Are we ready for plant-based diets?

Plant-based diets are clearly on the increase, with vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat are taking up more space on the supermarket shelves than ever before. But if food companies are to meet the environmental concerns of those changing their diets, they need to encourage UK farmers to grow more protein-rich plants. In the first of a three-part series looking at the food industry’s increasing need for plant proteins, Dr Réka Haraszi, examines the role of legumes. Part two will consider sustainability and the environmental impact of growing legumes and the concluding article will look in depth at two unusual – or underutilised – legume crops.

Protein is a key part of any balanced diet, and has traditionally come from animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) with plants such as pulses and nuts playing a secondary role. However, this landscape is changing, driven by consumer dynamics and a rise in plant-based and ‘flexitarian’ diets as a reflection of the unsustainable consumption of meat.

New opportunities

This presents new opportunities for plant-based alternatives, but how do we ensure that we are not just shifting the problem? The UK farming sector is facing the challenge of raw material supply for the growing demand of the processing sectors.

Any future proteins solutions will require an integrated approach to balance sustainability and the supply chain while also meeting consumer and public health requirements. Examples of this include the use of existing but low volume crop proteins, insect proteins and mycoproteins alongside promising technologies such as precision fermentation, cellular agriculture and plant-based proteins.

Plant proteins

Alternative protein sources are essential, and demand for plant-based protein is still increasing. Plants are expected to be the largest source of alternative protein, partly due to their reduced environmental impact when compared to conventional animal protein and partly because consumers perceive them as ‘healthier’. The uptake of plant proteins by the food industry is growing, for both human consumption and animal feed. The right balance between these markets, will ensure plant waste can be avoided, and food and feed quality can be improved. Together these factors are driving a revolution in the plant protein market. The global plant protein market shows a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8-9% (UK market 8.25% CAGR) for the coming years, offering great potential for innovation.

Public policy

This message is also supported by many governments and policy makers, who seek to improve public health and reduce the environmental impact of our food production chains (Willett, 2019). An overreliance on conventional proteins by consumers has previously been linked to health issues, so the shift towards a balanced, alternative-protein diet is seen as beneficial.

Shifting market dynamics towards a plant-based diet has created a platform for plant growers to reconsider the farming of high protein, high nutrient crops such as legumes and under-utilised plant species (ancient grains, pseudo-cereals such as Amaranth, some leafy veg, etc.).

What are legumes?

Legumes are a family of plants – more widely categorised as peas, beans and lentils – that produce edible pods and seeds. They can be eaten while young and green or the seeds dried for storage (the dried versions are known as pulses).

In the UK, crops such as peas (Pisum sativum), faba beans (Vicia faba) and lupin (Lupinus spp.) have traditionally been grown, largely for animal feed, specialist food processing (canned/frozen peas) or for export. Alongside home-grown sources, the UK also imports other legume crops such as chickpeas, peanuts, lentils and particularly soybean and dried peas for food or food processing. However, these are often sourced from areas of deforestation or use unsustainable production systems.

Having explained why legumes will have an increasingly important role to play in fulfilling our future dietary needs, the next article in this series will consider how legumes are grown, with specific focus on sustainability and environmental impact.

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP. 

For more on CHAP’s work in this area go to Seeking Future Proteins.

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