The mistake of plant-based meat: focusing too much on the real thing?


For a while, plant-based meats — those complex concoctions of soy, oils, yeast, and potatoes designed to look, smell, and even bleed just like meat – seemed unstoppable. In 2020, with everyone stuck at home, sales of plant-based meat brands like Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein skyrocketed, increasing 45% in a single year. The arrival of realistic-looking products amid growing concern over climate change seemed to herald a new era of plant-based meat consumption. Soon, it seemed, everyone would be eating burgers, chicken fingers and steaks – made only with vegetables.

Then, a tumble. Sales plateaued in 2021, and some of the plant-based meat darlings — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — began to dive. Beyond Meat’s stock price has fallen nearly 80% in the past year; Impossible carried out two rounds of layoffs in 2022, laying off 6% of its workforce in October only. Even though emissions and temperatures continue to rise — fueled in part by animal agriculture — and about a quarter of Americans say they’ve cut back on meat consumption, plant-based meats aren’t doing as expected.

Some experts think the plant-based meat mistake might be the exact thing that was supposed to make it popular: its attempt to be indistinguishable from meat.

Alternative “meats” are nothing new. In the early 20th century, the food company owned by the Kellogg family – the same family that brought cornflakes to the United States – sold a meat substitute called “protose”, which was made from a combination of soy, peanuts and wheat gluten. (It doesn’t seem to have been very tasty.) “First-generation” plant-based meat substitutes include tofu and tempeh — high-protein foods already popular in Asian cuisines that bear little resemblance to meat.

However, “second generation” plant-based meats – like Beyond and Impossible – are designed to look, cook and taste exactly like meat. Impossible even developed an ingredient called “heme”, a genetically modified version of iron that allows its fake meat to “bleed” much like the meat of a cow or pig.

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 vegetable meat a hat, not cattle?

The environmental benefits are obvious. Researchers estimate that 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat farming. Producing 100 grams of protein from beef, for example, sends about 25 kilograms of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; tofu, on the other hand, emits about 1.6 kg. Plant-based meats, on the other hand, have 40-90% lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meats.

But the emphasis on appealing to meat eaters may have offended human psychology. “The imitation of real meat introduces this comparison of authenticity,” said Steffen Jahn, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon who studies consumer food choices. Jahn argues that in trying to align plant-based meat closely with its cow- and pork-based counterparts – Beyond Meat once introduced packaging that read “Now even meatier!” — Companies have jumped into a category that many consumers don’t like: artificiality.

“They try to imitate 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 as well. When consumers buy food, they tend to simplify food into categories: healthy and “good” foods on the one hand, and less healthy and indulgent foods on the other. Consumer psychologists call these categories “virtue” and “vice” foods, and they determine how many products are marketed and sold. A Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar is sold for its delicious creaminess, not for its fat content; a bag of spinach is hacked for its richness in minerals and nutrients, not for its taste.

“We always try to simplify things,” Jahn said. “We dichotomize a lot of things, including food.”

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

These products fall into the category of “ultra-processed” foods, which many consumers associate with weight gain and health problems. This creates a conflict for buyers. Consumers who are most likely to want to be “virtuous” by avoiding harm to the environment or animals are also most 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 when faced with sustainability or health, consumers often opt for health. “At the end of the day, we’re looking at our bodies and our consumption,” he said.

And the taste hasn’t quite reached a point where plant-based meat can easily be a “vice” food either. Emma Ignaszewski, associate director of industrial intelligence for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to meat, is skeptical that consumers are paying close attention to long ingredient lists. But, she says, research from the Good Food Institute shows that consumers prioritize taste over everything else when it comes to alternative meats. “Based on consumer research, we find that 53% of consumers agree that plant-based meat products should taste great. just like meat,” Ignaszewski said.

Part of the problem is figuring out who exactly is the customer for the bloody, pink plant-based burger copy in the middle. It’s a bit like the all-electric Ford F-150 truck or the Hummer EV – a vehicle with an environmental twist, packaged in a form that might appeal to a much wider group of Americans. But these consumers actually have to buy it. And while the electric Ford F-150 Lightning sold out in the United States in 2022, the artificial meats are facing more resistance.

It may take time. The biases against alternative meats are deep and enduring: According to a recent peer-reviewed study, consumers’ primary association with meat was “delicious”; the third highest association with plant-based meat was “disgusting”. (“Vegan” and “tofu” also made the cut.) It’s impossible to unravel perceptions of plant-based meat as bland or oddly textured overnight. “Some of them could take longer,” Jahn said. “And so that’s more than one brand can do.”

Price can also play a role. According to data from the Good Food Institute, plant-based meat is still two to four times more expensive than traditional meat. With inflation cutting people’s wages, paying double for a similar experience isn’t an ideal choice for omnivores.

But there’s a wider question: Whether the right way to steer people away from meat is to offer highly processed imitation burgers, sausages and steaks – or to steer them towards other vegetarian and vegan options. that look less like traditional “meat”. (There’s also a third option: some companies are trying to make lab-grown meat from animal protein.)

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Frossard said of switching to a lower-meat diet. As for ultra-processed plant-based meats, he added, “We have to see if they’ll double down on people wanting that.”

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