What is a plant-based diet and why are so many people embracing it?

Jovel Chan

Jovel Chan

If you’ve noticed an increase in the selection of plant-based alternatives (notably to meat and dairy products) in grocery stores, restaurants, fast-food chains and of course, on social media – you’re far from alone.

According to Bloomberg, the plant-based food market is expected to skyrocket to US$162 million in the next decade and has experienced unprecedented growth in the past few years. In 2020, the plant-based food market was valued at $29.4 billion which means if Bloomberg’s predictions are correct, the market will soar by a whopping 451%.  

Driven by a growing preference for sustainable and healthy foods by consumers and a distrust of meat-derived products during the coronavirus pandemic, plant-based diets are fast becoming an attractive option for many and food manufacturers ranging from start-ups to leading food companies are responding with solutions to meet the increasing demand. 

What is a plant-based diet and why are so many people embracing it?

So, what are plant-based foods and what is a plant-based diet?

Plant-based foods, as the name suggests, refers to foods that consist mainly of plants (fruits, vegetables and beans). However, in recent times, a new wave of plant-based foods has emerged where plant-based foods are analogues and mimic the colour, texture and taste of their non-plant-based counterparts (meat, dairy, seafood). Today, you can get a whole-cut plant-based steak in Asia and a 3D-printed plant-based salmon steak, options that are possible today because of technology. 

Food brands pioneering this new wave of plant-based foods include Impossible, Beyond Meat, Heura and Tindle. In fact, plant-based foods have become so popular in some countries that fast-food chains such as KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut have incorporated them as permanent items on their menu.

What is a plant-based diet and why are so many people embracing it?
Plant-based meat patty by Beyond Meat 

While many have attempted to take on the responsibility of defining this new up-and-coming food trend – Is it vegan, vegetarian or simply a fad? – technically, all the interpretations are correct. Plant-based diets largely refer to ‘diets that are composed mostly, but not entirely, of plant foods.’ 

The main idea is to make plant-based foods a central part of your diet and limit foods like meats, dairy and eggs. From there, restrictions and interpretations are dependent on each individual. So, plant-based diets can run the gamut from a 100-per-cent no-meat vegan diet to a Mediterranean diet, composed largely of plant-based foods, although it incorporates fish and poultry. Think of “plant-based” as a broad category of diets, with more specific diets under its umbrella.  

What is a plant-based diet and why are so many people embracing it?
What is a plant-based diet? Source: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/plant-based-diet-vs-vegan#plant-based-vs-vegan

Key factors contributing to the growth of plant-based foods

  • An increased awareness of health benefits 

The pandemic has forced consumers to acknowledge the relationship between their health and what we put on their plates. Also, it has cast a spotlight on healthy plant-based diets. 

Recent data from Euromonitor shows one in four consumers worldwide are actively reducing the amount of red meat they consume. 

This perception is scientifically backed up by research conducted by Oxford University, which confirms the correlation between healthy food and sustainable food, which is predominantly plant-based. The research assessed 15 foods including fruits, veggies, nuts and sugar-sweetened drinks and animal products such as red meat, chicken, dairy, eggs and fish.

The main finding was that plant-based foods were best at preventing diseases and protecting the planet, whereas red meat scored the highest in terms of ill health.

  • An increased awareness of the environment

Another rising concern is the environmental impact of the production of animal-based meat that has driven the surge of meat substitutes market in Vietnam, for example. According to an analysis by The Guardian, meat production uses the vast majority of farmland (83 per cent) and produces 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Therefore, alternative proteins which have less impact on the environment and require less land-use, have gained popularity among consumers who are becoming more conscious about environmental issues. 

What is a plant-based diet and why are so many people embracing it?
Source: Reporting ASEAN.
  • A distrust for meat-derived products driven by the pandemic

As a zoonotic disease, Covid-19 has pushed many to avoid animal products out of safety concerns since Sars-CoV2 was traced to bats and African swine fever to pigs. In the big picture, Covid-19 has brought out curiosity about the links between meat-eating and the intensive industrial production of livestock, animal meat and dairy whose consumption is a common habit among consumers, and a risk of pandemics. 

A year into Covid-19 and Southeast Asians continue to avoid raw or uncooked meat. As of mid-February, the highest percentage of raw-meat avoidance was in Thailand (47 per cent), followed by the Philippines and Vietnam at 39 per cent, data from YouGov shows. Similarly, according to Fox News, 57 per cent of Americans are consuming less meat and dairy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Adding fuel to the fire, a team of South African scientists have also warned that ‘meat-eating creates risk of future pandemic that would make covid seem like a dress rehearsal and that reducing one’s meat intake can slow down the speed at which another virus evolves. 

  • Caring about animal welfare

Thanks to buzz-generation documentaries such as Seaspiracy (2021), ‘What the Health (2017), Cowspiracy (2014) and Forks Over Knives (2011) that throw shade at eating meat and other animal products, more consumers are aware of intensive animal farming and industrial livestock production. The mainstreamification of such information has highlighted the negative effects that animal-based diets have on the world so much so that nearly 90 per cent of vegans cited animal welfare concerns as one of the main reasons they made the switch.

According to an analysis published in the journal Sustainability by the University of Bath, psychology researcher Chris Bryant found that the majority of meat eaters agree that veganism is both environmentally friendly and ethical. This has led to an explosion of plant-based awareness and curious newcomers to the plant-based community.

With technology advancements and innovative up-and-coming plant-based alternatives making the adoption and transition to a plant-based diet less disruptive, perhaps one day we will see a shift away from the phrase ‘plant-based diet’ to simply just a ‘diet.’ 

Featured image: Tomáš Hustoles from Burst.

Jovel Chan

Jovel Chan

From Singapore to Saigon, Jovel Chan is a food writer, marketer and industry speaker. A decade of working, living and eating across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Jovel has managed more than 50 restaurants in 10 countries in Head of Marketing roles for industry top dogs such as AirAsia, Ebb&Flow Group and Jones the Grocer Holdings. Today, Jovel is the founder Vietnam's only-dedicated F&B industry blog (www.jovelchan.com) and podcast where she shares the latest industry news and happenings, trends, opinions and interviews with key opinion leaders. Her words have been featured in Vietcetera, Vietnam Plus, e27 and Destinations of the World News and she can often be seen speaking at industry conferences, universities or conducting industry workshops and webinars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

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