While the growing consumer taste for plant-based meat generates a wider choice of foods, from meatless hamburgers to meatless “chicken” nuggets, at the same time, it creates a number of unknowns for food safety experts.
One key issue is FDA’s food standards of identity, which are several decades old. FDA held a public meeting in September 2019 to address the standards and how they might be hampering food innovation. “We know that many standards were established decades ago and have not been recently amended to reflect changes in consumer expectations or opportunities for innovation, including the ability to produce healthier foods,” Susan Mayne, PhD, and director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told the meeting.
She says FDA wants to modernize the standards of identity program so it will protect consumers against economic adulteration; maintain the basic nature, essential characteristics, and nutritional integrity of food; and promote industry innovation and provide flexibility to encourage manufacturers to produce more healthful foods. Dr. Mayne says that FDA is close to proposing a new definition for “healthy” foods, as well as continuing to work on the claim that a food is “natural.”
Separately, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has issued a request for information regarding the use of dairy food names in plant-based product labeling, so that consumers are informed and not misled by labels. “We issued this notice to obtain data and better understand whether consumers are aware of and understand differences in the basic nature, characteristics, ingredients, and nutritional content of plant-based products and their dairy counterparts,” she says.
Hitting the Mainstream
The popularity of veggie burgers made by Beyond Meat, which McDonald’s is testing at its restaurants in Canada, and the Impossible Burger, sold by Burger King and White Castle, demonstrates that plant-based proteins aren’t just for vegans and vegetarians anymore, but are going mainstream.
U.S. retail sales of all types of plant-based foods rose 11.4 percent over the past year, to reach $5 billion now, says the Plant-Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute. Of that total, plant-based meat sales were up 18 percent, to $939 million. Refrigerated plant-based meat drove that growth, rising 63 percent. Plant-based meat now accounts for two percent of retail packaged meat sales, the two groups said.
“One of the most amazing developments is that more than 100,000 fast food outlets offer plant-based meat, including Burger King. McDonald’s has been testing it in Canada,” says Julie Emmett, senior director of retail partnerships at the Plant-Based Foods Association in San Francisco.
Customers ordered 228 million servings of veggie burgers and veggie sandwiches at quick-serve restaurants from April 2018 to May 2019, according to research company NPD Group. Beef burgers still are more popular by far, with 6.4 million ordered in the same time frame. NPD said the desire for more protein in their diets, concerns for animal welfare and how meat products are brought to market, sustainability, and a perception of healthier nutrition all drive customers to buy more plant-based meats.
Plant-based meat, also known as plant-based protein and alternative meat, typically includes proteins such as soy or peas, fats including coconut oil, carbohydrates such as methylcellulose, minerals, water, and flavoring. All of these ingredients put it into the “ultra-processed” category of NOVA, a widely used food classification system developed by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
NOVA looks at the level of processing in a food. Ultra-processed foods contain at least five ingredients, typically have added ingredients like fats and salts, and have modified or processed food ingredients. The Impossible Burger, for example, lists 21 ingredients on its website, while Beyond Meat lists 17.