Guest post by Kristie Middleton

Kristie Middleton is the Senior Director of Food Policy for the Humane Society of the United States and the author of MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time. Photo by Michelle Cehn.

Everyone in the industry knows food trends come and go. International food is hot, cauliflower is the new kale, poke is popular. Consumer demand has prompted food companies—more than ever before—to embrace a shift to cage-free conditions for meat and egg suppliers. And perhaps the biggest skyrocketing trend headed into 2018 was increased ask from consumers for plant-based foods. From almond milk at Dunkin’ Donuts and veggie sliders at White Castle to Michelin-starred chefs like Alain Ducasse reinventing menus to give vegetables top billing, plants are ruling the plate—perhaps for good.

2017 was a landmark period for plant-based food by any measure. On the foodservice side, major companies Chartwells Higher Education, Morrison Healthcare (subsidiaries of Compass Group North America) and Aramark announced partnerships with The Humane Society of the United States to train their chefs on plant-based menu development and culinary techniques. “As more Americans seek meat-free meals,” Compass noted in its press release, “plant-based foods are increasingly moving to the center of the plate.”

While some restaurants and foodservice companies are focusing on the veritable vegetable, many are serving next generation plant-based meats that have the same taste, texture, and even bleed like animal-based burgers, such as those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. While the Impossible Burger is taking on the luxury burger market, the Beyond Burger is in the meat section in conventional grocery stores like Safeway and Kroger and on the menus of TGI Fridays locations nationwide.

Prominent food manufacturers are also bringing new plant-based products within their portfolio. General Mills placed investment dollars into start-up Kite Hill, a dairy-free yogurt and cheese company. Not to be outdone, Nestlé—the world’s largest food company—purchased Sweet Earth, a producer of plant-based sausages, bacon, and ham founded by Burger King’s former chairman.

Even major meat producers are getting a piece of the vegetable pie. Tyson announced it was investing in Beyond Meat (my organization is as well) and launching its own venture capital fund to concentrate on companies developing alternatives to animal-based proteins. Tyson CEO Tom Hayes stole headlines when he told FOX Business, that plant-based protein is growing even faster than animal-based protein. Across the border, Canada’s largest meat company, Maple Leaf Foods, acquired not just one, but two U.S. plant-based meat companies, Lightlife and Field Roast, saying the latter, “…aligns with our vision to be a leader in sustainable protein and create shared value through making a positive social impact.”

There’s no sign of this movement slowing down. In perusing through 2018 trends, what was on the list yet again? You guessed it: plant protein. According to Fortune, “Right now meat substitutes make up less than 1% of the processed meat and seafood retail market by volume, but Euromonitor is estimating 10% growth in the U.S. and 23% globally over the next half decade.” According to an analysis from mobile food-ordering company Grubhub, vegan orders increased in popularity by 19 percent in 2017 as customers are looking to reduce the amount of animal products they’re consuming.

It’s clear that plant-based meals are perennial picks and an important opportunity for the food industry to please palates while rolling in the revenue. In the race to meet rising consumer demand, the question is no longer whether companies will adapt. It’s which will be the first to separate itself from the competition.