The media has been rife with debate in recent weeks over the fortunes of the plant-based meat category, which some commentators have suggested overestimated its ability to convert consumers and, at worst, is turning out to be “a flop”. An impassioned defense has ensued, rallying many voices from the alt-protein industry and beyond. As the conversation continues, we give a platform to different perspectives in a special two-part series that considers the current state-of-play in the market and what it will take for plant-based meat to realise its ambitions on the global protein stage.
© New Nutrition Business
Protein is the nutrient that can do no wrong. And for consumers, plant-based proteins have a strong health halo. However, there is a plant protein paradox, which is that although plant proteins have strong consumer pull and a positive image, they face significant market and technical challenges, not to mention nutritional ones.
In terms of amino acid profile (the building blocks of protein), nutrient density and their functionality in a recipe, plant proteins are inferior in many respects to animal proteins. This paradox means that strategy isn’t easy.
Makers of plant-based meat substitutes, such as Beyond Meat, have discovered the cost of not thinking through this paradox. After an initial surge, the US meat substitute market, the world’s biggest, stalled at 1.4% market share in 2021 and sales fell by 12% by value and 15% by volume in 2022, according to IRI supermarket data. There was a 9.3% volume fall in the UK and similar declines elsewhere (with Germany a rare example of growth). Many businesses lose money. We researched the financials of a sample of 100 plant-based meat brands in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Not one was showing any sign of making a profit, even after five or more years in business.
The single biggest cause of the downturn is that products fail to meet consumer expectations on taste and texture. Canadian plant meat maker Maple Leaf Foods told stock analysts in 2022 that consumer trial rates “were super high, penetrating 60% of US households, but consumers’ needs simply were not met, and they did not repeat purchase. As a result, the category did not reach expected levels of habituation, had very high lapse rates and very low buy rates.”
Making a meat substitute that performs is not easy. Functionality – to provide structure and texture – is a challenge for most plant proteins. Egg – and other animal proteins such as dairy – is a functional protein, meaning it’s soluble, it foams and emulsifies. Plant-based proteins do not have such broad functionality. This is responsible for the long ingredient lists seen on many products, because developers have to use speciality starches, gums and stabilisers to overcome the deficiencies of the proteins.
Consumers have been telling our industry for 20 years that they want shorter ingredient lists and this is both a challenge and an opportunity for ingredient suppliers and NPD teams.
How to overcome the stall in sales? Forget imitating burgers and sausages and instead focus on product types that it is possible to make taste good, using real culinary skills and blends of vegetables, spices and herbs. Some companies are already on this road:
Australian company Fable Food made mushrooms the hero ingredient of its product range, avoiding the competitive disadvantage of making a direct comparison with meat. And consumers’ expectations of your product are easier to work with – they know mushrooms taste different; as long as the product has fantastic taste and texture, they will judge it on its own merits.
US start-up Afia delivers plant protein benefits in traditional Syrian foods. It’s a strategy that harnesses provenance, familiarity and – importantly – enables a brand to use spices, herbs and vegetables to create great tastes.
The second installment in the ‘Peak plant-based meat?’ series goes live tomorrow. Tune in for the perspective of Good Food Institute senior corporate engagement manager, Carlotte Lucas.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2023
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