Cast an eye briefly over European food industry press in 2019 so far, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that plant-based burgers are everywhere, and that the food industry is well on its way to making plant protein-based products and dishes affordable, attractive and widely available on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. Forward-looking food businesses are investing and innovating hard to meet the rising consumer demand for vegan and veggie foods and more flexitarian eating. 

Back in September 2018, my colleague Mary McCarthy provided an excellent overview of the growth spurt in plant-based diets, looking at how consumer attitudes towards plant proteins are changing, and what is driving it. Since then we’ve seen a continued flow of news about food businesses launching plant-based products, from Tesco UK aiming to increase its range of vegan meals from 32 to 300 products, to McDonalds Germany putting Nestle’s plant-based Incredible Burger on the menu, and plenty more besides. 

So far, so encouraging, in terms of moving towards a more sustainable and healthy balance of proteins in our diets. But does this mean a real shift is now underway? How far would the trend need to go to get us to the right place? And do we even know what that place looks like?

This year we’ve also had the high-profile launch of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, an attempt to define science-based reference diets for 2050 that meet nutritional needs while enabling us to live within our planet’s environmental limits. The EAT-Lancet work adds to other studies and guidance on what healthy and sustainable protein consumption could or should look like, across both widely accepted nutritional science (built into national dietary guidelines for example) and more “emergent” guidance based on research factoring in environmental concerns, for example in Springmann et al’s work published in Science, Poore and Nemecek’s in Nature, or WWF’s 2017 Livewell Plates.

The suggested percentages of meat reduction to aim for in European diets, and target dates, vary – each source of guidance varies according to its aims, focus and underlying assumptions. But taken as a combined set, the message is clear and strong: to achieve healthy diets within environmental limits – that is, to ensure that how we eat keeps us humans nourished, and our home planet in good enough shape for us to live and grow food on – we need to transform our protein consumption within a generation, radically reducing consumption of animal protein while improving how it’s produced (“less but better”), and increasing alternatives, in particular plant proteins. 

This isn’t news to anyone interested in food sustainability – but it makes it much clearer that, based on the science, we need to think in terms of achieving a new normal, where plant proteins sit at the heart of our diets instead of animal proteins. This transformation in the balance of protein sources has a number of implications for food businesses that want to lead on sustainable protein. 

Forum for the Future recently held an expert roundtable with the Protein Challenge 2040 Future Plates Working Group (which includes leaders in rebalancing protein consumption from the food industry and civil society - see below) and special guests, to explore some of the implications of that “new normal”. We asked participants to imagine what their businesses might look like in that world, and what that tells us. Insights included, for example, that: 

There are very practical implications for food businesses of the future: if we only eat meat in small quantities and/or occasionally, how might store layouts, restaurant kitchens or canteen menus be different from today? Examples could include “protein aisles” in supermarkets, and smaller, hotter ovens in industrial kitchens to get better flavours out of vegetables. Bringing these future settings to life could help us to understand more about the changes needed, and to engage others in preparing for and shaping that future. 

Many restaurants, foodservice contracts, or even supermarkets, might be veggie by default in the future. Could Veggie Pret shops, or veggie catering partnerships such as BaxterStorey’s with WeWork in the UK, or Groupe Casino’s vegan Naturalia stores in France, become the norm? 

Crucially, while the spotlight is currently shining bright on “more plant proteins”, more attention and action is needed on the “less but better animal proteins” side of the equation. With meat consumption so central to Western diets, food culture, and business models, this is understandably challenging. What could a managed and just transition look like (including for livestock producers) towards lower meat production and consumption? What could we learn from other stories of industry shifts to help inform that?

We also discussed some of the current barriers to progress: 

Securing the supply of plant-protein ingredients of the right quality, from sustainable sources, and in big enough volumes, is a challenge today – and therefore a big opportunity for suppliers able to step up.

Consumer-facing messaging and terminology around plant-proteins is inconsistent across brands and sectors: might marketing expertise, and insights from previous success stories in mainstreaming new foods or eating habits, offer some solutions? Clear and consistent messaging could also help to engage more procurement teams within food businesses.

Chefs across sectors generally lack the knowledge, skills and recipes to create and prepare dishes with less or no meat or dairy. To reach a new normal, mainstream training (whether academic or on-the-job) will have to transform to equip chefs for the future of food, including moving away from the traditional curriculum structure built around animal proteins. 

This last point about skills also came through in a survey of chefs we ran in 2018 – many respondents told us that they don’t think chefs are equipped by their training to create great-tasting, good-quality rebalanced dishes. In numerous conversations since then, food brands, retailers, foodservice companies, and chefs, have supported this point of view and shown real enthusiasm for rethinking chefs training – with the added benefit that it might help to attract more young people, who are increasingly flexitarian, into the profession. For now, the rising industry demand for plant-protein skills appears to be being met largely through standalone courses and masterclasses, usually paid for by chefs’ employers.

This opportunity in transforming chefs training is one that our Protein Challenge 2040 initiative is actively addressing, starting with a pilot with the University of West London in September 2019. How do we start to integrate more knowledge and skills about plant proteins, as well as sustainability and nutrition more broadly, to ensure all future chefs know how to cook with less meat, to get the best out of plant-protein ingredients, and to create great-tasting, nutritious, affordable and desirable dishes and products? We will be testing an approach to this in the next academic year as a first step towards transforming the curriculum (in the UK and elsewhere). 

This is particularly exciting as the role of professional chefs in influencing and shifting food culture is increasingly being recognised. Initiatives such as the Chefs’ Manifesto, or chef Lars Charas’s fascinating Food Forever book of “future recipes”, are championing the role of chefs in creating positive change through food, and calling on chefs working across sectors to change how they cook.

The UK’s Sustainable Restaurant Association, and Menus of Change in the US, provide excellent practical tips for chefs for rebalancing protein in dishes. Building the right skills into mainstream training should help to generate new cohorts of chefs ready from the outset to cook that way and meet the rising demand from industry for those skills – and accelerate the transition to the new normal. Making sure that demand from employers is clearly visible to skills providers, to give them confidence to change their training approaches, could be the final part of the puzzle.

Going back to what the science says we have to achieve for human and planetary health, transforming our protein consumption within a generation or so is not optional. The tasks ahead for food businesses can seem daunting – this goes far beyond just launching more plant-based options each year. While we may find it hard to imagine this kind of shift, it’s worth remembering that food culture does change – we only need to look at how eating raw fish (in the form of sushi) went from unthinkable to mainstream in the US and Europe in recent decades. 

Finally, one of the strongest messages from our chefs’ survey, our recent roundtable, and the many conversations we’re having across the food industry, is that the focus needn’t be on what we have to take out of our diets. We should think about all of this through the lens of great-tasting food, and of the fantastic flavours, textures, aromas, colours and positive eating experiences that ever more chefs and food innovators will put in to food, for ever more people – that’s where the environmental and nutritional science will meet the culinary arts, applied across food sectors, in the best possible way. 

Protein Challenge 2040 “Future Plates” European Working Group on Rebalancing Protein Consumption: Ahold Delhaize, BaxterStorey, Firmenich, Nestle Research, The Sustainable Restaurant Association, University of West London, WWF 

Contact Geraldine Gilbert to find out more about the Protein Challenge 2040, Future Plates and the chefs training pilots.