"I was working an office job in the city centre of Dublin, and I would walk out at lunch time and not have anything to eat," said Sam Pearson, owner of the Vegan Sandwich Co.

"I just felt like, if there was me looking for something at lunch-time - something that was just as delicious as products that contain animal products - then maybe I wouldn't be the only one who would seek out that kind of food."

That thought prompted Sam to set up a small stall at the Stoneybatter Festival in Dublin just over two years ago, focusing on vegan-friendly sandwiches.

It was a popular but, by his own admission, modest operation - and it was set to remain that way. Until the pandemic hit.

"The plan at that time was to tour events and do markets, and as far as I was concerned that was as big as I expected the business to get," he said. "And then Covid really turned our world upside down - all of our markets and events were cancelled, and it was a case of we either end the business or we find a way to keep going.

"So we found a way to keep going."

Sam quickly launched a direct-to-consumer delivery business, doubling his turnover almost overnight.

Then, just over a year ago, he opened the doors on the company’s first fully-fledged store - and subsequently began selling its pre-packed foods through retailers around the country.

"Not many people were stupid enough to open a new business in the midst of Level 5 restrictions, but there was a bit more opportunity and a bit more leeway in terms of availability of places," he said. "It was really the only time it was ever going to be a possibility for us, so we said 'why not?’."

That sparked a dramatic uptick in the scale of the business and meant that, in the space of two years, staff numbers grew from two to 20. The brand also now appearing on the shelves of 53 shops across seven counties.

Sam’s dream is to build on the success of its shop in Smithfield, Dublin and develop a network of outlets, so that his fresh products are within reach of people right across the country.

Billion dollar burgers

Beyond Meat's animal-free burgers has led it to a multi-billion dollar valuation

What Sam’s business has tapped into is a dramatic increase in interest in alternatives to animal-based foods in recent years.

And while some of that is down to long-standing concerns around animal welfare, the past decade has also seen a rising awareness about the impact meat consumption has on the planet - as well as individual health.

What that has done is widened the plant-based market beyond those living a purely vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, with meat-eaters now also looking for ways to reduce the amount of animal products they consume.

Forecasts by Research and Markets suggest the vegan food market could be worth almost $52 billion globally by 2026 - compared to an estimated $32.6 billion last year.

Some of that will benefit veteran brands like Quorn and Linda McCartney, but they are now competing with a new breed of tech-like start-ups that are drawing in huge investor interest.

That includes US-based Beyond Meat, which is the plant-based supplier to major global chains like McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, and Impossible Foods, the $7 billion firm which supplies plant-based burgers to the likes of Burger King.

But far away from the Silicon Valley hype, there are also Irish firms vying for a piece of the plant-based pie. Many of them are coming from a far more traditional starting point - which they are hoping gives them an advantage in the market.

"We’re fourth generation butchers, my father and mother opened a butcher shop in 1975 in Galway city, all the beef came through our farm, and we developed a real understanding for quality food and where food comes from," said Daire Loughnane, managing director of Loughnane’s.

To this day Loughnane’s products lean heavily on its links to a traditional-style of butchering.

"The one thing that was consistent through all of our research was the brand story," Daire said.

But despite that it has rolled out plant-based versions of some of its Rudds products, as well as launching two entirely plant-based brands - Glás and Sons of Butchers.

"They’re a different consumer compared to the Rudds brand, but they’re performing quite well," said Daire. "It’s from a plant but it’s meat - we take the plant the animal would eat and we kind of bypass them and develop the plant proteins into meat products."

Daire expects that meat will continue to be at the core of their business into the future, but he sees significant growth potential in their plant-based lines too.

And he is confident that the brands will push the business in the right direction, even if they eat into sales on the meat-based side.

"For us it’s all about delivering choice for consumers and allowing them to make the decision," he said. "It’s clear that some consumers are going to eat less meat and, as a sausage producer, we felt it was important to be able to deliver some of those choices through quality, Irish-made food products.

"If consumers trends are moving more towards flexitarian and introducing more plant-based meats in diets, if we didn't develop and innovate our business we would lose that consumer. We felt it was best to keep that consumer within one of our ranges."

But making plant-based alternatives isn’t necessarily a straight-forward task - especially if you’re trying to replicate the taste and texture of an existing product.

Helping food firms to square that circle is Kerry Group, which is also hoping to leverage its heritage as it targets significant growth in the plant-based market.

"It is a space where Kerry have been playing, probably for more than 20 years," said Thomas Ahlinder, CEO Kerry Europe. "Of course, over the last couple of years is really when the market has been exploding."

Kerry has been ramping up its focus on plant-based products in recent years. That included its €853m acquisition of US firm Niacet which specialises, amongst other things, in low-sodium meat alternatives.

Thomas says the trends in the market place are clear to see for Kerry and its client companies.

He believes that growth is being driven by a consumer that wants to make a more ethical choice with their food - but it is also down to advancements in production that allow for a better end-product.

"There are better products out there today, which are tasting as good with a good, nutritious element in there, and that’s taking a lot of the barriers away for entering into plant-based," he said.

That perfect storm of a willing consumer, mixed with an ever-improving product has created what Thomas says is "one of the most exponential opportunities that I’ve seen in my 30 years in the food space".

How green was my veggie?

Regular drought means California's almond farmers require huge amounts of water

That opportunity arises at a time when it is generally accepted that the world’s current food system is unsustainable.

Much of that is due to the level of emissions coming from farm animals - as well as the water and energy required to farm and process meat in some countries.

"Plant-based foods are more environmentally sustainable than animal agriculture," said Ruth Hegarty, agency director at food project and consultancy firm Egg & Chicken. "Really there isn’t doubt at all in the research that meat and dairy - and particularly beef - has the highest impact.

"And in terms of the developed world, we really need to reduce how much we are consuming."

Beyond that broad fact, however the sustainability picture can get a little bit hazier.

That’s because some animal farming techniques are more sustainable than others, and everything down to the feed used will affect emissions.

Even within the plant-based world, some options have more of an impact than others.

For example, the recent boom in dairy-free drinks saw a rise in the popularity of almond milk, which has a far smaller carbon footprint than the milk that comes from a cow. However it also requires huge amounts water in the production process.

A study by the University of Oxford estimated that 74 litres of water are used in the creation of one glass of almond milk. That is less than what goes into the production of an average glass of dairy-based milk, but far more than what is required for oat or soy-based drinks.

That kind of water requirement is also a particular issue in increasingly drought-prone California, where most of the world’s almonds are grown.

Meanwhile the surge in demand for almonds has led farmers there to become increasingly focused on the crop at the expense of others, damaging the area’s biodiversity.

"So you’ve still got all of the issues around pesticide use, land use and water use," said Ruth. "Though the scale is never going to be as significant as it is with animals.

"Unfortunately there are very few simple answers because there are always unintended consequences."

Ruth also points out that any move to meat alternatives also poses a challenge to Irish agriculture, as much of the produce it’s based around cannot be grown here.

And that highlights an additional wrinkle in the sustainability of the category.

Shipping soybeans from China or Brazil means adding a significant number of food miles to the produce - far more than meat, eggs or dairy that is sourced locally.

Meanwhile a reliance on far-flung producers also introduces other sustainability issues, including worker treatment and the fair distribution of revenue.

"The companies globally that are getting into plant-based alternatives, they’re not doing it because they want to be more sustainable, they’re doing because they want to capture a rapidly growing market and make as much profit as they possibly can," said Ruth.

"If you look at Tyson, who are one of the biggest meat companies in the world, they’ve gotten in to plant-based - but they still have targets to increase their meat sales, so it’s not a philanthropic thing."

The sustainability of plant-based product is something that companies like Loughnane’s and Kerry Group have to grapple with as part of their moves in the area, with both making their own efforts to bolster their green credentials.

For Loughnane’s that means keeping things as local as possible. Where it’s not made here, the company tries to keep its food miles low regardless.

"Our plant proteins are verified, they’re sustainably sourced, it’s European soy and pea we use, we’re not bringing in soy from remote areas of Brazil," Daire Loughnane said.

Daire also questioned just how sustainable some plant-based products available today are - given the fact that they are produced abroad and shipped in.

"Some even have come as far as California and, to me, it may be made with a plant protein but I’m not sure how sustainable that is," he said.

"For the Irish consumer, there’s no doubt that we’re adding the value locally… we can process them in the local market, and distribute them in the local market with relatively low food miles."

Kerry Group says that calculating the exact environmental footprint of its ingredients is tricky - but doing so is part of its sustainability plan.

"We are looking at measuring the sustainable nutrition that our ingredients are playing in the final formulation [of a product], and how we can contribute and work together with end-producers in driving a sustainable, nutritious, excellent-tasting product to the market," said Thomas.

Content warning

While the planet’s health is a major driver in demand for plant-based alternatives, individual health is also playing its part.

Increasingly savvy consumers are scrutinising nutritional labels more than ever, while also seeking to increase the variety of food in their diet. A 2015 report by the UN is also likely to have prompted some to re-think their weekly shop, as it linked processed meats - and even red meats - with an increased risk of cancer.

But much like its sustainability, a plant-based meal is not automatically a healthy one.

While consumers may assume a plant-based alternative can, on its own, be a viable replacement for meat, a recent study by Safefood found that many are not.

"We looked at 354 products… one in four of these vegan or vegetarian products are not an adequate source of protein," said Joana da Silva, chief specialist in nutrition at Safefood.

The study did find that some products fared better in other ways - perhaps containing more fibre or vitamins. But overall SafeFood recommends that consumers pay attention to what they’re eating and not just assume something can act as a like-for-like swap for beef or chicken.

Joana also suggests that consumers consider plant-based alternatives to be an occasional treat.

That’s because the quest to create a meat-like food that is entirely plant-based is complicated - and the ingredient lists of the products tend to reflect that.

For example, Beyond Burger’s effort has 18 components - including pea and rice proteins, canola oil, methylcellulose and beet juice extract (which is used to mimic the bloodiness of beef).

"Most of them are highly processed foods, they would contain multiple ingredients and a lot of the ingredients would be needed to add flavour or texture," said Joana. "A meat-based sausage roll is still a processed food, so I’m not saying in any way that a plant-based sausage roll is more processed… but these [plant-based alternatives] are processed and should be limited just like processed meats."

Instead, those seeking to reduce or eliminate meat should do their best to rely on whole foods - like fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and pulses - for as many of their meals as they can.

"On average, we need to reduce our meat intake… and ideally we’d be replacing it with whole foods if possible," said Ruth Hegarty. "The thing to say about the plant-based alternative is that they’re not really meat alternatives, they’re processed meat alternatives.

"Sustainability does also mean human health, it’s not just about planetary health, we have to be looking at these things in parallel."

Fight for the fork

Thomas Ahlinder says it is a challenge to balance nutritional requirements with sustainability. However he also feels companies like his are getting better at meeting consumers’ exacting demands."Consumers are not looking for long labels with lists of ingredients that they don’t understand," he said. "They really want it to be as clean as possible, as well as nutritious and healthy.

"There has been an evolution in that space, definitely."

Being sustainable, healthy and vegan is balancing act Sam Pearson of the Vegan Sandwich Co thinks a lot about.

"There are few things that we don’t compromise on, like flavour… we also only use ingredients that people understand," he said. "Our food is made in a kitchen, not in a lab."

He has also gone to great lengths to use packaging that is compostable, while still improving the shelf-life of their products within - vital when selling through retailers.

And while pushing out his products to more shops means going head-to-head with major firms - be they Ireland’s Kerry Group or Silicon Valley’s Beyond Meat - he is confident in what he has to offer.

"One thing that we really have over big brands is agility and innovation," he said. "We have a whole load of new products in the pipeline and, because we’re small, we could sell them in our shops tomorrow if we wanted to.

"The way our industry has formed, especially vegan, plant-based food, has been from the ground up and every day, week and month it is the small producers that continue to innovate."