AEarlier this year, McDonald’s launched a plant-based burger that “sizzled on a flat-iron grill, then topped with slivers of onion, pickles, crispy shredded lettuce, sliced Roma tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and a slice of processed American cheese.” For a while it looked like a glimpse into the future.
The US trial of the McPlant burger was quietly halted last month (it’s still available in some markets, including the UK) in one of a series of setbacks for a meatless meat industry that claimed just a year ago it could change that great american menu forever.
Getting meat eaters in the US to adopt plant-based alternatives has proven to be a challenge. Beyond Meat, which makes a variety of plant-based products, including fake ground beef, burgers, sausage, meatballs, and jerky, had a tough 12 months that saw inventories fall nearly 70%.
Several chains that have worked with the company, including McDonald’s, have quietly stopped launching trials. In August the company fire 4% of the workforce after a slowdown in sales growth. Last week, its chief operating officer was reportedly arrested for biting another man on the nose during a street riot confrontation.
It’s a dramatic twist of fate. Just two years ago, Beyond Meat, its competitor Impossible Foods, and the plant-based meat industry in general seemed poised to start a food revolution.
After almost a decade of development, plant-based meat began to hit the mainstream in 2018. Grocery stores began selling Beyond Meat ground beef and sausages, while more restaurants offered plant-based meats on their menus. Burger King announced the launch of the Impossible Whopper, while other fast-food chains made similar launches, like a plant-based breakfast sausage sandwich at Dunkin’ and meatless pepperoni pizza at Pizza Hut.
For a time, Wall Street went vegetarian. In 2019, Beyond Meat was valued at over $10bn (£8.9bn). more than Macy’s or Xerox. The most optimistic investors believed plant-based meat would account for 15% of all meat sales by 2030. But the reality of Americans’ interest in plant-based meats has proven more complicated than investors thought, and the adoption of meat alternatives has been slower than hoped. Today, Beyond Meat is valued at just over $900 million (£799 million).
The sobering story is similar to that experienced by many new companies, which experience exciting hype fueled by excitement about innovation following a flood of venture capital money from Silicon Valley. Bill Gates backed Beyond Meat and a number of venture capital firms that typically invest in tech startups smuggled money for startups that produce plant-based meat. Ironically, even the biggest players in the meat industry have invested in companies developing plant-based meat.
“I think the bulls in the industry had a very wild, very optimistic view of how big the market could get,” said John Baumgartner, an analyst at Mizuho Securities. “There was a lot of exuberance in this category. It was new, it was different, it was trendy.
“But the consumer environment is tough and this stuff doesn’t come cheap,” he added. “It will take time to change cultural practices. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Some investors believed plant-based meat would become what plant-based milk alternatives have become in the dairy market, Baumgartner said. Dairy alternatives such as almond, oat and soy milk now make up and still make up 15% of the market Worth $2.5 billion (£2.2bn). A third of Americans drink some type of plant-based milk weekly.
But plant-based meat is different. For one, dairy alternatives have been around for decades, while the development of plant-based meat only began about a decade ago. Lactose intolerance has led many Americans to choose non-dairy milk. And unlike plant-based meat, which is usually just as expensive or even slightly more expensive than regular meat, plant-based milk is priced somewhere between non-organic and organic milk, making its cost more accessible to consumers.
Both are of course better for animal welfare and potentially for combating climate change, even more so than plant-based meat. Research has revealed that reducing meat consumption is the most effective thing that individual consumers can do to combat climate change. A major study has shown that a huge reduction in meat consumption — ideally 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs per global citizen — is “essential” to avoiding climate catastrophe.
But consumers seem reluctant to adjust their behavior when the only beneficiary is the environment – not their health or their wallets. Despite growing concerns about climate change, the number of Americans who are vegetarian or vegan has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years. About 5% of Americans reported being vegetarian in 2018, while 3% are vegan, according to a Gallup Poll.
Even with participants in a to learn conducted at Purdue University in Indiana and given information about the carbon footprint of meat production, participants chose regular meat over a plant-based alternative.
Bhagyashree Katare, an author of the study, said participants may have been put off by the taste of plant-based meat and the fact that it’s not necessarily a healthier alternative to regular meat. There are many plant-based meat alternatives comparable to their real meat counterparts in nutritional value. That it costs about the same as meat also reduces its appeal to consumers.
“If I’m spending money at a restaurant and I’m a meat eater, why would I spend money on plant-based meat? I’d rather eat a real burger,” Katare said. “It’s a technology and it takes a long time for people to trust the technology and adopt it. I think that’s where plant-based meat is. Maybe technology will improve and health will improve.”
Different companies have taken different approaches when developing their plant-based meat products. Beyond Meat has focused on using natural ingredients like protein from peas, mung beans, and brown rice in its meat. Impossible Food, its Silicon Valley competitor, has taken a more technological approach, using genetic engineering and fermentation to create its meat alternatives.
Much of the goal for many of these companies has been to create a plant-based product that matches the texture, flavor, and juiciness of real meat. While a Beyond Meat sausage or Impossible burger is much closer to real meat than a vegan sausage or veggie burger, researchers are still trying to make plant-based meat tastier, healthier, and cheaper.
“The plant-based food industry is still in its infancy,” said David Julian McClements, a professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who researches plant-based food alternatives. “It’s very challenging. Meat has a very complicated structural architecture, a very complex fibrous structure… And that structure determines its appearance and texture, how it chews in the mouth, how chewy or juicy it is.”
In their argument against plant-based meat, meat industry lobbyists point out that these meat alternatives are processed foods. one advertising campaign Calling them “ultra-processed imitations” and asking consumers “what’s in your plant-based meats?”
Plant-based meat has also struck a chord in America’s endless culture wars. Ten conservative states in 2018 and 2019 forbidden the use of “meat” in labels for non-animal products targeting the plant-based meat industry. Republicans took over a speaking line in 2021 that Democrats were after red meat as part of Joe Biden’s climate plan, although that was largely based on speculation and misreporting.
“That’s not going to happen in Texas!” Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, tweeted in response to the fake reports.
Despite the naysayers against plant-based meat, McClements is optimistic that science can produce better meat alternatives that meat eaters will eventually find harder to resist.
“Just because it’s processed doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. You can incorporate good nutrition and health into these products. Some companies are really going to great lengths to achieve this.”
A lot of money is still flowing into companies that are working on better alternatives. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes plant-based alternatives, estimated that such companies received $1.4bn (£1.2bn) in funding in 2021 – a record for the industry. Companies are also making a wider range of products, including alternatives to fish and steak.
“The ideal situation is that you’re making a product that’s indistinguishable from meat and that’s cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible,” McClements said. “Then if you’re given a choice between meat and this product, always buy the plant-based one because you know it’s better for the environment, definitely better for animal welfare, and it should be better for your health if developed properly.” becomes.”