Plant-based foods are having a renaissance.
While staples such as veggie burgers and soy milk have been around for decades, we're witnessing a tsunami of innovative products that can romance the taste buds of vegans and omnivores, vegetarians and flexitarians.
Recent converts to the plant-based craze credit two reasons for their choice: They want to boost their health and save the planet.
The Butterfly can help you choose the right products, whether the benefits you want are personal, planetary or both.
Plant-based plus for a healthy planet
Most animal-derived products such as meat, eggs and dairy come from intensive, industrial-style livestock operations that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, polluted air and water and deforestation in the Amazon.
Choosing plant-based foods reduces harmful environmental impacts, and it makes better use of resources. Growing crops for livestock instead of directly feeding people costs us a lot of calories. Plant-based food expert Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute memorably compared consuming a serving of chicken to tossing eight servings of pasta in the trash for each one that we eat.
That's some seriously unsustainable spaghetti.
So, eating plant-based products is promising, but we still need to watch the downstream effects of crop production, including pesticide use and biodiversity impacts. Carefully choosing which crops we grow — and how we grow them — is part of building a sustainable food system.
For example, soy is a prominent player in many plant-based meat alternatives. Most of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified for herbicide tolerance, meaning it resists weed killers such as glyphosate. The adoption of herbicide-tolerant GMOs has led to a 15-fold increase in glyphosate since the 1990s. Glyphosate is so widely used that even the weeds are used to it — and that's a massive problem for farmers.
So-called "superweeds" are common weeds that have developed immunity to weed killers. They are the nearly unstoppable foes of agriculture. Desperate farmers are turning to ever more toxic herbicides to get ahead of them. Glyphosate can't kill superweeds, so chemical companies are trying dicamba — and the results are catastrophic. Dicamba is a highly volatile herbicide famous for drifting off-target and inflicting miles of collateral damage. In 2017 alone, dicamba drift destroyed an estimated 3.6 million acres of crops — and the devastation has continued with each successive planting season.
Adopting a plant-based diet can go a long way toward a sustainable food system. Let's not let GMOs and the chemicals that go with them undermine our best efforts. Regenerative food systems are non-GMO.
Soy, synbio and sizzle
Shoppers are also choosing plant-based foods to support their own health. Studies link red and processed meat consumption to increased heart disease, diabetes, and cancer risks. But not all plant-based options are created equal: The risk-to-benefit ratio changes dramatically depending on how products are made.
Take soy, for example. Unprocessed soybeans are high in protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. But the keyword here is "unprocessed." Even products that start with the healthiest soybeans can lose much of their nutrition during processing. Highly processed plant-based foods can be healthier than meat without being exactly healthy.
Innovative plant-based products can mimic the taste and texture of animal-derived products. That's part of the reason their popularity is growing. But making plant-based products more like animal-derived ones is a tricky business. Animal products contain unique fats and proteins — that's what makes steaks sizzle and egg whites form stiff peaks — and purely plant-based products rarely behave the same. As one biotech company puts it, "Getting almond and other alt-milks to foam is about as effective as trying to juice a potato."
Some brands are turning to biotechnology to recreate plant-based options that taste, feel and act like animal-derived. However, some of these techniques could have health implications. Scientists can create "bio-identical" milk proteins (milk without the cow) or animal-identical fat (fats without the animal) using synthetic biology ("synbio") techniques. And a "bio-identical" product raises questions for the health-conscious consumer: Do synbio compounds carry the same health risks as the animal products they mimic? Would a soy-based burger with synbio animal fat reintroduce the health risks you're trying to avoid?
While synbio animal fats aren't yet commercially available, some frozen desserts on the market contain non-animal dairy proteins. These dairy proteins don't come from animals, but they contain lactose and have the same potential for allergic reactions as natural dairy.
As plant-based foods and biotechnology-based additives mingle, the blurred line can make it harder for you to choose the products you truly want.
That's where we come in. Luckily, our dedicated research team tracks the latest products and emerging biotechnology techniques. The Non-GMO Project Standard prohibits those sneaky synbio ingredients.
We believe everyone has the right to know what's in their food and make an informed choice about whether or not to consume GMOs. When you choose plant-based foods, the Butterfly helps you pick a product that meets your expectations.
The Non-GMO Project protects your right to choose and safeguards the integrity of your choices through clear labeling and natural products.
After all, the decisions you make to care for yourself and the planet are your chance to reform the food system. You exercise that power every time you buy groceries or sit down for a meal.
Make it count.