This meat-free food company strengthens its brand recognition by reaching beyond the food and into our environmental consciousness. If the idea that eating well can help you save the planet seems a little far-fetched, then you’re not paying attention.

Thankfully, the folks at Lightlife Foods, manufacturer of natural meatless foods, have, and for the past 30 years, this Massachusetts-based division of ConAgra Foods has been developing products based on its tagline: veggie goodness for you and the planet. 

“The philosophy we’ve built the business on reflects the belief we have in the interconnection between food, health, and the wellbeing of both people and the planet,” said Darcy Zbinovec, vice president and general manager of Lightlife Foods. “Today, the environmental message is stronger and stronger, but it’s a message we’ve had as part of Lightlife for 30 years.”

From the natural health and goodness its products provide to the ways in which the company strives to be environmentally conscious in its business practices, Lightlife embodies the health and vitality its meatless products promote. Located on 13 acres on the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, Lightlife’s headquarters has undergone a number of changes that help the company reduce its impact on the environment. 

Roughly two years ago, the company switched from using steam heat pasteurization to a water-based pasteurization to increase its efficiency. “We’ve also done a lot of things with our facility to use less energy, such as covering the windows with a protective coating that helps reduce heat loss during winter and helps stop heat from coming in during the summer so we can reduce our heating and air conditioning costs and changing our lights to a warm, more natural light,” Zbinovec said.

In addition, the company composts its production food waste with a local farmer. The local farmer then uses the leftover soybeans and meatless products to create food for his livestock and uses it when growing vegetables and flowers. 

Another major part of the company’s adherence to its mission, vision, and brand values is supporting local and international charities. The Solar Electric Light Fund, for example, finds ways to provide sustainable electricity to those who are without. Safe Passage provides for survivors of domestic violence, and the New England Food Foundation reaches families in need with community-sponsored and sustainable agriculture. 

“It gets back to the philosophy of what we eat being strongly connected to how we feel and how we live our lives,” Zbinovec said. “We want to make foods that not only sustain a healthier person but also a healthier planet, and these charities help with that.”

Putting it out there

The way in which Lightlife presents its products to its customer base is as important as the way in which the products are made. Rather than labeling its products vegetarian, Lightlife products are referred to as meat-free. “We want more people to try the products with the thought that more people trying and eating them will produce a healthier planet,” Zbinovec said. 

According to Zbinovec, vegetarian meals are more environmentally friendly by their nature. On average, land requirements for meat protein production are 10 times greater than for plant protein production, and for every 16 pounds of grain and soybeans fed to beef cattle, the return is only one pound of meat. 

But the company is aware of the stigma regarding meat-free products and continuously strives to improve both the texture and the taste. In the ’90s, the company introduced its Smart line of products. And just as with any other choices the company makes, the Smart name was a deliberate selection, bringing together the business, environmental, and health philosophies of the company with one word. 

Zbinovec said Smart comes from two things: that the company believes its consumers are smart about their food choices and that it believes the products are smart because they’re good for you. In fact, many of the company’s products are fat free, have no cholesterol, and are packed with good veggie protein. 

For those who still aren’t sure, Lightlife lists comparisons on its Web site between its products and traditional products, such as hot dogs and hamburgers. For example, one Smart Dog Veggie Protein Link with a bun, ketchup, and mustard equals 45 calories. The same serving with a conventional hot dog: 142 calories. 

This spring, the company rolled out two new sausage products, one flavored like Italian sausage and the other a chorizo. It also introduced two chicken tender products, one with a lemon pepper taste and the other with more savory flavors. “We look at ways to make our products tastier and for people to use in their regular recipes. We believe if people like the products, they’ll eat more and improve their health and the environmental health,” Zbinovec said.

Future of food

Most of the company’s products can be located in the refrigerated produce section of your local grocer, and the company has not forgotten its roots in the natural channels and independent food markets. In addition to local health food stores, the company sells its products to Whole Foods and recently spread its wings with the addition of Safeway stores. 

“We started the business back 30 years ago in the natural channel, and, probably about 10 years ago, we started selling to grocery as well,” said Zbinovec. 

The decisions the company makes about both its future and its products come in large part from customer feedback. Through Lightlife’s customer service group, the company hears back directly from consumers. The company also talks to bloggers looking at a variety of meatless products, finding out what needs aren’t being met in the market.

“We contact or talk to our consumers through Web advertising and print advertising,” Zbinovec said. “We’ve got a lot of ways we interact with consumers, and the consumer feedback has been helpful in shaping not only the products but also the business.”

As with many companies these days, Lightlife is challenged by the rising costs of ingredients and fuel, but Zbinovec said she’s hopeful about this year’s soybean crop, and gas prices are starting to fall. But that doesn’t mean the company has any plans to turn away from the philosophies that have supported it since 1979.

“We’ve had a lot of consumers talk to us about how it makes them feel good when they understand the interconnection between food and health; they feel their wellbeing is stronger,” said Zbinovec. “This has been our guiding principle, and it will continue to be in the future.”