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

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For a while, plant-based meats — those complex blends of soy, oils, yeast and potatoes that are designed to look, feel and even bleed exactly like meat – seemed unstoppable. In 2020, with everyone stuck at home, sales of plant-based meat brands like Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein have skyrocketed, increasing 45% in a single year. The arrival of seemingly realistic 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 hamburgers, chicken fingers and steaks – made exclusively from vegetables.

Then a fall. Sales have leveled off in 2021, and some of the plant-based meat darlings — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — have started to decline. Beyond Meat’s stock price has dropped nearly 80% in the past year; Impossible conducted two rounds of layoffs in 2022, letting 6% of its workforce go only in October. Even as emissions and temperatures continue to rise — fueled in part by livestock — and about a quarter of Americans say they’ve cut back on meat consumption, plant-based meats aren’t doing as well as they might hope.

Some experts believe that the plant-based meat blunder may be exactly what 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 corn flakes to America – sold a meat substitute known as “protose”, made from a combination of soy, peanuts and wheat gluten. wheat. (It doesn’t seem to have been very tasty.) “First-generation” plant-based meat alternatives include tofu and tempeh — protein-rich foods already popular in Asian cuisine that bear little resemblance to meat.

However, “second generation” plant-based meats – like Beyond and Impossible – are designed to look, cook and taste the same as meat. Impossible even developed an ingredient called “heme,” a genetically engineered version of iron that allows its fake meat to “bleed” 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 plant-based meat all hat, no cattle?

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

But the focus on attracting meat eaters may have come into conflict with human psychology. “Real meat imitation introduces this comparison of authenticity,” said Steffen Jahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon who studies consumer food choices. Jahn argues that in trying to align plant-based meat closely with its beef and pork-based counterparts – Beyond Meat once introduced packaging that read “Now even meatier!” — companies have gone all-in on a category that many consumers don’t love: artificiality.

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

There’s more psychological complexity here as well. When consumers shop for food, they tend to simplify foods into categories: healthy, “good” foods on the one hand, and less healthy, indulgent foods on the other. Consumer psychologists call these food categories “virtuous” and “addictive” and 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 sold for its rich mineral and nutrient content, not its taste.

“We’ve always tried to keep things simple,” Jahn said. “We dichotomize a lot of things, including food.”

But plant meats confuse these “virtue” and “vice” categories in a few different ways. First, many alternative meats—especially those ready to resemble hamburgers, sausages, or bacon—include a long list of ingredients. “I was really shocked when I saw the ingredient lists,” said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “I thought, ‘Oh, honey.’”

These products fall into the category of “ultra-processed” foods, which many consumers associate with weight gain and poor health. This creates a conflict for buyers. Consumers who are more likely to want to be “virtuous” by avoiding environmental or animal harm are also more likely to want “virtuous” food in another sense – healthy food with simple ingredients.

JP Frossard, vice president of consumer food at investment firm Rabobank, says that when faced with sustainability or health, consumers often choose health. “At the end of the day, we’re looking at our bodies and what our intake is,” he said.

And taste has yet to reach a point where plant-based meat can easily be an “addictive” food. Emma Ignaszewski, associate director of industry intelligence at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, is skeptical that consumers are paying too much attention to long ingredient lists. But, she says, research from the Good Food Institute shows that consumers prioritize taste above all else when it comes to alternative meats. “From consumer studies, we see that 53% of consumers agree that plant-based meat products should taste As meat,” said Ignaszewski.

Part of the question is exactly who the customer is for the plant-based, bloody, pink-in-the-middle burger copy. It’s a bit like the all-electric Ford F-150 truck or Hummer EV – a vehicle with an environmental edge, packaged in a way that might be palatable to a much wider group of Americans. But these consumers really need to buy it. And while the electric Ford F-150 Lightning sold out in the United States in 2022, artificial meats face more resistance.

It may take time. Prejudices against alternative meats run deep and enduring: according to a recent peer-reviewed study, consumers’ top 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 undo perceptions of plant-based meat as bland or oddly textured overnight. “Some of that could take more years,” Jahn said. “And so it’s more than a single brand can do.”

Price can also play a role. According to data from the Good Food Institute, vegetable meat is still two to four times more expensive than traditional meat. With inflation cutting into people’s paychecks, paying twice as much for a similar experience isn’t an ideal choice for omnivores.

But there’s a broader question: whether the right way to wean people off meat is to offer highly processed imitations of 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 moving forward with attempts to produce 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 double down on the fact that people want it.”

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