Home Business The plant-based meat fallacy: Focusing too much on the real thing?

The plant-based meat fallacy: Focusing too much on the real thing?


For a while, plant-based meats—complex mixtures of soy, oils, yeast, and potatoes—were designed to look, feel, and even bleed. exactly like meat – seemed irresistible. With everyone staying at home in 2020, sales of plant-based meat brands such as Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein have skyrocketed, up 45 percent in a year. Amid growing concern about climate change, the arrival of realistic-looking products seemed to herald a new era of plant-based meat consumption. Soon, it seems everyone will be eating hamburgers, chicken fingers, and all-vegetable steak.

Then, don’t crash. Sales soared in 2021, and some plant-based meat darlings — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — began to decline. Beyond Meat’s stock price has fallen almost 80 percent in the past year; Impossible makes two rounds of layoffs, laying off 6 percent of workforce in 2022 only in October. Although emissions and temperatures continue to rise—fueled in part by animal agriculture—and nearly a quarter of Americans claim to be cutting back on meat consumption, plant-based meats are not succeeding as expected.

Some experts believe that the fault of plant-based meat may be the very thing that will make it famous: Its attempt to be indistinguishable from meat.

Alternative “meats” are nothing new. In the early 20th century, a food company owned by the Kellogg family – the same family that brought American cornflakes – sold a meat substitute known as “protose” made from a combination of soy, peanut and wheat gluten. (It wasn’t very tasty.) “First-generation” plant-based meat alternatives include tofu and tempeh—protein-rich foods already popular in Asian cuisines that bear little resemblance to meat.

“Second-generation” plant-based meats — like Beyond and Impossible — are designed to look, cook and taste like meat. Impossible has even developed an ingredient called “heme,” a genetically modified version of iron, that allows its fake meat to “bleed” like cow or pork.

The idea was to appeal to omnivores and so-called “flexitarians” – people who eat meat but want to reduce their consumption for environmental or health reasons.

Is plant-based meat all hat, no cattle?

The environmental benefits are clear. Researchers estimate that 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production. For example, by producing 100 grams of protein from beef, about 25 kilograms of greenhouse gases are sent into the atmosphere; tofu, on the other hand, emits about 1.6 kg. Plant-based meats have 40-90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meats.

But attention turns to meat eaters may have disturbed human psychology. “The imitation of real meat provides a comparison of that authenticity,” said Steffen Jahn, a marketing professor who studies consumer food choices at the University of Oregon. Jahn claims that by trying to closely match plant-based meat with its cow- and pork-based counterparts—Beyond Meat once said, “Now even meatier!” Said packaging presented. — companies have entered a category many consumers dislike: artificiality.

“They try to mimic it and say, ‘We’re almost real,'” Jahn said. “But then some people will say, ‘Yeah, but you’re not.’ real real.’”

There is more psychological complexity here too. When consumers shop for food, they tend to simplify foods into categories: healthy, “good” foods on the one hand, and less healthy foods on the other. Consumer psychologists call these categories “virtue” and “natural” foods, and they guide how many products are marketed and sold. A Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar is sold for its delicious creaminess, not its fat content; a bag of spinach is chosen not for its taste, but for its rich mineral and nutrient content.

“We’re always trying to simplify things,” Jahn said. “We dichotomize many things, including food.”

But plant-based meats confuse these categories of “virtue” and “evil” in several different ways. First, many alternative meats – especially those ready to be made to look like burgers, sausages or bacon – contain a long list of ingredients. “I was shocked when I saw the ingredient lists,” said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “I thought, ‘Oh dear.

These products fall into the category of “ultra-processed” foods that many consumers associate with weight gain and health problems. This creates a conflict for buyers. Consumers who want to be “virtuous” by not harming the environment or animals are also likely to want “virtuous” food in another sense—healthy food with simple ingredients.

JP Frossard, vice president of consumer foods at investment firm Rabobank, says that consumers who are concerned about sustainability or health often make healthy choices. “At the end of the day, we look at our body and what our intake is,” she said.

And the flavor hasn’t reached the point where plant-based meat can easily be a “duty” food. Emma Ignaszewski, deputy director of industry intelligence at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, is skeptical that consumers pay too much attention to long lists of ingredients. But, he says, research from the Good Food Institute shows that consumers value taste above all else when it comes to meat alternatives. “From consumer research, we see that 53 percent of consumers agree that plant-based meat products are tasty whom meat, ”said Ignashevsky.

Part of the issue is exactly who the customer is for the plant-based burger copycat with a bleeding pink middle. It’s a bit like an all-electric Ford F-150 truck or a Hummer EV—an environmentally friendly vehicle packaged in a form that might be palatable to a broader group of Americans. But those consumers should actually buy it. With the electric Ford F-150 Lightning due out in the U.S. in 2022, artificial meats are facing more resistance.

It just might take time. Prejudices against alternative meats are deep and long-standing: According to one recent peer-reviewed study, consumers’ primary association with meat was “tasty”; the third highest association with plant-based meat was “disgusting.” (“Vegan” and “tofu” have also been cut.) It’s not possible to get rid of plant-based meat being bland or weird-textured overnight. “Some may take more years,” Jahn said. “And so it’s more than a single brand can do.”

Price can also play a role. According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based meat is still two to four times more expensive than conventional meat. With inflation cutting into people’s paychecks, paying twice for a similar experience is not an ideal option for omnivores.

But there’s a broader question: is the right way to turn people away from meat by offering highly processed imitations of burgers, sausages and steaks, or by directing them to other vegetarian and vegan options that don’t look like traditional “meat”. (There’s a third option: Some companies are making progress in trying to make lab-grown meat from animal protein.)

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Frossard said of the transition to a less meaty diet. As for ultra-processed plant-based meats, he added: “We’ll have to see people double down on the bets that they want it.”

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