John Silver’s, Panda Express, and Little Caesar’s have all partnered with plant-based brands like Field Roast and Beyond Meat to release their first modern veggie options, like orange chick’n and meat-free pepperoni. Burger King, home of the Impossible Whopper, has even announced a new foray into vegetarian food: Impossible Nuggets. The trend of fast food going plant-based has been gaining traction for a few years now, and given its continued success, we can probably expect to see more of these programs expanding and even more brands following suit.
Apart from rapid gains in the quick service sphere, plant-based food has made some major steps in the fine dining arena this past year. While plant-based dining has mostly been limited to mid-price and quick service restaurant menus, high-end locales are beginning to dabble in meatless waters. Eleven Madison Park, famously, reopened this summer with an all-vegan menu; the Met gala served exclusively vegan food designed by up-and-coming culinary talent; even the Obamas offered a considerable plant-based selection at the celebration of Barack’s 60th birthday. Suffice it to say, the world of fine dining and food criticism are not ignoring vegan fare any longer. It’s about time – diners have already woken up to the fact that industrial animal agriculture is a major culprit of environmental destruction and the progression of climate change. Now that foodies are getting with the times and taking vegan fare seriously, it’s inevitable that we’ll see more culinary talent trying their hands at fancy plant-based cuisine.
Toward a zero-waste future
For the last several years, a small but growing faction of consumers and lifestyle influencers have been modeling strategies for producing little to no waste in their daily lives. The zero-waste movement took a definite hit during the early part of the pandemic, as our renewed fear of contagious disease led us back to relying on single-use plastics and other items. But as we’ve learned more about COVID-19, like that the risk of surface transmission is minimal, we’re starting to get back to reduce-reuse-recycling. Austrian nutritionist and food scientist Hanni Rützler predicts that 2022 will see a renewed interest in sustainable practices that cut back on trash production. Indeed, many plant-based brands, like No Evil Foods and Sacred Serve, have either reduced or eliminated their use of plastic from the brand packaging. I too expect this trend will grow in 2022.
Healthier plant-based meats
As plant-based meats have grown in profile over the last several years, there’s been persistent criticism of these products as unhealthy, based on the facts that they tend to be very processed, largely composed of oil, and have a high sodium and saturated fat content. So, industry leaders are taking the note: this past spring, Beyond Meat debuted a new burger formulation that contains 35% less fat than their original ground. Emerging brands, too, are putting forth products with “cleaner” labels consisting of fewer ingredients, in hopes of capturing the increasingly skeptical consumer. Nowadays, which makes plant-based nuggets, boasts that their product contains only seven ingredients, at just 120 calories but 13g protein per serving. I’m expecting to see similar moves from growing plant-based brands of all sizes, from grassroots to VC-backed.
More intersectional collaborations
The plant-based food category exists in part because of its value proposition concerning the environment. Their counterparts—animal products, particularly those from factory farms, tend to produce a lot of carbon emissions and require more water and land, accelerating the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. There’s also an inequality aspect, as people in low-income communities often have reduced access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which are not only good for the planet, but also for human health. I expect more mission aligned, non-food brands will jump on board the plant-based wagon, spearheading unique collaborations that interconnect these two challenges of our time. Take PopSockets. The company is best known for their grips that attach to phones, but beginning in early December, it will be collaborating with The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) to celebrate the power of plants and provide fresh fruits and vegetables to families facing food insecurity through a “Plant Positive” initiative. The company will donate a portion of sales from their PopGrip Plant, which is fully recyclable and made with at least 1/3 plant based materials like castor beans, canola oil and cornstarch, to provide 14 servings of fresh vegetables and fruits to families in need, expanding affordable access to high-quality produce. Customers will also receive discounts for climate-conscious products, including those from Beyond Meat, Hungry Planet, Back to the Roots, Wild Earth and marketplace GTFO it’s Vegan. It’s a neat, cross-sector initiative, and I’m optimistic we will see more of them in 2022.
Cell-cultured meat: in stores?
While cell-cultured meat, also called cultivated, cell-based, clean, and lab-grown meat, is by definition not plant-based—it’s grown from and comprised of animal cells—it’s another strategic idea for reducing animal suffering and the need for environment-harming industrial animal agriculture practices. Cell-cultured meat has been a mostly hypothetical idea tossed around in environmental and animal rights conversations for ages, but it’s recently become a reality—and may soon become a consumer product here in the U.S. Singapore became the first country to approve cell-cultured meat for consumer sale when they gave Eat Just the green light on their cell-cultured chicken nuggets. Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats), a Berkeley-based cell-cultured meat startup, recently debuted a shiny new production facility – a $50 million investment – that they claim will be able to produce 50,000 lbs, and eventually up to 400,000 lbs, of cell-grown meat annually. Meanwhile, Israeli company Future Meat opened a new production facility earlier this year and aims to have their cell-cultured meat on shelves at American grocery stores by sometime in 2022. We’ll have to wait and see if these businesses deliver on their lofty promises, but they’re definitely putting their money where their mouths (er, our mouths?) are.
Fermentation, the next frontier
Of course, fermented foods aren’t exactly a new phenomenon; we’ve been eating things like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, yogurt, and kombucha since time immemorial. But food tech innovators today are using fermentation technology to create foods that would traditionally be products of industrial animal agriculture. Brave Robot has developed a fermentation technique to make whey without cows. Their cultivated, animal-free “dairy” is the base of their Perfect Day ice cream line. And just recently, the juice franchise Pressed began selling animal-free egg white protein in partnership with The EVERY Company, also using a fermentation method to replicate animal protein without involving any actual animals. For those who love both animals and animal products, going forward, fermentation could be the key to cruelty-free eating without sacrificing traditional tastes.
More and more each year, the food tech industry reminds us that we truly are living in the future. Things that seemed impossible or unlikely less than a decade ago are becoming realities – and with not a moment to spare. It’s been well-known for years that industrial animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and other problems like human health, worker safety, and animal suffering. Finally, it seems, the food industry is doling out new ways to feed the growing number of vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, and meat-reducers among us. So, yes – the future will hopefully be full of fruits and veggies and alternative proteins, and there are signs a shift is already here.