Dietary guidelines are increasingly putting forward a forks-over-knives approach to eating. From Canada’s revamped food guide to the recently proposed EAT-Lancet planetary diet, an explicit emphasis on meat and dairy is out. In its place is a more inclusive category of proteins, which doesn’t prioritize animal-derived products over plants.
For reasons of health, environment, animal welfare, price or the inventive and effective marketing of plant-based products like Beyond Meat, the number of Canadians questioning the role of meat in their diets has never been higher. According to a survey conducted by Dalhousie University and University of Guelph as part of a study examining awareness of Canada’s Food Guide, 6.5 million Canadians — nearly 20 per cent of the population (up from 6.4 million in October 2018) — are either limiting the amount of meat they eat (the so-called flexitarian diet) or cutting it out entirely.
Additionally, Canada is now home to 1.3 million self-identifying vegetarians and 466,000 vegans; the highest surveyed numbers yet, says Sylvain Charlebois, the study’s lead author and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “There’s always a margin of error,” says Charlebois. “But this is the fourth time we’ve gone to field in four years and we are seeing increases.”
The data shows that 66.2 per cent of vegetarians are male and 61.5 per cent of vegans are female. Meanwhile, 71.4 per cent of vegetarians are under the age of 39 (up from 68 per cent in October 2018). While the shift to plant-based eating is more pronounced in younger demographics, the momentum is clearly not exclusive to millennials.
“These are people that are 38 or less; they’re not that young. A lot of these people are starting to have children. They have some children at home; probably in high school some of them. There’s this stigma around veganism or vegetarianism that, ‘These diets are for the young consumers.’ Not necessarily,” says Charlebois. “These consumers — millennials and the generations after them — are becoming more economically influential. And grocers and restaurant owners know that.”
Naturally, some in the industry are playing defence. While the likes of Maple Leaf Foods and A&W are banking on plant proteins by adding them to their portfolios and menus, others are on the lookout for opportunities to challenge producers of meat and dairy alternatives. Last month, Vancouver-based vegan cheese shop Blue Heron found itself at the centre of such a charge. In response to what Eat North identified as an industry complaint, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) instructed the cheesemaker to cease using the word “cheese,” or any references to types of cheese, in its branding and marketing.
However, the CFIA ultimately backed down. As Daily Hive Vancouver reports, the agency later notified Blue Heron it could in fact use the offending word, stating: “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has further reviewed the information on your internet advertising and have no objection to ‘100 per cent dairy-free plant-based cheese’ as declared on your website provided that it is truthful. An example of an acceptable alternative to varietal names would be ‘cheddar flavoured.’”
“More and more, the industry and regulators will allow consumers to make their own choices, their own way. Because I actually do believe at the end of the day that consumers are smart enough to make their own decisions. If you actually see a vegan cheese, you’ll know there’s no dairy in it,” says Charlebois.
“Food diversity pays; it will allow the food industry to grow. Of course, there are going to be some sectors that are going to benefit while others will be negatively impacted. But overall, by seeing this hyper-fragmentation of our food, demands would only create new opportunities.”