A recent New York Times opinion piece suggested that we need to launch a moonshot for developing meatless meat. The author called on the U.S. government to put money and muscle behind development of plant-based and lab-grown meats just as it is doing for electric cars, weatherized homes, and renewable energy. Such efforts, the piece argued, would help consumers move toward a plant-based diet and away from overreliance on animal protein.
Pushback against the proposal was swift and it didn’t come from the meat industry. Instead, prominent voices in the movement for reform of food systems argued against plant-based meats and in favor of unprocessed plant foods. In the words of one popular food writer, the perfect meat alternative already exists: “It’s natural, delicious, sustainable — even soil boosting! It takes no research dollars and is the world’s most important protein source. It’s called the legume. Sure, it’s not smoked brisket or a juicy burger, but it has fed cultures for centuries.”
There are plenty of reasons to eat more beans, which are rich in fiber and protein, and have a small carbon footprint.1 But, in Western countries, including the United States, legumes make a negligible contribution to protein intake. Among U.S. adults, intake of beans, peas and lentils is less than 1 cup per week.2 Furthermore, worldwide demand for meat is expected to increase as the socioeconomic status of people in developing countries improves.3 This trend suggests a shift away from legumes.
There are signs, though, that legume consumption might be on the rise, in the United States at least, largely due to increasing demand for Tex-Mex dishes and other popular bean-based products like hummus.4 Still, there is a long way to go before beans make a significant contribution to U.S. protein intake, which averages 70 to 100 grams per day.5 Current bean consumption provides less than 15 grams of protein per week.2
Because of their culinary and environmental advantages, nutrition experts recommend encouraging populations worldwide to consume more beans.1 At the same time, many people might be encouraged to incorporate more legumes into meals through consumption of bean-based products that remind them of meat.
The debate doesn’t have to be between beans and plant-based meats, both fit into a healthy diet. That’s why there is no debate about the role of soybeans and soyfoods in the future of food. Consumed as beans, or as the processed foods that have long been part of cultural diets, soy provides plenty of options for those who wish to eat more whole foods. They also play a starring role in the new plant-based meats that many consumers crave.
Soybeans are uniquely positioned to meet the demand for any type of food that consumers desire. Whatever direction the changing foodscape follows, soyfoods will be there.
- Semba RD, Ramsing R, Rahman N, et al. Legumes as a sustainable source of protein in human diets. Global Food Security. 2021;28:100520.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
- Sabate J, Soret S. Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100 Suppl 1:476S-82S.
- Americans consumed almost 12 pounds of legumes per person in 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=92977. In: Economic Research Service U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Berryman CE, Lieberman HR, Fulgoni VL, 3rd, et al. Protein intake trends and conformity with the Dietary Reference Intakes in the United States: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001-2014. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018;108:405-13.