Vegan food is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with an 8.1% rise in sales of plant-based food in the last year. Accordingly, there has been a 600% increase in the number of vegans in the United States over the past three years alone. But as the shift in public perception of veganism evolves with the marketplace, so have the products, and the technology it takes to create them.
Plant-based food now comes in forms which are almost imperceptible from their meat-based counterparts, in terms of both taste and texture. Whilst jackfruit, for example, remains a popular alternative to pulled pork, fake meats made from synthesised natural ingredients are becoming ever more advanced. Likewise, non-dairy milk and even entire powdered meals are having something of a heyday. But just how has technology advanced the modern vegan movement?
Nutritionally complete meals in powdered form
Using just seven plant-based ingredients, British startup Huel has gone from strength to strength in the three years since it was founded, with its instant meals now shipping worldwide and making £14 million in 2017 alone. The product differs from other just-add-water powdered meals by not simply being designed as a dietary supplement or to aid with weight loss, but a fully-balanced, “nutritionally complete” meal in its own right—though the inspiration for Huel came from such products in the first place.
The company’s founder, Julian Hearn, told Wired that “in the early days, Huel was pretty much made on a spreadsheet”, and this scientific approach to its nutrition has now transferred over to the other aspects of the product. The test kitchens have been developing flavour sachets to accompany the original product, and encourage their customers to share their tips on blending them into new concoctions via the Huel Facebook page. Indeed, the community of “Huelers” also informs the next steps the company take in the future, with a pre-mixed bottled version currently in the works.
With documentaries like Cowspiracy taking a deep dive into the ecological impact that the meat and dairy industry has on the world, the number of people shunning cow’s milk is on the rise. Milk alternatives now account for 3% of the dairy industry—a 4% rise since 2012—and whilst this is a small number in the grand scheme of things, it is still a significant change in both perception and the marketplace.
Whilst there has been some controversy over certain of these animal-free milks, particularly almond milk, companies such as Perfect Day are reinventing the future of milk. All of the dairy proteins contained within their products are lab-created, through “gene sequencing and 3D printing…free from the hormones, antibiotics, steroids and cholesterol” which natural milk usually contains. However, by using replicated dairy proteins, it comes closer to reproducing the taste of cow’s milk than any plant-based alternative. Furthermore, this also drastically lowers the environmental impact these processes usually have, using 91% less land and 98% less water.
As noted above, the negative environmental impact of the meat industry is just as profound as that of dairy production, but the increasing range of options available to consumers has led plant-based meat substitutes out of a single supermarket aisle. British supermarket Sainsbury’s recently announced that it would be trialing the integration of meat and “fake meat” products in the same section of some of its stores.
One of the main meat substitutes getting attention is the work of Impossible Foods, an American startup who have worked to develop lab-created “alt-protein” products, most notably the Impossible Burger, which not only looks and tastes like meat, but even “bleeds” like a rare-cooked burger. The BBC notes that at present, consumers have struggled to tell it apart from real meat 47% of the time. The “blood” is developed from heme—”a plant-based iron-containing molecule”—and Impossible Foods are currently able to manufacture half a ton of the burgers each month.
These examples alone make it clear that the technology behind vegan food is rapidly advancing, making veganism more accessible, and more attractive, than it ever was before.