7 Signs That the Mainstream Has a Beef With Beef

As the climate crisis intensifies, the plant-based lifestyle becomes increasingly conventional

By Katie O'Reilly

January 25, 2022


Photo by iStock/vovashevchuk

Chances are you’ve heard the word Veganuary bandied around lately. The 31-day pledge, in its third year running in the United States, calls on people to shirk dairy and meat this month; 95,000 Americans have signed on to date, a double-digit increase from 2021. The campaign has been popular in part for its convincing marketing to the climate-aware set, such as Veganuary’s “Cut Your Carbon BigFootPrint,” which follows a sweet-faced Big Foot character, voiced by Babe farmer James Cromwell, as he bikes around and asks his adorable gnome and unicorn pals to taste-test vegan recipes. 

The campaign’s popularity is just the latest sign that consumers are tuning in to the trade-offs that come with eating beef. According to Nielsen, almost 40 percent of Americans are making an effort to eat more plant-based foods. Meanwhile, a recent YouGov poll indicated 32 percent of Americans have resolved to eat more plant-based foods in 2022. Science shows clear health benefits to eating a plant-based diet, including reducing inflammation, warding off infections, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Eating more plants and fewer animals is not only good for your health, but it’s also good for the planet. Animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, the United Nations IPCC reported that the feed production required to raise cattle and other livestock, coupled with the poor animals’ massive release of methane, harms the climate and threatens biodiversity more than the combined emissions from every plane, train, car, bus, and boat in the world. 

While as many as 6 percent of US consumers say they’re vegan—a six-fold increase compared to 1 percent in 2014—a plant-based lifestyle doesn’t necessarily require the “zero to hero” approach. In the US, 98 percent of people who buy plant-based meat also purchase conventional meat. Still, plant-based alternatives are becoming more accessible thanks to expanded distribution—according to the Good Food Institute, plant-based foods are a $7 billion market (a 27 percent jump from the prior year). And a Bloomberg Intelligence report predicts that sales of these alternative protein sources will increase fivefold by 2030.

One clear signal that this multibillion-dollar economy is gaining steam? Major corporations, like fast food giants and snack conglomerates, are clamoring for their slice of the pie. Burger King made waves in summer 2019 when it debuted the Impossible Whopper, and Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out the Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich (made possible by food scientists at several start-ups who’ve engineered juicy, plant-based burger products specially to look, taste, and "bleed" like real beef or mimic chicken, fish, eggs, and other animal products). While some sustainable-food advocates argue that “imitation meat” products perpetuate the problems of industrial agriculture—they're highly processed and often contain genetically modified ingredients—the fast food industry’s embrace of imitation meat makes it easier for vegetarians and flexitarians to find plant-based alternatives at highly accessible eateries. Earlier this month, KFC introduced limited-edition plant-based Beyond Fried Chicken nationwide, and Chipotle added plant-based chorizo to menus across the country. Not to be outdone, McDonald’s just announced its Valentine’s Day 2022 unveiling of the McPlant Burger. 

One clear signal that this multibillion-dollar economy is gaining steam? Major corporations, like fast food giants and snack conglomerates, are clamoring for their slice of the pie.

Don’t be fooled by any Edenic menu language, though—these items are all highly processed and loaded with the usual barrage of toxins and sugar found in most products peddled by this industry. Even Cadbury recently came out with the Cadbury Plant Bar (it substitutes almond paste for the “glass and a half of milk” said to go into every Dairy Milk bar). Indeed, these corporations will waste no opportunity to co-opt a good thing. But at the same time, plant-based junk food presents ever-mounting evidence that the movement is real—and swiftly challenging traditional business models.

Here are seven more surefire signs that more consumers are opting out of Big Beef.

Food media is eating around the beef. As the clarion call for plant-based fare grows louder, the food world is responding—loudly. On April 26, 2021, Epicurious, Conde Nast’s powerhouse food digital brand, announced that beef would no longer appear in new Epicurious recipes, articles, newsletters, or even Instagram posts. “We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet,” wrote Epicurious editors. “Our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders.” On August 12 of last year, The New York Times released The Veggie newsletter and announced that it would be devoting more space in the digital Cooking section for plant-based recipes, reviews, and tips. (This following a 46 percent increase in vegetarian recipe page views in 2020.) Each week, the Veggie opens with an anecdote from the Times’ California-based restaurant critic and food columnist Tejal Rao on plant-based technique, cuisine, ingredients, and tips for readers interested in eating more plant-based.

Medical pros are on board. In a letter dated August 14, 2020, the American Medical Association asked the FDA to recommend that “dietary guidelines for Americans make meat and dairy optional.” (This was early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, and physicians were seeing worrying comorbidities in many patients, largely due to unhealthy diets.)

Restaurants are making plant-based fare way more accessible. Most of us are old enough to remember the days when vegetarians were lucky to find a token garden burger on a restaurant menu. Today, both modest and fancy sit-down restaurants are getting on board with plant-based fare. A few months ago, Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre added whole-cut vegan lamb and beef to the menus of his 22 steakhouses, spread across the UK. And then there’s the legendary Eleven Madison Park eatery, which shook up New York City’s food scene last June by reopening post-pandemic with a 100 percent plant-based menu.

Grocery stores are stocking their meat and dairy departments with plant-based provisions. Mainstream outlets like Publix, Harris Teeter, Kroger, and Trader Joe’s are increasingly carrying plant-based options like Beyond and Impossible “meat,” Miyoko’s vegan butter, JUST “eggs,” Good Catch “fish,” and Siggi’s coconut yogurt. Accordingly, ingredient suppliers for the alternative-meat industry are seeing massive upticks in inquiries and demand—and in innovation. Take the Better Meat Co., which uses a microbial process to create protein-rich mycelium—fungi that mimics meat in texture and taste—and sells ingredients to major food companies like Hormel Foods and Purdue Farms (the latter uses it to make a half-plant-based nugget product called Purdue Chicken Plus). Better Meat founder Paul Shapiro says his start-up, since launching in 2018, can no longer keep up with demand. “Just like there are thousands of species of plants, there are thousands of species of fungi, and a group of start-ups are creating new ways of meat production that don’t rely on isolating plant proteins, but instead cultivating microbes,” Shapiro says. “Fungi have the power to solve so many of our problems, and this is one of them.”

Carbon labeling is on the rise. Move over, calorie counts. Plant-based companies like Quorn, makers of the first fungi-based meat alternative, and the oat milk mavens at Oatly, are leading the way in embracing carbon emission calculations. These brands self-disclose their emissions, but one day, we may see standardized labels on all food products—Carbon Trust research has found that two-thirds of consumers support the idea of a recognizable way to demonstrate that products have been made with a commitment to measuring and reducing carbon output.

Two-thirds of consumers support the idea of a recognizable way to demonstrate that products have been made with a commitment to measuring and reducing carbon output.

Celebrities are normalizing the plant-based lifestyle. The Rolodex of vegan celebrities is getting long—and in some cases, surprising. Big names like Beyonce, Lizzo, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, and Zac Efron recently joined the ranks of vocal vegans like Natalie Portman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alicia Silverstone to sing the praises of a plant-based lifestyle’s health and planetary benefits. Sports celeb Tom Brady follows the “TB12” food regimen, which consists of 80 percent plant-based proteins. In late 2021, The Great British Bake Off producers had to answer to complaints about the fanfare of eggs, butter, and cream when its first vegan contestant, Freya Cox, joined in on the high-profile challenges.

A movement is underway to ditch dairy-free surcharges at cafes. Familiar with the internal refrain, “To make it an oat milk latte, or to not pay a buck more?” Same. It’s tough, because while the conventional dairy industry is responsible for 4 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (mostly in the form of the especially noxious gas methane), plant-based milks are among products whose higher prices have traditionally blocked the entry to the plant-based lifestyle. Not that they, like plant-based meat products, are beyond scrutiny—the data on the ecological integrity of alternative milk varietals is not robust (soy milk typically contains GMOs, for instance, and almond milk requires a lot of water to produce). However, plant-based options remain more eco-friendly than dairy, and many new alternative-milk products are sourced with sustainability in mind. So it was notable last August when the coffee chain Blue Bottle announced that it was experimenting with making dairy-free milk its default go-to for cappuccinos, mochas, and other cafe treats, to “help consumers make environmentally friendly choices.” And on January 5 of this year, following years’ worth of petitions to drop the vegan milk upcharge, Starbucks announced that it would finally remove the added charges for vegan milk substitutes—including oat, soy, coconut, almond, and the proprietary Starbucks Original Nut Blend—at locations across the UK. Considering the plant-based-dairy industry is predicted to reach $32 billion by 2031, Starbucks, Blue Bottle, and other chains will likely benefit from making plant-based milk options more accessible to a rapidly growing plant-based consumer base. (Hopefully your neighborhood cafe follows suit, stat!)