EAST LANSING — A subtle revolution is underway in the frozen foods section of Foods For Living. Alternatives to meat are emerging.
Plant-based meat has grown in popularity at the East Lansing grocery store in recent years, said Ben Green, manager of the frozen food and dairy section.
“A lot of them have just come online,” he said. “It’s almost like every two weeks that I see something I didn’t know existed.”
The rise in plant-based meat sales at Foods For Living is not an anomaly. Americans, especially younger people, are embracing artificial meat.
About 41% of Americans said they are likely to buy foods that look and taste like meat but are artificially produced, according to Michigan State University’s 2021 Food Literacy and Engagement Survey. In 2018, only 33% of people said they were likely to buy it.
Pollsters have polled Americans twice a year since 2017 to learn more about their understanding of and relationship to the food system. Previous surveys have shown that older Americans are more aware of food waste, and many people place some importance on terms such as “natural” or “clean,” which are relatively meaningless on food labels.
“These are big issues that affect us, in terms of what we eat and how we make choices in the marketplace and what we think is acceptable, healthy and nutritious for our families,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum. , co-director of the biannual survey. “We don’t really know where our food comes from and how it was produced and ended up on our plate.”
The latest round of the survey focused on respondents’ understanding of the relationship between diet and climate change – or lack of understanding, in some cases. Less than half of those surveyed realized that eating more plant-based foods reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, plant-based foods are getting meatier as companies manufacture ingredients that mimic the texture, taste, and appearance of the real thing.
Green has a front-row seat to the veggie burger shining from his position at Foods For Living.
Years ago, a veggie burger was a simple concoction of plants like beans, soybeans, potatoes, and cauliflower rolled into a patty. They can grill like a burger, but there’s no hiding the bean.
Those veggie burgers are still around, but are now joined by a new, plant-based “meat” version that’s similar to the beef it’s supposed to replace.
“These are really a product of lab innovation,” Green said. “It’s crazy what’s in there, where you put one on the grill and it bleeds like a burger. It smells like burger.”
But be careful what you call it, warned Michigan Farm Bureau livestock and dairy specialist Ernie Birchmeier. He said it was inappropriate to label the food as “plant-based meat”, arguing that the meat only comes from animals. The term “plant-based protein” would fit, he said.
“Isn’t it great that we have choices and that we have food diversity in this country?” he said. “But let’s market these products on their own merits rather than trying to use someone else’s label, if you will, to [boost] your product.”
Michigan’s agricultural sector is not threatened by plant-based burgers, he said. Two of the state’s main staple crops, corn and soybeans, are used in many meat substitutes.
“I don’t think we’ll see a lot of disruption,” Birchmeier said. “We’ve seen different food movements over the years and they’re progressive.”
Insects and cell-grown meats could be next
Americans’ increased willingness to eat meat alternatives has been “really impressive,” Kirshenbaum said. Changes in public opinion generally occur much more slowly.
There are more meat alternatives on the horizon. In 2019, MSU’s Food Literacy Survey found that some people are ready for a gourmet foray into insects and cell-cultured meats.
Eating insects is simple. At least 2 billion people, including an insect breeder from Lansing, are already doing this, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says insect protein is a sustainable way to feed the world’s growing population.
A quarter of Americans are willing to try it, according to the 2019 poll.
Following:This bug breeder from Lansing eats bugs. He thinks you should too
Cell-cultured meats are less familiar — they’re not yet on the market in the United States or most countries. Also known as lab-grown meat, slaughter-free meat, or synthetic meat, the product is grown using cells from a real animal.
“It’s really interesting,” Kirshenbaum said. “There are seafood companies doing this, beef companies, chicken companies, pork companies. They’re all in the works.”
Lab-grown meat could ease the concerns of people who have ethical objections to eating meat and reduce the amount of land needed to raise livestock.
The 2019 poll found that 35% of Americans are likely to buy it when they can.
“Meat isn’t going anywhere,” Kirshenbaum said. “There are more and more options available as substitutes for different locations for people looking for it.”
For now, plants masquerading as meat are a primary option.
And that’s pretty good, Green said.
Green, himself a vegetarian, has tried many plant-based meat alternatives sold at Foods for Living. Anyone who discovers the products might be surprised at the first bite.
“Anyone who is a meat eater who has never dipped their toes into the world of simulated meat would be pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We have a lot of meat eaters here [at the store] who will often opt for a plant-based option simply because it satisfies them and they find it delicious.”