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Good For The Planet, But Not For Your Body?

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By Adnan Durrani 

Meat alternatives are often highly processed and may contain unsavory chemicals. Watch out for consumer backlash on protein isolates.

Pop Quiz: Where might you find these chemicals: Methylcellulose, Titanium Dioxide (paint whitener), Ferric Phosphate (pesticide) or Propylene Glycol (e-cigarettes)?

THE SPACE X FUSELAGE?

In the Space X fuselage? Nope, you’d find them in some meat-alternative products. Having been in the food sector for three decades, it’s constructive to provide context on shiny objects blinding the objectivity of otherwise sensible consumers, astute CPGs, and modern-thinking retailers.

Of course, what I am talking about is the plant-based proteins (PBP) in the “meat-alternatives” sector. This is not a food safety issue — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved them as safe. But clean foods should not contain highly processed ingredients such as these.

First of all, I believe the future is bright for plant-based culinary and ethnic offerings. Thankfully, more Americans are incorporating an occasional vegetarian regimen. The combined sales of all vegan and plant-based meat alternative products grew to more than $7 billion in retail sales last year, up 27% versus 2020, according to the Plant-Based Foods Association’s (plantbasedfoods.org, Washington) April 2021 report.

But I also think it’s important to set realistic expectations when it comes to the leading trends for PBP frozen meals. Case in point: While the PBP meats sector grew a robust 45% and is on track to book $1.4 billion in sales in 2021, it still represents only 1.5% of the $95 billion frozen foods sector.

I think the “plant-based” gold rush may get ambushed and over SKU’d by the upstart frozen entree players, the retailers, and the big CPGs. The knock-on effect could potentially result in huge losses for some brands and an even greater mess for retailers to clean up in 12-18 months.

Plus, sales will inevitably backlash, especially once the consumers and activists realize a lot of these PBPs are highly processed and may not be healthy. They may indeed be good for the planet, but are they really that good for your body?

Having been a serial innovator in the disruptive NOSH (Natural Organic Specialty Healthy) category, I have seen this movie before. We don’t yet know the negative health effects around highly processed peas and soy. Everyone thought the Atkins diet was the bomb until it wasn’t. And 15 years ago, even soy was promoted as the miracle bean — now we know otherwise. It took 20 years to realize GMOs had negative effects on our health. We won’t know if there are any negative impacts from protein isolates until at least another 10 years.

The white elephant in the room is a highly processed ingredient called “protein isolates.” I admire brands that have deliberately stayed away from those, using only clean, whole ingredients, adhering to authentic culinary traditions, quality, and taste, as well as being transparent in their sourcing and certification standards.

In fact, the Gosh! Report (from U.K.-based goshfood.com) stated in its 2021 consumer poll that “over 86% of those polled admitted to having never heard of the emulsifier and thickening agent, methylcellulose. Fifty percent believe that ‘plant-based products’ are artisan as opposed to highly processed; and 4 in 10 shoppers think plant-based foods only contain natural ingredients. There is a huge misconception amongst consumers around what plant-based products are actually made from.”

Clean Food Facts (published by the Center for Consumer Freedom, Washington, consumerfreedom.com) boldly claimed: “We’re being duped into eating heavily processed food that contains numerous preservatives, additives, fillers, texturizers, and chemicals linked to cancer. They’re high in sodium and low in nutritional quality. Consumers should not be told that highly processed fake foods are any better for you than the meat products they’re replacing.”

PLANT-BASED IS HERE TO STAY

Everyone’s spidey-sense around transparency should be on alert. Ultimately, I believe the plant-based sector is not just a fad. It is here to stay. But the second wave of PBP will be much more in line with modern consumers and their desire for cleaner, better-for-you minimally processed products. In fact, it should be the norm. ■

Adnan Durrani is a 30+ year natural foods pioneer and CEO/founder of clean-label, world-cuisine brand Saffron Road (saffronroad.com), Stamford, Conn., the leading protein entrées brand and fastest-growth natural/organic frozen entrees brand in the United States, according to SPINS data.

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