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The P            WER of

Plant-Based Proteins:

An interview with an industry pioneer

By Kathleen Furore

Meat has always been the go-to source for consumers seeking to meet their protein needs.

And while that’s still true, plant-based proteins—think “meats” made with tofu, tempeh and seitan—have taken root with today’s health-conscious, environmentally aware consumers. According to Nielsen’s Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey, 39% of American and 43% of Canadian consumers are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, and 23% of consumers overall want more plant-based proteins on store shelves.


To find out more about the trend toward protein products that mimic meat, and what it means for deli meat companies, Modern Deli Mobile reached out to Robert Davis, founder of New Edge Systems and a pioneer in plant-based proteins.


Davis, an entrepreneur with a passion for natural foods, shares his thoughts on the trend—past, present and future—with Modern Deli Mobile readers below.

Modern Deli Mobile: What do you see as the top trends in the plant-based meat substitute marketplace today? Is this a passing fad or something that is here to stay?


Robert Davis: This trend has been a long time coming! In the 1960s, we were looking at ecological issues—books like Silent Spring, Diet for a New Planet, and Beyond Beef were pivotal works. Bill Shurtleff was someone who was extremely pivotal in and responsible for the upsurge in plant-based proteins in the early 1970s, when he brought plant-based products including tofu and tempeh to the U.S. He championed entrepreneurs in the late 1970s to make tofu—I was one of them—and I started Light Foods in St. Louis in 1979. Light Foods developed Light Links, the first tofu hot dots, and deli “meats” like bologna. It represented the largest movement of tofu at that time.


Those things planted the idea of plant-based proteins. Now the market, which is being driven by Millennials, is blooming. LOHAS—which stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability—is a $290 billion market!

Robert Davis, founder of New Edge Systems and The Hemp Company

MDM: How have things changed since you launched the tofu products decades ago?


Davis: There is a lot more information out there today—not only about health and longevity, but about deep ecology—so getting people to accept plant-based protein isn’t as challenging as it was years ago when it was tough to come out of the closet so to speak as a vegan or vegetarian. Today there is an awareness of the psychology of sustainability and carbon footprint as it relates to planetary survival! We can’t try to just wish these issues away. We have to get in front of them in ways that allow businesses to survive and thrive as trends evolve.


I believe the current landscape presents many opportunities. And we’re seeing different responses to the challenges we face. Some meat companies are going organic with grass-fed, humanely handled products, while many plant-based companies are expanding their lines of quality, vegan “meats.”

Seitan (pronounced “say-tan”) is a vegan meat substitute made entirely out of hydrated gluten, the main protein found in wheat.

MDM: How does cutting and slicing the new plant-based products compare to cutting and slicing conventional lunch meat?


Davis: As to the question of slicing, it totally depends on the structure of the plant-based substrate (soy-pea protein, gluten, tofu and tempeh) and the density of the product. Gums play a crucial roll in determining the density and structure of plant-based lunch meats; if constructed properly, they should mimic to a considerable degree the density of conventional lunch meat. We were able to slice 10-lb. loaves of our Light Loney product at the Safeway plant in Stockton many years ago (1984/85) using their conventional equipment because the product had the same density and integrity as bologna.


That being said, the product needed to be cooked fully and chilled thoroughly to eliminate the tackiness often associated with some plant-based lunch meat products. Keeping the cutting blade lightly oiled and sharp will help.  In regard to finding a solution for cutting or slicing plant-based meats, if there is a will there is a way.

A newspaper article  explaining the art of tofu making and benefits of eating plant-based proteins.

MDM: The market seems rather fluid at the moment—a lot of challenges, a lot of changes, a lot of uncertainty about where we’re headed. Just what does all of this mean for deli meat companies?


Davis: That’s a great question! The things that have been happening are all transitional events. We had meat analogs, then tofu, tempeh and seitan…and I think the movement will be toward more simplicity moving forward. What does it mean for deli meat companies? That depends on how much plant-based protein consumers will want to eat.


I see this as a fledgling but growing market that offers companies in the deli arena opportunities. But they have to be creative or they won’t be around for long because someone will come in and become the big player that serves the retail market.


It isn’t too early to make a move into plant-based products. My suggestion is to find your niche (pickle loaf or sliced ham, for example)—find ways to do plant-based proteins with boutique products.


Early on, succeeding with tofu was tough because so many people who had tasted it thought it was supposed to be sour because so much of it had gone bad! That’s the kind of thing that can set the industry back.


The bottom line is whatever you do, it has to be good!

Robert Davis, founder of New Edge Systems and The Hemp Company, in a "throwback" picture from the early days of the tofu movement.

MDM: You started the Hemp Food Company—what is it about?


Davis: The Hemp Food Company that I started represents a conscionable response to sustainable futures and the laser effort to feed people in need. I believe that feeding people in need is tantamount to being a successful business. The sixth mass extinction event that we are living through demands a new level of conscious entrepreneurship, one steeped in heart-full caring action—action that cuts through the matrix, to the core, of a sustainable, healthy future.


Now is the time.

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