Life isn't static. As our journey evolves, we become increasingly more interested in the major issues our planet faces today like climate change or malnutrition and in the health and wellbeing of our families. COVID-19 has made us think about our own health and wellness and how we can survive this pandemic.
One solution for many people has been to start to improve their diets. Research has shown that diet is the number one cause of premature death and the major cause of disability in many countries around the world. Many people have started to change their diets away from animal-based products to introduce more plant-based alternatives into their everyday eating habits.
Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.
Plant-based diets come in lots of shapes and sizes, and you should choose the version that works best for you. The major area of growth has been in flexitarians, people who introduce plant-based foods into their diets but continue to eat eggs, dairy foods, and occasionally meat, poultry, ﬁsh, and seafood.
Flexitarians are different from pescatarians who consume plant-based foods along with eggs, dairy foods, ﬁsh, and seafood, but exclude meat or poultry. They are also different from vegetarians who generally include eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood and vegans who include no animal foods in their diets.
One study in the United States that took place before the coronavirus found that over half (52 percent) of Americans were trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into their daily lives and one-third defined their eating style as flexitarian. The same study found that 13 percent defined their eating style as vegetarian and vegan.
Based on the data showing in some cases a tripling of sales of plant-based products since the start of the pandemic, we can be sure that this trend has continued to grow at a rapid pace.
What is the evidence that plant-based eating patterns are healthy? Much nutrition research has examined plant-based eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet. The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.
The Mediterranean diet has been shown in both large population studies and randomised clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.
Vegetarian diets have also been shown to support health, including a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased longevity.
In his widely read book How Not to Die, physician Michael Greger shows the evidence for plant-based diets and how adopting a more plant-based diet can help prevent, treat, or reverse leading causes of death such as heart, lung, and brain diseases as well as breast, prostate and digestive cancers.
Plant-based diets offer all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health, and are often higher in fibre and phytonutrients. However, some vegans may need to add a supplement (specifically vitamin B12) to ensure they receive all the nutrients required.
Plant-based companies have recently seen a considerable rise in popularity and in celebrity investments. Successful alternative meat brand Impossible Foods recently raised $300 million in funding from investors including Serena Williams, Katy Perry, Jay-Z, Jaden Smith, among others.
The burger is currently sold at about 7,000 restaurants across the US, not including the select Burger King locations serving the Impossible Whopper.
Impossible Foods is not alone in celebrity investments. Alternative protein company Beyond Meat, whose IPO is currently the second most successful of 2019, had people clamouring for shares when the company went public. The maker of vegan burgers and sausages has attracted investors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates.
JUST Inc., maker of the vegan Just Egg, is currently seeing record sales of its products and is planning an IPO in 2021. With Beyond Meat’s success in the stock market and the continued support for plant-based alternatives by celebrities, it’s very possible we’ll see more companies become “veganaires,” as Bloomberg dubbed the new millionaires.
The wave of investment and interest has also hit the Middle East; significant investment has been made by the Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, founder of KBW Ventures, who has signed a deal with a fast food chain to bring vegan fast food to the Middle East by serving plant-based alternatives to classic fast-food fare, including burgers, hot dogs, and milkshakes.
In Egypt, more and more restaurants and chains are catering towards the plant-based diet. One of these outlets is El Torr Restaurants, a chain serving Egyptian street food that arose from the idea that street food should be of high quality, innovative and that it should be accessible and affordable without compromising on quality and service.
Among many of the traditional dishes, El Torr has been expanding its menu to gear it towards alternative meat and plant-based options.
In a discussion, founder Tarek Ismail confirmed his interest and enthusiasm for expanding his business to cater towards the needs of his plant-based diet clients by offering traditional Egyptian dishes with meat alternatives. These include a version of hawawshi (traditionally pita bread with fried minced meat and spices), vegan sausages, and plant-based burgers, among many other items.
He discussed the rapid growth of demand for these products and is planning on expanding both the quantities and the varieties to be offered. He hopes that El Torr’s chain will be a leader in the provision of plant-based food options and alternatives to traditional Egyptian dishes in Egypt and eventually across the Middle East.
Sincerely V is yet another example of this trend; a plant-based eatery in Cairo, it caters specifically to the plant-based diet community, as well as those who want to integrate plant-based options as part of their meals.
It offers a wide range of delightful and creative dishes and a diverse menu that covers Middle Eastern, Asian and European cuisines.
The founder, Victoria Diachkova, is a food blogger that started her plant-based journey approximately three years ago but has since amassed an audience of 20,000 eager foodies.
She firmly believes that wholesome, sustainable food should not be a luxury, specialty, or niche product but needs to be mainstreamed and available to everyone.
Diachkova’s goal is to introduce plant-based menus throughout Cairo -- at restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and schools.
As plant-based diets become more accessible and increasing numbers of young and old people adopt them, this trend is surely to continue to grow and build momentum.
This trend is not going to reverse any time soon, with climate change and the demand for healthy foods, more people will be switching to non-animal-based forms of protein.
We should not be surprised therefore to see more and more people across the Middle East starting to adopt the labels of flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan. This trend is here to stay and it may be time to get on board and give it a try.
The authors, Marc Van Ameringen and Nada Elhusseiny, work with the Future Food Platform. The Future Food Platform is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a network of global experts supporting food innovations around the world that can have a dramatic impact on environmental sustainability, human health and nutrition. The team works with start-ups, corporate partners and investors to bring food innovations to scale. See www.futurefoodplatform.com