According to Google Trends, each year in January the number of searches for “diet” hits an all-time high, before dropping steadily for the rest of the year. But in 2016 the number of searches for both “Atkins diet” and “Paleo diet” has been high and steady each month, suggesting that consumers are as confused as ever when it comes to nutrition.
Some of this is due to the artful misdirection of the food industry. Earlier this year, for example, the leading cancer charities recommended eating less bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage and lunchmeat in order to reduce the risk of cancer. Now, the meat industry already knows that eating lard is not the best thing in the world for humans -- heart disease being our number-one killer and all. But their reaction to the cancer recommendation (which the journal Meat Science labeled “a clear and present danger” for the meat industry) was to change the conversation and focus on a different set of international cancer recommendations.
Truth is, the correlation between certain foods and certain diseases is so clear that once you step inside the rabbit hole of research, the mystery evaporates and you wonder what all the controversy is about. A quick way to instantly demystify the topic is by browsing the Amazon best-seller “How Not to Die,” which consists of easily digested, plain-vanilla nutritional science. And here, where science is science and not marketing, all sorts of insights get revealed, such as the fact that even vegetarians can suffer high rates of chronic disease if they eat a lot of processed foods (take India, for example).
Books like “How Not to Die” and Dan Buettner’s New York Times best-seller, "The Blue Zones Solution," have a no-nonsense message that comes down to this: You want to live longer and happier? Eat more plants and less red meat. Specifically, eat vegetables (lots and lots), fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and lean protein (but not too much). It’s not that complicated.
But in the U.S., access to food that is healthy, fresh and moderately-priced has, until recently, been a story of two Coasts. It is much easier to eat healthy, moderately-priced food on a daily basis if you live near Manhattan or San Francisco than if you live in a flyover zone.
Parallel innovations in nutritional science, environmental sustainability, and manufacturing efficiency have led to a boom in the food-tech space. According to CB Insights, food-tech startups raised a record $5.7 billion in 2015, up 150% over 2014. The food-tech ecosystem is large and includes meal kits, grocery delivery, farm-to-table, chefs on-demand, and next-gen food. As a subcategory, next-gen food is populated with startups engineering new types of food products that are both good for you and environmentally sustainable, with a specific focus on creating plant-based proteins.
One of the most interesting companies in this space is Beyond Meat, which recently launched its version of the perfect (plant-based) hamburger. The company is focused less on the kale-and-quinoa crowd and more on the everyday consumer who really likes the taste of meat but knows too much will stop his heart. According to food journalists like Mark Bittman, the Beyond Meat products are indistinguishable from the real thing.
In May 2016, Beyond Meat made headlines by releasing the first plant-based burger to be sold alongside beef, poultry and pork in the meat section of the grocery store. The Beyond Burger contains 20 grams of protein but no animal products, soy, gluten or cholesterol. A package of two four-ounce burgers costs $5.99, about twice as much as plain hamburger, but the company expects that price to come down as manufacturing and distribution expand.
When it comes to eating in this country, most people have grappled with the same dichotomy their parents did. Really tasty food (salty, sugary, fatty) has mostly been unhealthy, and really healthy food has mostly been un-tasty (the kale and quinoa I mentioned before). That dichotomy is beginning to disappear. Companies like Beyond Meat realize that mass adoption by consumers will only happen if they remove the friction of switching. If you give people a product that is not just healthy but also conventionally delicious, you’ve solved a lot of problems, both public and private.
Beyond Meat’s investors include Bill Gates and Kleiner Perkins. Even more interestingly, they also include -- as of this year -- Tyson Foods.