At the pandemic’s height, a majority of American households bought plant-based foods — with the greatest sales coming from milk alternatives, such as oat or almond milk, and from meat alternatives such as the soy-based Impossible Burger or wheat-derived seitan. Today, 1 in 4 Americans still report eating more protein from plant sources than in spring 2020, including foods like quinoa, lentils and tempeh, propelling the more than $7 billion dollar plant-based industry into what many are betting is the future of American cuisine.
In March 2020, Leon Pasadyn, 57, welcomed his daughter Felicia, 19, back home to Hinckley, Ohio, from college to finish the semester remotely. Although he was accustomed to eating one or two meals with meat each day, he agreed to “go with the flow” as Felicia experimented with a plant-based diet. As he shared her creations, his meat intake soon dropped to once or twice per month.
“Now my dad loves making black bean burgers and chickpea pasta on his own,” Felicia says with a laugh.
Pasadyn had high cholesterol for which he was taking a statin medication. Two months after adopting his daughter’s plant-based routine, he was amazed to find his cholesterol level significantly improved.
“Those were the best numbers I ever had,” he recalls. Even though Felicia returned to college at the end of this summer, Pasadyn is sticking with his new habit.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet, including lowered risk of heart disease, play a big role in its growing popularity. Regular meat consumption is associated with increased risk of other conditions such as pneumonia, diverticular disease, diabetes and several cancers. And during the pandemic, researchers from Harvard Medical School found that a healthy plant-based diet was associated with decreased risk of severe covid-19.
The study showed that diets highest in “healthy plant-based” foods, like whole grains or vegetables, were more beneficial than those containing less healthy plant-based groups, like potatoes and fruit juices, or those containing higher animal-based food groups, like seafood and dairy.
These findings remained even after holding other medical conditions and behaviors like physical activity and smoking constant, but the analysis could not account for all possible external influences (for example, people who eat a plant-based diet may also be more likely to have better household conditions or access to health care). Additionally, because the study was observational, it cannot confirm cause and effect.
“What we’ve learned over the last year and a half is that the risk and severity of covid is not equally distributed across the population,” said Jordi Merino, instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and leading author of the study. He sought to understand why certain groups — the elderly or those with cardiovascular problems, for example — were more likely to get covid-19 and suffer from a more severe illness.
“We realized that maybe a common underlying theme among all these factors was diet,” he said.
Still because of the study’s limitations, Merino cautions against overinterpreting the results. “Don’t think you can eat two pieces of fruit per day and your covid risk will be decreased,” he said. “But maybe the severity of the disease and its complications can be reduced through public health measures that involve healthy foods.”
Diet influences immunity through nutrients that support antibiotic and antiviral defense, as well as through the microbiome.
“We’re colonized by microbes, and those colonizing patterns train the immune system to recognize which microbes are friends and which microbes are foe,” said Noel Mueller, assistant professor in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Plant-based diets, rich in fiber, are well-established boosters of a diverse ecosystem of beneficial gut bacteria, although more studies to unravel a mechanism of benefit in covid-19 are needed.
Mueller finds the Gut study’s conclusions “intriguing,” warranting additional research to further clarify any relationship between plant-based eating and covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Merino stresses wearing masks and getting the vaccine as the most effective ways to reduce individual covid-19 risk. Participants in the study were recruited in March 2020 and followed through December 2020, before the national vaccine rollout.
Eating plant-based diets can also positively affect climate change, which a pandemic-stricken humanity bore witness to being inseparable from health during the once-in-a-century event. Recent record heat waves, raging wildfires and swarming locusts galvanized many on the environment — particularly millennials and Gen Zs who are major adopters of plant-based eating.
That idea that plant-based foods could help mitigate our climate crises drove Ayr Muir, a material scientist from MIT, to start Clover Food Labs in 2008. His plant-based restaurants grew rapidly throughout the greater Boston area, targeting not vegans or vegetarians, but meat eaters.
At a typical lunch hour, Clover eateries whip up staples like a chickpea fritter sandwich composed of crisp falafel, pickled carrots and red cabbage on a cushion of organic hummus as well as favorites like the sweet and sticky cauliflower sandwich: a take on the Indochinese gobi Manchurian flavored with peppers from Western Massachusetts. With its enticing, inventive menu, Clover’s customer base is 90 percent nonvegetarian, Muir said.
“The overarching mission is global warming. And what we’re trying to do is help meat-lovers eat more meals that have no meat in them,” Muir said. “The more success we have with that, the greater impact we have on the environment.”
Like the fossil fuel industry, “big meat” has gone to great lengths to counter climate science in the past two decades, including millions of dollars in political campaigns. And 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock farming, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Animal agriculture causes 17,900 deaths per year, or 80 percent of all food pollution-related deaths — more than those linked to pollution from coal power plants.
J.J. Reidy, co-founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based sustainable development firm Urban Pastoral, says the meat industry’s footprint could be attenuated by changing how the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes food. He co-founded a chic plant-based restaurant, STEM Farm + Kitchen, in one of the city’s many blossoming postindustrial neighborhoods, sourcing ingredients from his firm’s nearby hydroponic greenhouse.
He acknowledges that customers could buy elsewhere “a whole chicken for $5,” but that STEM’s verdant bowls are priced fairly given the market and federal-level policies.
“We undervalue ingredients exponentially because of the environmental cost of producing them,” Reidy said. “We almost have to reframe how we’re thinking about the question. Is [plant-based] pricing expensive or is our concept of what food should cost out-of-whack?”
According to a survey by the Good Food Institute, households with incomes less than $35,000 spend the least on plant-based foods at the grocery stores. Unequal food access has long been linked to health disparities among impoverished communities. The study by Merino and colleagues also found that plant-based diets created the most impact on coronavirus severity risk among those living in areas of deprivation.
As public interest in plant-based options grows, larger corporations have come a long way since Burger King introduced its successful Impossible Whopper in 2019.
Panda Express’s Beyond Meat substitute for its orange chicken sold out in less than two weeks after it was introduced in Southern California at the end of July. Chipotle recently began testing a plant-based chorizo option sourced from peas, its second meatless alternative since it introduced Sofritas in 2014. Last year, Kentucky Fried Chicken, a brand synonymous with — well, fried chicken — extended trials of a plant-based nugget from Beyond Meat.
“We don’t think that plant-based is a fad, we think that’s something that’s going to continue to grow over time,” said Kevin Hochman, KFC U.S. president and chief concept officer, in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Experts predict the plant-based foods market will be valued at over $162 billion by 2030, spurred by the pandemic’s heightened awareness of health and the environment. Reidy is confident more and more people will branch out simply because they like the taste.
“Plant-based cooking doesn’t have to be this moral label. It’s delicious in its own right,” Reidy said. “I want someone to come just because the food’s good.”
Trisha Pasricha is a journalist, physician and research fellow in gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Follow her on Twitter @TrishaPasricha.