The vegetable meat fallacy: Focusing too much on the real thing?

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For a while, vegetable meats – those complex mixtures of soy, oils, yeast and potatoes that are designed to look, feel and even bleed exactly like meat – He seemed to be unstoppable. In 2020, with everyone stuck at home, sales of plant-based meat brands such as Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein have increased, increasing 45 percent in just one year. The arrival of realistic products amid growing concern about 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 purely of vegetables.

So, a slump. Sales have been lined up in 2021, and some of the plant-based meat darlings — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — have begun to decline. Beyond Meat’s stock price has fallen nearly 80 percent in the past year; Impossible carried out two rounds of layoffs in 2022, leaving 6 percent of their workforce go in October only. Even though emissions and temperatures continue to rise – thanks in part to animal agriculture – and roughly a quarter of the Americans they say they have cut their meat consumption, the vegetable meats have not been as successful as expected.

Some experts believe that the mistake of vegetable meat may be the exact thing that should make it popular: its attempt to be indistinguishable from meat.

Alternative “meats” are nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th century, the food company of the Kellogg family – the same family that brought cornflakes to America – sold a meat substitute known as “protoses,” made from a combination of soy, peanut, and wheat gluten. (It does not appear 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.

“Second-generation” plant-based meats, however — like Beyond and Impossible — are designed to look, cook and taste exactly like meat. Impossible also developed an ingredient called “heme“A genetically modified version of iron that allows his fake meat to ‘bleed’ much like meat from a cow or a 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 the whole hat, no beef?

The environmental benefits are clear. Researchers estimate that 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat farming. Production of 100 grams of protein from meat, for example, sends around 25 kilos of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; tofu, on the other hand, emits about 1.6 kg. Plant-based meats, meanwhile, have greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 90 percent inferior to traditional meats.

But the focus on the appeal to meat eaters can be faced with human psychology. “The imitation of real meat introduces that comparison of authenticity,” said Steffen Jahn, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon who studies consumer food choices. Jahn argues that by trying to closely align plant-based meat with its beef and pork counterparts — Beyond Meat once introduced packaging that said “Now even meatier!” – companies are all-in on 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 true true.’

There is even more psychological complexity here. When consumers buy 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 categories “virtues” and “vices” foods, and they guide how many products are marketed and sold. A Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar is sold on its delicious creaminess, not its fat content; A lot of spinach is prized for its mineral and nutrient richness, not its taste.

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

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

These products fall under the category of “ultra-processed” foods, which many consumers associate with weight gain and health problems. That creates a conflict for buyers. Those 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, the vice president of consumer food in the Rabobank investment company, says that when faced with sustainability or health, consumers often opt for health. “At the end of the day, we look at our bodies and what our intake is,” he said.

And the taste has not reached a point where vegetable meat can easily be a “vice” food. Emma Ignaszewski, associate director of industry intelligence for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, is skeptical that consumers pay much attention to a long list of ingredients. But, he says, research by the Good Food Institute shows that consumers prioritize taste over everything else when it comes to alternative meats. “From consumer studies, we see that 53 percent of consumers agree that plant-based meat products should taste better. as well as meat,” Ignaszewski said.

Part of the problem is exactly who the customer is for the pink, plant-based, bloody burger copycat. It’s a bit like the all-electric Ford F-150 truck, or the Hummer EV — a vehicle with an environmental flair, packaged in a form that could be palatable to a much wider group of Americans. But those consumers actually have to buy. And while the electric Ford F-150 Lightning sold out in the United States in 2022, artificial meats are more resistant.

It can only take time. The prejudice against alternative meats is deep and long-lasting: According to a recent peer-reviewed to study, consumers’ top association with meat was “delicious”; the third highest association with vegetable meat was “disgusting”. (“Vegan” and “tofu” also made the cut.) It’s impossible to shake off the perception of plant-based meat as bland or strangely structured 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 data of the Good Food Institute, vegetable meat is still two to four times expensive as traditional meat. With inflation cutting into people’s wages, paying double for a similar experience is not an ideal choice for omnivores.

But there is a wider question: whether the right way to turn people away from meat is to offer highly processed imitations of hamburgers, sausages and steaks – or to steer them towards other vegetarian and vegan options that seem no less “meaty” traditional. (There is also a third option: Some companies are moving forward in attempts to make meat grown in the laboratory from animal protein).

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Frossard said of the switch to a less meat-heavy diet. As for ultra-processed plant-based meats, he added: “We’ll see if they double down on the bet that people want this.”

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