Is plant-based food the way of the future?

Seb Walter and Tesh Randall are the founders of Raglan Food Co.
Seb Walter and Tesh Randall are the founders of Raglan Food Co.

OPINION: Here’s a question that has been playing on my mind – what makes us eat the food we choose to eat?

Is it taste? Price? Packaging? Calorie count? Allergies? Nutritional content? Cultural preferences? Availability?

I think that over the past hundred years we’ve likely made our decisions based on a combination of these factors.

Diet restrictions have played a major role ever since businessman Horace Fletcher slimmed down with his ‘Chewing Diet’ in the 1900s. He recommended chewing food until it became liquid to prevent overeating, and it became a pop culture sensation.

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The world of dieting is full of contradictions. People following a paleo or ketogenic diet will tell you fats are great, and are eager to share the wonderful results of their high-fat, low-carb diets.

Those who subscribe to Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers may have found another approach that works for them.

A balanced, healthy diet looks different for different individuals – sweeping statements such as ‘fat is bad’ or ‘high protein is good’ can’t be made with any accuracy.

Raglan Food Co makes dairy-free coconut yoghurt and other plant-based products.
Raglan Food Co makes dairy-free coconut yoghurt and other plant-based products.

Taranaki doctor Dr Bhavesh Lallu, who specialises in helping stroke patients, tells me there are increasingly contrary results in the studies.

“It’s all about form and context of the food consumed. A personalised approach is best, not necessarily what works for 10,000 patients in a study,” Lallu says.

I believe that in 2021, our food choices are being made for reasons that go beyond what feels like the right option for our individual lives and bodies. They extend to what is best for us as a human race, and the one planet that we all call home.

Climate change is perhaps the biggest problem we are currently facing as a human collective. As temperatures increase, so do catastrophic weather events, levels of ocean acidification, drought, lack of arable land to grow food, and the movement of large groups of people as water and natural resources become scarce.

Our human population is approaching 8 billion. Until the 1900s there were a mere 1.6 billion two-legged sapiens roaming around earth. With more mouths to feed than ever before, what we eat needs to be influenced by what is possible for the planet to sustain.

Dominico Zapata/Stuff
Raglan Coconut Yoghurt is set to expand with a bunch of new flavours and range of foods.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our affinity for cows and sheep, agricultural emissions are our biggest contributor to climate change here in Aotearoa New Zealand. The New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre has pointed out that New Zealand’s animal-produced methane emissions do more to warm the climate than all our carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions combined.

Plant-based alternatives don’t rely on methane-producing animals for their main ingredient source, but instead on green, leafy, carbon-absorbing, soil-enriching organisms that benefit our environment.

And here’s another way to look at calories – with the ‘feed conversion ratios’ of animals. Our World in Data says it takes approximately 2-5 calories worth of feed (usually grains) to create 1 calorie worth of chicken, 4-9 calories for pigs and 6-25 calories for cows. Over 77 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock, and this only provides us with 18 per cent of our calories and 37 per cent of our protein, with the rest coming from plant-based food.

Choosing to reduce meat and dairy is the single biggest contribution an individual person can make towards decreasing their carbon footprint. It’s more powerful than driving an electric car, using efficient light bulbs or recycling religiously. Researchers at Oxford University found that eating plant-based can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 73 per cent (depending on where you live).

Beyond just the direct environmental impact of food choices, today’s savvy consumers also want to know what kind of business they’re supporting with their hard-earned dollars.

Are the workers who make the products paid fairly? Is the company taking responsibility for their carbon emissions? What kind of packaging does the product come in? All these factors contribute to the cost of the product, and the type of world we want to live in.

As a long-time vegetarian who used to get frustrated with the one boring salad or falafel burger available on menus years ago, I’m certainly grateful to see the many new options in cafes and on supermarket shelves today.

I reckon plant-based food is here to stay.

Tesh Randall is a co-founder of Raglan Food Co, which makes dairy-free coconut yoghurt