While plant-based protein demand is rising in the United States, red meat availability and consumption have also increased in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The country has among the highest meat consumption per capita in the world, and cattle production is its most important agricultural industry.
“The meat industry isn’t going away,” says Jitendra Sagili, Chief R&D Food & Technology Officer at Greenleaf Foods, which produces the plant-based protein brand Lightlife. “Meat is an intrinsic part of not just the food system but our culture,” and it also contributes to healthy diets that include a variety of protein sources.
According to Sagili, the plant-based protein and meat industries should work together in a symbiotic relationship to not only meet protein demand but drive positive change across the food system. And sharing best practices is crucial in reaching this symbiosis.
Already, many developments in the plant-based industry can be transferred to meat processing, particularly on the ingredient level, Sagili tells Food Tank.
Natural ingredients like vinegar and lemon juice, used in Lightlife’s plant-based meat products, can replace sodium lactates and sodium diacetates as natural preservatives in processed meat. For example, rather than chemically adding sodium nitrate to preserve lunch meat or hot dogs and give them their pink color, celery juice can fight bacteria, and beet and carrot extractions can naturally accentuate color. Common plant-based binding agents like soy and gluten also have significant potential to replace unnatural additives in meat, according to Sagili.
Finding ways to incorporate natural plant-based extractions “would definitely clean up the meat products in the marketplace,” which often contain a lot of ingredients, Sagili says. And scaling production of these ingredients could not only be more cost-effective for businesses—both plant-based and meat—but more affordable for the consumer.
But the plant-based industry can also learn from best practices in the meat industry: “Plant-based proteins follow the meat manufacturing and processing playbook,” Sagili explains. Many plant-based protein products—like burgers, hot dogs, sausages, and grounds—are in a meat format and produced with meat equipment. Sagili says one of the biggest impacts of Greenleaf Foods’ connection to its parent company Maple Leaf Foods, a 60-year-old consumer packaged meats company, was importing the best practices in manufacturing.
“The challenge in plant-based protein is that research, development, and innovations are there, but the manufacturing is still in early stage,” Sagili tells Food Tank. Best practices in food safety, quality management, and cost-effective manufacturing can be adapted from the meat industry to help sustainably grow plant-based productions.
Acquiring Lightlife was a natural choice towards Maple Leaf’s mission “to be the most sustainable protein company in the world,” and to reduce its overall carbon footprint, Sagili says. The companies remain independent entities but share best practices. He hopes others in the industry follow this model, raising awareness about the positive impact for businesses and potential environmental gains.
“There are a lot of discussions on eliminating meat from the food systems. One thing we have to remember is that not all meat is created equal,” Sagili says. “All types of protein have a different carbon impact, so consumers have to make their choices. What we need is more moderation, a happy medium life between plant and meat.”
And the two industries can combine knowledge and resources to help solve urgent shared issues, Sagili notes: “Together let’s tackle this mammoth problem of food waste and other sustainability issues plaguing the world, like packaging waste.”
If all companies think in terms of creating any protein—either plant-based or meat—more sustainably, the industry can together start benchmarking for best practices to benefit the entire food system. “There is such an opportunity to coexist,” Sagili says.
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