The Coming 4th Wave of the Plant-Based Movement

By: Tyler Mayoras

Co-founder and CEO, Cool Beans


In many ways, my personal journey has mirrored the evolution of the plant-based foods movement. I was vegetarian during the 1990s, fell off the wagon for about 15 years of the 2000s and then went fully vegan in early 2017. Over this period, the plant-based movement has gone through two of its three historic waves, while setting the stage for the coming fourth wave that I believe will dramatically grow the breadth of acceptance and adoption of plant-based eating in the United States.


First Wave- Hippies Lead the Way

Vegetarianism is not new. Some of history’s most brilliant minds have been vegetarians, including Pythagoras, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mahatma Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw. However, the first significant wave of the plant-based movement came with the Hippie generation of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a natural extension of the peace, love and understanding ethos to not harm and eat animals. As Tom Philpott wrote in Mother Jones a few years back, “many of today’s hottest food trends are rooted in the tofu revolution” and that we should all “hug a Hippie” the next time we order our avocado toast or grain bowl. This First Wave created the benchmark of about 1% of the US population that identified as being vegan, where it has remained until recently.


Second Wave- To Your Health

My own journey as a vegetarian actually started during the Second Wave in the 1990s. At this time, Americans were trying to reduce fat in their diets, and animal protein was a major source of fat. However, not many people were going fully vegetarian at this time, instead the Flexitarian Movement was born wherein a person still ate meat but reduced their consumption by eating vegetarian at some meals. Personally, I remained vegetarian for most of the 1990s. This led to one of my best moves as a private equity investor, when we led the investment in Boca Burger in 1996.


Back then, most plant-based options were grain-based and pretty tasteless. There were grain and bean-based burgers, bland soups and endless salads. Frankly, it was hard to be vegetarian then! At the time, Boca Burger was the closest thing to a real burger and the best available option, but it paled in comparison to today’s Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers. This Second Wave did not grow the percentage of people identifying as vegan, but it did build important awareness of plant-based options and some of the health benefits of eating plants.


I remained vegetarian until about 2001. By then, we had sold our stake in Boca to Kraft Foods. My wife and I added two daughters to our family, and like most consumers at that time, we were misled into believing that young children needed to eat meat and dairy to be healthy. Since we were making meals with meat and dairy products, remaining vegetarian became more difficult, and I finally succumbed. I remained a meat eater for the next 15 years and not-so-coincidentally had my “great expansion of the waistline”, ballooning to a peak of 220 pounds on my 6’1” frame.


Surprisingly, despite gaining 35 pounds since college, I still thought of myself as thin. It wasn’t until we got the Nintendo Wii Fit in 2010, that my self-delusion was shattered. You might recall that during the setup phase you need to create your avatar and step on the Wii Fit to get weighed. I was doing the setup with my daughters, and they both set up their own characters and registered within the lovely “NORMAL” BMI weight ranges. When it was my turn to step on the scale…wah wah wah… “OBESE” flashed on the screen, and my daughters were giggling. Yikes, how embarrassing! I may have thought I was thin, but Nintendo thought I was fat! This was a rude awakening and triggered my weight loss journey.


I spent 2010 to 2016 trying to lose weight with just about every diet created, Atkins, Sugar Busters, Jenny Craig and gluten free, but to no avail. I could never get my weight below 213 pounds. 2016 was probably the most discouraging year, because I was counting calories and exercising 4-6 days a week. While I lost a bit of weight, I just could not get below that 213 hurdle. I was miserable, and it became clear that you can’t just exercise your way out of the problem. You have to change your lifestyle and diet.


During that first year after going vegan in 2017, I lost over 25 pounds dropping to 190 from about 225.  What’s truly amazing about that was I never felt like I was dieting. I ate when I wanted and as much as I needed to get full, but the weight kept dropping off each week.


Third Wave- A 3-Legged Stool

It was during this same timeframe, that the framework was created for the Third Wave of the plant-based movement. In 2005, T Colin Campbell published his groundbreaking study, The China Study, on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. It turns out China had kept fastidious records of cancer rates throughout their population and because of their huge geography and diversity of diet, one could study the correlation between diet and cancer rates. Parts of China ate a Western-style diet– heavy with meat and dairy products, while other parts of the country ate 100%, or predominately, plant-based diets. The results were staggering: In the areas with a plant-based diet, the population had very little non-smoking related cancer, whereas in the areas with a Western-style diet, the rates were similar to Western countries – much higher.


In the US we invented the Western-style diet, and our health could not be worse. According to USDA data from the 1950s to 2015, we increased our per-capita consumption of meat products (chicken, pork and beef) by 39% to over 220 pounds per year from 158 pounds in 1950. During this same time, according to the CDC, the obesity rate in the US shot up from just 10% of the population in 1950 to over 39% in 2015. Not only has obesity grown, heart disease, diabetes and cancer rates also ballooned. Heart disease, our #1 killer, now takes more than 650,000 lives per year – more dying each year than all the Americans that died during the Civil War.


There is a groundswell of research that a whole food plant-based diet is the best diet for longevity and can actually reverse many of the problems plaguing American’s health such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. This data is leading to a surge in the number of people adopting a plant-based lifestyle. At the same time, a group of researchers were identifying the climate impacts of animal agriculture. One of the first documentaries to identify these impacts was Cowspiracy, released in 2014.


I first learned about the climate impact at a food conference in 2016, where several experts indicated that animal agriculture contributed 15% of all greenhouse gases in the US. Initially, I did not believe this data, because I knew that transportation (all the cars and trucks on the road) only contributed about 13-14% of GHGs. How could animal agriculture contribute more than transportation? Unconvinced, I went back to Chicago after the conference and started building the data myself using statistics from the USDA and EPA. My analysis revealed that the contribution from animal agriculture was actually higher– at between 16% and 19% of all GHGs in the US! I was floored: It wasn’t just the animals that were the problem but all the food we had to grow to feed those animals. Currently, 70% of all crops grown in the US are NOT fed to humans! I immediately started my transition to becoming vegan. I started with Meatless Monday, then Vegan Monday, then added a second day per week, and by early 2017 I was fully vegan.


Once again, the plant-based movement seemed to be mirroring my personal journey. The growing awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet, the climate impacts of animal agriculture and concerns about animal cruelty had now created a three-legged stool to fuel the rapid adoption of a plant-based diet. The move away from dairy, driven by the negative health implications of dairy and new awareness of animal cruelty in that industry, also opened up entirely new categories for the growth of veganism.


According to a Global Data study, in 2017 the number of people identifying as vegan in the US had skyrocketed to 6% up from the historic 1% that had existed since the 1960s.  It is hard to believe the actual number is that high, but it is clear that the growth of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians has been dramatic. According to SPINS and The Good Food Institute, the total plant-based foods market in the US grew to over $5.0 billion in 2019 from $3.9 billion in 2017, an impressive 28% jump over 2 years.


Fourth Wave- Beyond Vegan Junk Food (or) Whole Food Plant-based

What’s next? While the growth in meat, cheese and dairy alternatives has driven this dramatic rise in sales of plant-based foods, it’s what’s coming next that’s most exciting to me. I see a revolution, a whole food plant-based Fourth Wave in the making, with consumers—vegans, vegetarians and mainstream flexitarians– turning away from processed meat and dairy alternatives, just as the early-adopters turned away from the processed foods of their parents’ generation.


While vegan junk food gets you on the bus (and that’s great!), it is the clean ingredient, minimally processed plant-based foods that really improve your health. I think many more will move toward this more whole food plant-based side of the movement once they are on the bus. This is why we founded Cool Beans.


During that first year after going vegan in 2017, when I was losing over 25 pounds, I enjoyed learning new ways to cook but, like so many of us, I didn’t always have time to do it and could not find many prepared foods with inviting flavors in the grocery store that were also whole food plant-based. At Cool Beans, we are on a mission to fill that void and become a leader in the coming Fourth Wave by bringing convenient, whole food plant-based choices with global flavors to the frozen food aisle.