Gardein founder Yves Potvin talks to VHS about the popularity of meat alternatives.
VHS encourages people to transition to a plant-based diet because reducing or eliminating meat consumption ensures fewer animals will suffer on cruel factory farms or be killed in slaughterhouses.
But many people who have always had meat at the centre of their meals find making that transition difficult. Sure, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and lots of resources online, but for those who don’t like cooking or are pressed for time it can still be a challenge.
This is where meat-free convenience foods have a role to play. The market for these products is currently booming, with new producers emerging and established ones growing fast. One of the most successful is B.C.’s own Gardein, which produces a wide range of plant-based foods (everything from Chick’n Scallopini to Stuffed Turk’y to Meatless Meatballs). With most of its sales in the U.S., Gardein is now in more than 18,000 stores and sales are almost doubling every two years.
Gardein’s founder and president Yves Potvin met with VHS staff recently to discuss the growth in plant-based products and Gardein’s place in the market. Potvin, who pioneered the first veggie dog with his previous company, says the meat alternatives industry, with about $1 billion in sales, is still relatively small but has great potential. “The cattle meat business is over $100 billion, so we’re not even touching one per cent,” he says. “It’s a young industry.” Nevertheless, Potvin sees encouraging precedents such as dairy alternatives (e.g. soy, almond milk), which he says is about eight per cent of the dairy market.
The growing demand for alternative sources of protein is being driven by several factors, says Potvin. One is the unsustainability of meat production, which is environmentally damaging and resource intensive; another is the health risk associated with overconsumption of meat (obesity, heart disease, diabetes); and, of course, ethical concerns about eating animals, especially those raised on factory farms.
Potvin believes his customers, who are mostly between 18 and 40, understand these issues and are open to change. “The young consumer gets it,” he says, adding that younger women are especially attracted to Gardein products’ low calorie count. There’s no doubt that Gardein’s brand emphasizes healthy ingredients (such as non-GMO soy protein, organic ancient grain flour, wheat and pea proteins, vegetables) and health benefits (cholesterol free as well as trans and saturated fat free), but convenience is a major selling point.
“We are in the convenient food business,” says Potvin. “We’re really into healthy, convenient food made from plant-based protein.” But convenient, processed food has its critics – and Potvin takes them head on:
“There are the Michael Pollans of this world that say well, it’s processed food. Okay. Bread is processed. Pasta is processed. Our process is very similar to bread or pasta. If you eat bread or pasta, yes its processed food. And other arguments are ‘well why do you have to do it like a McDonald’s nugget?’. Well, one of the biggest things that I heard from consumers in their letters is ‘my son plays baseball and after the game we all end up at my house and if we have your nuggets the kids don’t know the difference.’ He’s happy. He fits in. It’s inclusive. “
“And let’s face it. When you finish a game of baseball you’re not going to go and eat kale!”
Gardein works to make its products fit into familiar, mainstream patterns of eating, avoiding the negative stereotyping of vegan and vegetarian foods. “There’s a perception that you have to be wearing Birkenstocks or be a hippy to eat this kind of food,” says Potvin, explaining why it’s important to make people feel comfortable and at home with Gardein meals, right down to every detail of production. “We use similar shapes and forms that people are accustomed to.”
But Potvin, a trained chef, is no enemy of traditional cooking from scratch. He simply acknowledges the reality of today’s culture, in which convenience food is a major element. If people are going to eat it anyway, why not make it healthier, cruelty-free and environmentally friendly?
From VHS’s point of view, anything that reduces meat consumption and helps people transition to a plant-based diet is welcome. For the billions of animals suffering on factory farms, the transition can’t come soon enough.
This article is from the current edition of VHS’s newsletter.
For more information on Gardein products visit www.gardein.com
For information on VHS’s Eat Less Meat project visit: http://www.vancouverhumanesociety.bc.ca/campaigns/eat-less-meat/