Environment

Milking cashews, not cows, for sustainability

Meat and dairy aren’t exactly disappearing, but veggie alternatives are gaining ground

January 11, 2019
A veggie burger sits on a paper plate on a blue tablecloth.
Some people think that veganism is a sort of cult, said vegan investor Jody Rasch. “Rather than fighting it, we decided to embrace it. Surprisingly, a lot of people wanted to join our cult.” [Credit: Tara Santora]

As a vegan for the past six years, people often ask me if I miss meat and cheese.

Meat? Not so much. But cheese is an ex I haven’t gotten over.

So when I tried an aged, smoked cashew cheese that melted in my mouth and brought out my inner valley girl — “Oh my God, it’s so good!” — I felt like I had reunited with a long-lost love. After years of searching, I’d finally located the deep umami taste and believable texture I’d been longing for.

Despite the vegan jokes and occasional hatred that have swamped mainstream media, Americans on the whole are eating less meat. But behind every vegetarian are a dozen meat-lovers proclaiming they could never give up bacon.

Now, they might not have to: environmentally conscious companies are cooking up new veggie alternatives that are practically indistinguishable from their meaty cousins.

“Back in 2002, what do you think was the most common ingredient in vegan food?” asked Chris Kerr, co-CEO of veggie-based seafood company Good Catch, at a recent panel discussion at New York University. An audience member asked if it was soy. “No,” Kerr replied. “It was disappointment.”

But from vegan burgers that bleed to cashew cheese that melts in your mouth, new realistic meat and dairy substitutes are convincing some Americans to swap animal protein for more sustainable, plant-based options.

“There’s a strong demand for these products, which is growing globally,” said panelist Rosie Wardle, a manager at FAIRR, an investor network. “We’re at the foothills of a food technology revolution.”

It’s no secret that meat-based diets are less sustainable than plant-based ones. Raising one kilogram of animal protein uses about 100 times more water than the same weight of grain-based protein. What’s more, livestock in the U.S. eat more than seven times as much grain as U.S. residents do — enough to feed approximately 840 million more people on a plant-based diet, according to a 2003 study.

Making animal protein also accounts for more than a third of the production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, in the United States (read: cows fart a lot). And when it rains, runoff can push animal waste into rivers and streams, polluting waterways and drinking water sources.

“No matter how you break up the data, it’s always going to come out that a plant-based diet is more environmentally sound than a meat-based diet,” said panelist Jody Rasch, an executive at the vegan investment fund VegInvest.

While the number of vegetarians and vegans has held steady at about eight percent over the past six years, more Americans are cutting back on their meat intake. About two-thirds of Americans reported reducing their meat consumption between 2012 and 2015, according to a recent study.

As more Americans cut down on their meat and dairy, plant-based food sales have expanded, growing almost 10 percent in 2017 alone, according to a 2018 Gallup report. Last year, the sale of these products topped $3 billion, and plant-based milks are expected soon to make up 40 percent of all milk sales in the U.S.

Consumers may be wary of tuna made from algae or butter churned from coconut oil. Even as a vegan, I’ll admit these labels scare me too. But if you can look past the ingredients list, there’s no doubt: Plant-based proteins are not only easy on the conscience, they’re tasty too.

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About the Author

Tara Santora is a contributor to ScienceLine and former Editor-in-Chief of The Synapse intercollegiate science magazine.

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