Hello Quartz Members,
It’s a great time to be a vegetarian. Walk into any supermarket in America and you’ll likely find shelves full of plant-based meat products like burgers, sausages, and even “chicken” nuggets. And if you’re too lazy to cook today, no problem. Major fast-food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and Chipotle offer plant-based meat meals. The best part is that most of it tastes damn good.
Plant-based meat that appeals to omnivores and vegetarians alike has found its place on the American menu, but whether it will ever become a staple remains an open question. While it experienced explosive growth in its early years, sales stagnated in 2021 and are now slowly growing. For some, the novelty factor may wear off. Diners were blown away by their first bite of an Impossible burger — crispy and crunchy pink browned on the inside, with an eerily meaty flavor you wouldn’t expect from soy protein, coconut oil, and botanical flavors — but when its novelty faded, it was just a burger with a higher price and a similar calorie count to its traditional meat counterpart.
When Americans find themselves in the refrigerated grocery aisle weighing a pound of ground beef against twice the price of plant-based meat, what will they realistically be checking out?
Though veggie meat alternatives have been around for decades (Quorn or Boca Burgers, anyone?), plant-based meat — which uniquely mimics the taste and texture of animal protein — arrived in 2019, according to Media, “the year of the plant-based burger” — the Impossible Whopper made its debut at Burger King, and Beyond Meat had the most successful IPO of the year. Between 2019 and 2020, plant-based meat sales grew 45% to $1.2 billion. Soon, plant-based burgers, tacos, and fried chicken were being sold at America’s most popular fast-food chains (and, gradually, at some of their locations in Europe and Asia). Americans, especially wealthy and educated millennials and Gen Z, gobbled it up.
Sales continued to surge in the early months of the pandemic, helped in part by busy inventory levels. But in the second year of Covid-19, they began to rot, reaching a plateau in late 2021 that continues to this day. In 2021, plant-based meats accounted for just over 1% of US meat sales. Some industry experts see the slowdown in sales as a sign that plant-based meat is destined to become a niche product, like organic and grass-fed meat, rather than a mainstream product.
For and against
➕ Since its inception, plant-based meat has been marketed as a sustainable alternative to animal meat, which is widely recognized as a major climate polluter due to the significant carbon emissions, deforestation and water use associated with raising livestock or poultry. Critics have tried to poke holes in the plant-based industry’s green claims, but it’s widely accepted that plant-based meat is better for the environment than animal-based meat. It’s also less ethical because it doesn’t harm animals.
➕ Some have argued that it has the potential to alleviate food insecurity because it will be able to meet consumer demand for meat as climate change makes industrial livestock farming increasingly difficult and precarious.
➖ The cost of plant-based meat, which is about twice that of regular ground beef, remains prohibitive for some consumers. Private and public investment is needed to help the industry scale and move away from its current high-margin, low-volume model.
➖ There are concerns about the high levels of calories, saturated fat and sodium in plant-based meats. (Part of the concern stems from the expectation that plant foods should be healthy when the goal is simply to replace meat.)
➖ While the US loves burgers and nuggets, the current limited offerings at major supermarkets and restaurants could soon be showing their age.
- Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat: These brands are now well known and are among the top 10 bestsellers in this category. Recently they lowered the prices to match the meat price.
- Omnipork: Founded by Hong Kong-based Green Monday, this company specializes in plant-based pork, with products like ground beef, pork strips and luncheon meats (aka vegan SPAM). After taking Asia by storm, it made its US debut in 2021 in Sprouts, a health-focused grocery chain, and a handful of Whole Foods locations. Omnipork recently started offering seafood products like fish fillets and crab cakes.
- Gardein: Owned by Canadian company Conagra, Gardein is another top company in this space, best known for its plant-based meatballs and frozen meals. It has recently expanded to imitation chicken with a range of breaded chicken ‘n’ tenders, nuggets and fillets.
- Good Catch: A competitor in the burgeoning plant-based seafood market, Good Catch is owned by Gathered Foods and makes fish fingers, fillets and burgers along with crab cakes and fish cakes. In 2021, Good Catch launched menu items with fast-food chain Long John Silver’s and expanded into Sprouts stores nationwide.
For now, plant-based meat has been most successful by staying close to its animal-based successor. “It is notable that the growth of plant-based meats is being dominated by products that are analogous to conventional meat products, which closely resemble the taste, texture and appearance of conventional meat,” said Emma Ignaszewski, the Good’s Corporate Engagement Project Manager Food Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting alternative meats and protein. “In order to convince consumers, plant-based meat products have to taste good.”
The future gets even stranger, with:
- More Meats, especially poultry. This year, says Ignaszewski, there has been a “flood of plant-based chicken launches” hitting retail shelves. The industry is also looking to expand into plant-based seafood, which currently accounts for just 1% of the plant-based meat market.
- More diversified ready-made products. As technology improves, consumers can expect “whole cuts,” from “steak to bacon to sushi-grade salmon that can be the star of the plate,” says Ignaszewski. A startup called Black Seed Foods is even developing plant-based lamb, venison, and traditional meats.
- More natural ingredients. To address consumer concerns about “chemical-sounding” ingredient lists, brands are likely to come out with “cleaner” recipes. Maple Leaf Foods-owned Lightlife has already phased out animal products like eggs and synthetics like maltodextrin and carrageenan, and a startup called Sundial Foods boasts a plant-based chicken wing with just eight ingredients.
- More new companies. Although traditional food producers like Kellogg’s (owner of MorningStar Farms) and Tyson (which recently launched Raised and Rooted) are entering the plant-based meat industry, Ignaszewski expects there will be plenty of room for startups in this space. Just look at the mix of startups and established companies that produce plant-based milk, which now accounts for 15% of all milk sold in the US, she says.
Will plant-based meat ever replace traditional meat in the American diet?
Yes, bring on the plant-based filet mignon
No, I have beef with that notion
Can’t we enjoy vegetables as they are?
In last week’s fitness-at-home survey, 43% of respondents said they’d rather exercise alone without a trainer. Looks like we’re all going to be training at home for a while longer.
have a great week
—Yasmin Tayag, contributor (ask me for my killer impossible longanisa recipe)
A 🌱 thing
Although plant-based meat increasingly looks, feels and tastes like real meat, some predict that consumers will eventually grow weary of imitation meat and the processing that goes with it. What comes after plant-based meat might just be eating plants again. Why eat a plant-based burger when you could have a delicious mushroom steak?