Veganism may seem popular, but food experts say the future is flexitarian
Food industry experts say the biggest driver of food consumption is taste, not ethics
Growing Vegan is a multiplatform CBC Vancouver series that explores how the business of veganism thrives in B.C.
Vancouverite Marie Hui isn't vegan. She's not even vegetarian. But when she heard about A&W's Beyond Meat burger, she decided to give it a try.
"I thought it was fantastic," said Hui, a 35-year-old singer and mother. "It kind of tastes like meat."
Hui tries to eat meat and animal products as little as possible because of ethical, environmental and health concerns. But she says she has one main obstacle keeping her from becoming fully vegetarian or vegan.
"I still enjoy the taste of meat," she said. "I do really also love cheese."
Researchers at Dalhousie University say there are more vegans in B.C. per capita than in any other province. Veganism is a way of life for a small but influential group of British Columbians.
In Vancouver, there is a vegan pudding shop and a vegan shoe store, not to mention the city's vegan pizzerias, vegan bakeries and a plethora of vegan restaurants.
Despite all the buzz, Dalhousie researchers say the number of actual vegans has risen somewhat, but has remained relatively stable over the last decade or so.
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But some food experts say that's not important, as long as most people reduce their consumption of animal products enough to become vegan-ish — sometimes referred to as "flexitarian" — and reduce their environmental footprint.
Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the U.S.-based non-profit group the Good Food Institute, says food technology has finally advanced to create plant-based meat tasty enough that ethically-concerned carnivores like Hui will make the switch.
"It's not, 'let's convert people to veganism," he said but, "let's show people this fantastic product that they will want to buy on its own merit because it's delicious and reasonably priced."
Creating tasty options
People are increasingly concerned about making ethical food choices, Friedrich says, but for many that drive is not enough to sacrifice the taste of meat.
University of British Columbia nutrition instructor Gail Hammond agrees. Hammond says environmental concerns can be a strong factor in consumers' food choices, but it's not usually the main one.
"The number one driver of food choices is taste," Hammond said. "Overwhelmingly."
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Friedrich says the popularity of products like Beyond Meat burgers at fast food chains, like A&W and now McDonald's, is proof those products satisfy both those needs.
Hammond points out packaged products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat also offer consumers convenience.
Meat producers on board
It's not just restaurants jumping on the plant-based meat bandwagon.
Friedrich says major meat producers have taken note of Beyond Meat's popularity and are jumping on board to create their own plant-based products.
Some of those companies are also investing in technology to create meat grown in a lab or what the Good Food Institute is now calling "cultivated meat," instead of its former name, "clean" or "cell-based" meat.
One of the reasons for that change in nomenclature, Friedrich says, is that it's more appealing for major meat producers — even though the term "clean meat" resonates more with consumers.
Lab-grown meat satisfies the need for more environmentally sustainable food, Friedrich says, and would satisfy carnivores' taste buds even more than plant-based meats.
Flexitarian Marie Hui says she's never heard of meat grown in a lab and would be hesitant to consume food she's not familiar with.
"That's so strange," Hui said. "I don't think that I would [eat] that."
But Friedrich says it's just a matter of time until consumers adapt to these different types of meats. In fact, he envisions a future, within a single generation, where people will mostly eat plant-based or lab-grown meat.
"If they like it the same or more, and it costs the same or less, you're going to see everybody switch over in terms of those kind of long-term trends," he said.