Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s, has a blender in his kitchen that he uses almost every morning to make his wife and two young children his “world-famous” green smoothie. As you might imagine, Justin’s® classic peanut butter is a key ingredient — but it’s far from the only one. Into the blender alongside the peanut butter go soy milk, wheatgrass, chia seeds, hemp seeds, frozen bananas, kale and a bit of honey. Such a concoction, green and thick, might be a hard sell in many households, but for Gold’s two school-aged children, it’s a treat.
“I’ve been slowly adding things over the years,” says Gold as he hits the blend button. He’s been both an amateur athlete and a vegetarian for most of his adult life. For his active lifestyle, protein is critical. Peanut butter has always been a standby treat for anyone seeking non-meat proteins, but in his twenties, while he was biking or skiing or running (depending on the weather in Boulder, Colo.), the only two types available were creamy or chunky. He started to wonder: Why the lack of imagination?
That’s what led him to begin experimenting with his own nut butter mixes. He would combine almonds or cashews with all sorts of fruits, and dive deep into the spice rack. His roommates at the time were known to sample his creations — which is why he eventually labeled those jars “Justin’s” — but they never knew what to expect. One batch would be honey flavored, the next would have a cayenne kick.
Ever since then, Gold’s goal has been to make the protein portion of the vegetarian diet as diverse, interesting and delicious as it is for the average meat eater. Some vegetarian proteins — yogurt and tofu come to mind — are hard to get excited about from a culinary standpoint. But thanks to Gold and his fellow food entrepreneurs, the options are getting more numerous and interesting by the day.
Gold is part of a generation of vegetarians who have dramatically expanded the culinary possibilities for non-meat eaters. Thanks in part to their efforts, the lifestyle has become steadily more appealing. In the last five years alone, the number of people who identify as vegetarians has grown by half to roughly 6 percent. That number, however, should be viewed with some skepticism. On closer examination, more than half of those who say on surveys that they are vegan or vegetarian admit to having recently eaten meat.
The rise of “flexitarians” is a notable trend, particularly among a younger population. Flexitairians are people who are increasingly interested in getting some or most of their protein from plant sources. The trend can even be seen in fast food offerings. Recently, major fast food companies (including Burger King, A&W, Little Ceasars, Taco Bell and KFC) have experimented with adding plant-based meat substitutes to their menus. According to one study, the meat-substitute retail market is expected to grow from $1.4 billion last year to $2.5 billion in 2023.
Having a diverse diet isn’t just about taste: diet diversity is more important for vegetarians than it is for meat eaters. Of the 20 different types of amino acids that make up proteins, nine are not made inside the human body. These are called “essential amino acids” — that is, it’s essential to eat foods that contain them. Eating meat is an easy way to get a full complement of amino acids; vegetables, on the other hand, typically lack one or more of the essentials.
That’s another reason Gold’s morning smoothie has so many ingredients. The kale is a great source of the essential amino acids leucine, lysine, phenylalanine and valine. The bananas are strong in histidine. The soy milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds and peanut butter contain, among them, the complete range of essential amino acids. Mixing them together in one easy morning meal ensures that he and his family have all the protein their bodies need for the day.
The honey, meanwhile, has zero amino acids. It’s just there to make it all a little sweeter.