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The future of plant-based meat

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Let’s play “Predict the Future!” It’s fun! It’s easy! Anyone can play!

And usually does.

So let me throw my prophecies into the ring. I have had several on my mind of late.

One has to do with plant-based meat and its future or absence thereof.

Industry comments about the subject are not exactly excited. There’s is widespread opinion that “the meat alternative category has stalled and those consumers that trialed plant-based products during the COVID-19 pandemic were not impressed.” 

After his company conducted a survey about plant-based meats, Curtis Eugene, president and chief operating officer of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., said, “The refrigerated category grew at 59% in 2019, 75% in 2020, but in 2021, the category was essentially flat, growing at only 1%.”

“We believe the hyper exposure of the category early on drove a significant number of consumers to trial plant-based protein products,” Eugene added.

“In fact, trial rates were super high, penetrating 60% of US households, but consumers’ needs simply were not met, and they did not repeat purchases,” he went on to say. “As a result, the category did not reach expected levels of habituation, had very high lapse rates and very low buy rates.”

Beyond Meat’s returns would appear to bear out this claim. “Results for the year ended Dec. 31, 2021, trended in the wrong direction,” reports Keith Nunes in Food Industry Bulletin.

“Beyond Meat recorded a loss of $182 million, much greater than fiscal 2020 when the company reported a loss of $53 million.”

In response to these numbers, Beyond Beef founder Ethan Brown said, “Sit tight. We’re going to be coming back, I think, the latter part of this year and giving you guys some good results.”

Let us now go past the numbers and try to see things through the lens of common sense.

Do plant-based meat alternatives taste better than actual meat? No. I’ve had a Beyond Burger a couple of times, and while it seemed satisfactory, I saw no reason to choose it over a real hamburger. And going beyond the Beyond Burger, I find the idea of lab-grown meat loathsome.

Do meat alternatives provide better nutrition? No, and they have many more additives than even the most industrially produced meat. Impossible Burgers possess the almost impossible feature of having six times as much sodium as a McDonald’s burger.

Are meat alternatives cheaper? No. They’re more expensive.

It’s not looking good.

Meat alternatives can say two things in their favor. They are arguably more environmentally friendly than meat, although the amount of processing and additives, combined with the underlying environmental impact cost of growing the grains and beans used as raw material, undercuts this claim somewhat. In short, you can’t claim that plant-based meats leave no environmental footprint.

The other advantage these products have is that they’re not meat. A small but significant part of the U.S. population has embraced vegan and vegetarian diets full-time, and for these markets, meat alternatives will very likely continue to serve in good stead.

Even here, though, I wonder. I know a woman who was raised as a vegetarian from birth. She doesn’t like ersatz meat products, because, well, they taste like meat.

Plant-based meats will certainly continue to appeal to a niche market, and as such, they’re not going away. But their likelihood of future market expansion isn’t likely beyond a certain point.

Snippet of future nostalgia: “Remember 2021? Remember the pandemic? Remember Billie Eilish? Remember Beyond Burgers?”


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.