Whole Foods CEO won’t endorse health of plant-based proteins

Published on
August 22, 2019

Whole Foods Market’s co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey – who has been a devoted vegan for more than 20 years, adhering to a diet of 15 fruits and vegetables a day – expressed some reservations about the booming plant-based “meat” market in a recent interview with CNBC Make It.

According to Mackey, the health benefits of plant-based meat alternatives seems suspect considering the amount of processed ingredients at play.

"The [brands] who are capturing the imagination of people — and I'm not going to name these brands because I'm afraid I will be associated with the critique of it, but some of these that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods," he said to CNBC Make It.

"I don't think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods," Mackey added. "As for health, I will not endorse that, and that is about as big of criticism that I will do in public."

One of the leading producers of plant-based meat alternatives, Beyond Meat, was given its big break by Whole Foods, which contracted with the start-up to sell its vegan “chicken” strips years ago. When the company’s now famous Beyond Burger – a beef-like patty made from plant proteins – came to fruition in 2016, Whole Foods acted as a springboard for the business once more.

"We launched Beyond Meat. We were their launching pad. In fact, I think all of their new products have been introduced at Whole Foods," Mackey recalled to CNBC Make It.

Beyond Meat competitors such Impossible Foods – the company responsible for the plant-based patty within Burger King’s meatless Impossible Whopper – have been experimenting with plant-based seafood alternative products. According to a recent report from The New York Times, in June 2019, Impossible Foods’ research and development team was busy diving into potential “fishless fish” products – even trialing an anchovy-flavored broth made entirely from plants for use in paella dishes. 

Overall, the plant-based “meat” alternatives category – which includes seafood analogs – has exploded in popularity over recent years, new research released this summer by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and the Good Food Institute (GFI) suggests. 

The research, which was commissioned from wellness-focused data technology company SPINS, shows that the plant-based food category erupted by 31 percent over the past two years into a USD 4.5 billion (EUR 4.01 billion) industry at the national retail level, with 11 percent of that growth occurring just last year alone. While plant-based milk products dominate the sector, plant-based meat and protein alternatives, including seafood-inspired options, are contributing to the category’s growth consistently and in innovative ways. The plant-based meat and seafood category, on its own, is worth more than USD 800 million (EUR 715 million), SPINS researchers found, with sales up by 10 percent in the last year.

As the plant-based protein category increases in prominence, industry trade representatives and stakeholders in seafood have raised concerns and, in some cases, outright opposition. Red Lobster CEO Kim Lopdrup told CNBC last week that the popular restaurant chain will not be incorporating plant-based alternatives into its menu.  

“Yes, we have looked into plant-based seafood – it was terrible. And no, we’re not introducing it,” Lopdrup said. 

“We believe we’re already offering something that’s more healthy than these plant-based foods,” she added. 

Back in February, the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) stated that while it welcomed “more food choices for consumers, it’s wrong for [plant-based protein imitation] companies to make false sustainability and nutrition claims about seafood in an effort to sell their plant-based products.”

“[Companies] can, and should, market their products responsibly. But if they’re being disingenuous about the nutritional value of these seafood ‘alternatives’ and making outlandish sustainability claims about fisheries and aquaculture (all while trading on seafood’s good name), they should be called what they are; snake oil salesmen…. pardon… imitation snake oil salesmen,” NFI said. 

Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market

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