Now in the rearview mirror, 2016 was a year when vegan food drove deeper into the mainstream.

James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger filmed climate change public service announcements urging viewers in the United States and China to eat less meat. Tom Brady launched a line of raw, vegan snacks that quickly sold out, and Oprah Winfrey pledged to go meat-free one day a week and encouraged her fans to join the Meatless Monday movement, too.

We certainly see it here in fresh vegetable- and health food-saturated Portland. In June, the city was named No. 10 on the VegNews list of the 12 Best Towns for Vegan Living. Meanwhile in New York City, Google trend data revealed 2016’s top searches for “Near Me” and “Nearby” were for vegan food and juice bars.

And while the Big Apple has been a vegan hot spot for decades, I noticed the mainstreaming appeal of plant-based foods in many of the year’s newspaper headlines, including “Dallas is the next destination city for vegans” (Dallas Morning News); “Eating Vegan in Northeast Ohio has Never Been Easier or More Scrumptious” (Cleveland Scene); and “City-County Council Passes Meatless Monday Resolution” (Indianapolis Recorder).

Local papers weren’t the only ones picking up on the country’s new appetite for plants. National publications were filled with stories related to veganism, vegetarianism and plant-based eating this year.

For instance, an April headline in the Wall Street Journal asked (and answered): “What’s the Latest Course in Preschool? Vegan Food.” (Helsinki, Finland, for example, started a vegan meal pilot program at 20 day-care centers.)


Food & Wine reported on “Why 2016 Is the Year to Surrender to Vegan Cheese.” The story cited the rise of cultured, artisanal plant-based cheeses and a new crop of nut-based cheese brands including Miyoko’s Kitchen, Treeline and Riverdel.

In my view, the most significant event of the vegan year happened in March. That’s when these three upstart cheese makers joined other plant-based dairy, meat and egg brands to form an industry trade group called the Plant Based Foods Association. The group’s stated goal: “a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods.”

They’re asking a lot. Since the animal farm lobby dominates federal agricultural and nutrition policy, it could take decades of lobbying – if not longer – to wipe out all the current inequities that range from subsidies to lax pollution controls to school lunch milk requirements. Yet the fact the vegan market sector has annual sales of $5 billion and is now large enough to stand up and speak with a collective voice bodes well for 2017.

“The industry in the past has been kind of niche-y,” said Michele Simon, a San Francisco-based food policy attorney and executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, which also has offices in Washington, D.C., staffed by Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of former presidential hopeful and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). “What’s really happened in the last two years is the industry has grown up and is reaching out to mainstream consumers.”

We saw this in May when Whole Foods began carrying Beyond Meat’s very hamburger-like veggie burger in the meat department. The Beyond Burger patties debuted in the Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, and sold out within an hour.

Retail product placement is among the areas the Plant Based Foods Association is working on while gearing up for the more daunting task of leveling the playing field in federal agricultural policy.


“It’s no accident that a sausage from Hillshire Farm costs less than a Tofurky sausage,” Simon said.

Even in the face of the sausage-to-sausage cost differences (and bearing in mind that beans and rice are always more affordable than meat), shoppers and policy makers around the globe had an appetite for plant-based foods in 2016.


In May the U.K.’s Vegan Society released the results of a survey that found the number of vegans in Britain increased 360 percent in the past 10 years.

In northern Italy, the mayor of Turin launched a campaign to brand the city as a “vegetarian city,” complete with a tourist Veg Map, vegan “chop” sandwiches and plant-based education in the schools. The plan is supported by the city’s environmentalists, animal rights champions and more than 30 plant-based restaurants, but opposed by the city’s butchers – no surprise there.

At the same time, a controversial bill was introduced in the Italian parliament proposing jail time for parents who feed their children vegan food. And while the vegan-jailing bill garnered international headlines, other less talked about bills under consideration in Rome aimed to boost the availability of vegan food.


Staying in the legal realm, Ontario, Canada, rang in 2016 with ethical veganism recognized as a class protected from discrimination by the province’s Human Rights Commission. Then in the fall in Ottawa, Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson told a youth summit to reduce meat consumption and go vegetarian or vegan to lower carbon emissions.

With the arctic melting at an alarming rate, climate change was on our minds in 2016. And more and more people discovered the connection between eating animals and greenhouse gas emissions.

In the U.S., the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated and revised its 2009 position paper on the nutritional soundness of vegetarian and vegan diets to add information about the greater sustainability of plant-based foods.

A study out of Oxford University in November found that a 40 percent tax on beef would compensate for the climate damage done in the rearing and killing of cattle and could cut consumption by 13 percent. No doubt the Danish Council of Ethics took note of this research, since this past year 14 of the 17 council members recommended the country enact a climate tax on beef.

This is why I found 2016 so encouraging: We’re now living in a world where countries consider enacting taxes on meat. It’s no longer just a vegan’s dream but a realistic policy proposal. It’s clear the world is shifting.

This shift is spelled out in the 2016 Global Food & Drink Trend report from market research firm Mintel, which said plant-based meat and dairy products would continue to grow in “appeal to the everyday consumer, foreshadowing a profoundly changed marketplace in which what was formerly ‘alternative’ could take over the mainstream.”


I spoke with Billy Roberts, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel and asked him about this shift and what it will mean. He said the impact will show up everywhere from home kitchens to restaurants to grocery stores.

Roberts said that in years to come, more supermarkets could follow Whole Foods’ lead and consider shelving plant-based products in “the meat section or butcher shop alongside traditional meat and poultry products. Similarly, if and when more plant-based proteins are incorporated into more frozen meals, expect to see those alongside their traditional meat-based counterparts in the frozen cases.”

The changing marketplace is most visible in the diets of people in their 20s and 30s. Roberts said 49 percent of that age group eat plant-based meat and dairy products every week. Older people aren’t eating as many vegan meat and dairy items as young people are, but they are eating more than they ever have before.

“The growth in consumption rates appears to have been largely, if not entirely, the result of flexitarians incorporating these dishes into their diets more often,” Roberts said.


Even the traditional beef and butter bastion that is the Culinary Institute of America is urging chefs to make a course correction on their menus. In 2016, the culinary school, in conjunction with Harvard University, prodded chefs and food service managers to replace red meat with plants in a campaign called the Protein Flip.


The schools tout the move as “the single most important contribution the food service industry can make toward environmental sustainability.”

In May, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google’s parent company, named six game-changing tech trends currently in play. Plant-based protein took the No. 1 spot.

Investors also favored vegan companies last year. Many plant-based brands gained new backers, and the West Coast vegan chain Veggie Grill raised $22 million in investment capital to fund a nationwide expansion.

This past summer saw the establishment of an investor education initiative called Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return. So far, institutional investors with more than $1 trillion under management have agreed to join the campaign and pressure major international food companies to plan for the inherent risk of industrial meat. And by “plan” they mean, “replace it with plants.”

With such campaigns afoot, it wasn’t a huge surprise when meat industry giant Tyson Food bought a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat. Vegans generally weren’t thrilled to hear this news, but to me it shows that Tyson is seeing the same road signs we are.

And it wasn’t just meat alternatives getting a plant-based bump in 2016. Seed company Burpee reported that its new Meatball eggplant (marketed as a meat alternative) not only sold out but sold better than any other eggplant variety in its 140-year history.


All of these events offer reasons to be optimistic about 2017.

The trend forecast at the meat-loving James Beard House in New York City predicts this year will bring menus with less beef and more vegetables. “Even at the Beard House, we’re seeing vegetables take the spotlight,” the James Beard Foundation editors said, “whether it’s showcasing a regional specialty like leather britches (where beans taste suspiciously like bacon), or presenting a vegetable centerpiece.”

In the less rarefied world of the grocery trade, plant-based foods are even more common than they are at the Beard House.

According to the Global Mintel Food & Drink Trends report: “In 2017, the priority for plants will drive an acceleration in new products and marketing that casts plants in starring roles.” The report notes that since 2010 there’s been a 25 percent increase in vegetarian claims on new products and a 257 percent rise in vegan claims.

“Clearly, not only are these products more widely available, but consumers are taking note that these products do exist,” Mintel analyst Roberts said. “This penetration is likely only to continue, particularly as food developers hone and refine their offerings to mimic meat and poultry even better than they already do.”

Where is this road going to take us in 2017?


If we use the past year as a guide, 2017 will bring us to a world where plant-based food is more widely available than ever before and eating vegan is the normal rather than the alternative thing to do.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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