Tofu: The Unsung Hero of Coronavirus-Related Meat Shortages

New data shows that consumers are turning to plant-based food options now more than ever.

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First, it was toilet paper that was flying off the store shelves. Then hand sanitizer and basic medical supplies were nowhere to be found. The next COVID-19-related supply chain victim was the meat industry — by April, beef, pork and poultry were in short supply because some meatpacking plants were forced to temporarily shut their doors while their workforce was ravaged by coronavirus cases. When consumers could find meat at their grocery stores and butchers, there was often a smaller selection of cuts, quantities were limited, and prices were higher.

While this phenomenon may have gone largely unnoticed in the vegetarian and vegan communities, and possibly further encouraged “flexitarians” — those who live a semi-vegetarian lifestyle — to continue down a more plant-based path, you have probably observed an unexpected side effect: Tofu has gone mainstream.

“Once the pandemic began, grocery shelves were stripped of meats, leaving people to rely on plant proteins if they hadn’t made it to the store in time to stock up on their staples,” explains Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, a plant-based sports dietitian in the greater Philadelphia area. “This uptick in the use of plant proteins may have reminded people of how much they like certain options, like legumes and tofu, on top of highlighting the cost savings without meat on their grocery bill. As the stay-at-home orders continued and more Americans were left with a tighter budget, consumers started to opt for less-expensive plant-based options.”

Data released from the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) — analyzing the retail sales of plant-based meat, plant-based cheese, tofu and tempeh over a 16-week period ending in mid-April — shows that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have outpaced total food sales during the pandemic. For instance, refrigerated plant-based meat retail sales spiked at 241% compared to last year; tofu and tempeh retail sales grew 88% compared to last year.

Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Tofu Varieties

Since Jones says soy is considered the highest-quality plant protein in terms of digestibility, tofu has long been a protein staple for vegetarians. But if you’re having any problems locating your favorite brand due to its recent boost in popularity, she says there are other soy-based options available and plenty of ways to make legumes an adequate main protein source at meals:

  • Edamame is an easy add-in for mixed dishes whether you purchase it from frozen or keep roasted edamame on-hand as a crunchy high-protein salad topper.
  • Tempeh is a versatile fermented soy product that can replace tofu in your favorite dishes, but it can also be crumbled and used as a meat sauce alternative.
  • Beans and lentils from dried or canned are excellent options, too — high in fiber, like tofu, and chockfull of minerals (such as iron and calcium). Try pairing beans and lentils with higher protein grains, such as farro or bulgur instead of rice, for example.
  • The most exciting legume as of late is peas — as a legume (not vegetable), they’ve often been called starchy, but they deliver high-quality protein. It’s no wonder pea protein is now being used to fortify plant-based energy bars, veggie burgers, frozen vegan chicken tender alternatives and more.

The question that remains is: Will consumers who adopted a more plant-based menu during the pandemic’s meat shortage continue this way of life long-term? Quite possibly.

“Three months is a long time to be working on new lifestyle habits, so if it’s become normal for people to include plant proteins over animal proteins by now, I do think they’ll continue in the future,” says Jones. “The adjustment period of altering your diet is the hardest part, so once those meat alternatives are in place and eating them is a habit, there’s no reason to go back to your old ways — especially knowing the health, environmental and animal welfare benefits.”