aEarlier in the year, McDonald’s launched a plant-based burger “sizzled on a flat-iron grill, then made of chopped onions, tart pickles, crispy shredded lettuce, Roma tomato slices, ketchup, mustard, mayo, and melts.” One Piece. American Cheese”. For a while it was a glimpse of the future.
The McPlant Burger’s US test run was quietly called off last month (it’s still available in some markets, including the UK) in one of a series of setbacks for the meatless meat industry only a year ago claiming it was The great American menu may change forever.
Getting meat-eaters in the US to adopt plant-based alternatives has proven to be a challenge. It’s been nearly 12 months since Beyond Meat, which produces a variety of plant-based products including ground beef, burgers, sausages, meatballs and jerky imitations, lost nearly 70% of its stock.
Several chains that have partnered with the company, including McDonald’s, have quietly ended trial launches. In August, the company laid off 4% of its workforce after a slowdown in sales growth. Last week, its chief operating officer was arrested for allegedly biting another man’s nose during a road rage collision.
This is a dramatic reversal of fate. Just two years ago, Beyond Meat, its competitor Impossible Foods, and the plant-based meat industry were set to launch a massive food revolution.
After nearly a decade of development, plant-based meat began to go mainstream in 2018. Grocery stores began selling Beyond Meat ground beef and sausage, while more restaurants were offering plant-based meats on their menus. Burger King announced the launch of the Impossible Whopper, while other fast-food chains followed suit with similar launches, such as the plant-based breakfast sausage sandwich at Dunkin’ and the meatless pepperoni pizza at Pizza Hut.
For some time Wall Street went vegetarian. Beyond Meat was valued at more than $10bn (£8.9bn) in 2019, more than either Macy’s or Xerox. The most enthusiastic investors believed that 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 complex than investors thought, and adoption of meat substitutes is slower than what was once expected. Today Beyond Meat costs just over $900m (£799m).
The grim story is similar to the experience of many new ventures that see encouraging hype after a flood of Silicon Valley venture capital cash, fueled by enthusiasm about innovation. Bill Gates backed Beyond Meat, and several venture capital firms that typically invest in tech startups gave money to startups making plant-based meats. Ironically, even the biggest players in the meat industry have invested in companies that come up with plant-based meats.
“I think the bulls in the industry had a very wild, very optimistic estimate of how big the market could get,” said John Baumgartner, an analyst at Mizuho Securities. “There was a lot of excitement in this category. It was new, it was different, it was on trend.
“But the consumer environment is tough, and this stuff isn’t cheap,” he said. “Cultural practices are going to take time to change. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Baumgartner said some investors believed that plant-based meat would become a plant-based dairy alternative in the dairy market. Dairy substitutes, such as almonds, oats and soy milk, now make up 15% of the market and are worth $2.5bn (£2.2bn). One-third of Americans drink some kind of non-dairy milk weekly.
But plant-based meats are different. For one, milk substitutes have existed for decades, while the development of plant-based meats only really began about a decade ago. Lactose intolerance has led many Americans to choose non-dairy milk. And unlike plant-based meats, which are usually just as expensive or slightly more expensive than normal meats, plant-based milks range in price between non-organic and organic milks, making their costs more accessible to consumers. It becomes
Of course, both are better for animal welfare and potentially for combating climate change, even more so than plant-based meats. Research has shown that reducing meat consumption is one of the most effective things individual consumers can do to fight climate change. A major study has shown that a drastic reduction in meat consumption – ideally 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs per world citizen – is “necessary” to avoid climate catastrophe.
But consumers are hesitant to adopt their behavior when the environment – not their health or purse – is the sole beneficiary. Despite growing alarm over climate change, the number of vegetarian or vegan Americans has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years. According to a Gallup poll, about 5% of Americans said they are vegetarian in 2018, compared to 3% of vegetarians.
Even when participants in a study conducted at Purdue University in Indiana were informed about the carbon footprint of meat production, participants were more likely to go with regular meat over a plant-based option.
Study author Bhagyashree Katare said participants may have been put off by the taste of plant-based meat and the fact that it is not a healthy alternative to regular meat. Many plant-based meat substitutes are comparable in nutritional content to their true meat counterparts. Its cost is almost as much as the meat itself, reducing its attractiveness 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’ll eat an actual burger instead,” Katare said. “It’s a technology, and It takes a long time for people to trust and adopt technology. I guess that’s where plant-based meat is in. Maybe the technology can improve, and it’s going to be better in terms of health.”
Different companies have taken different approaches to developing their plant-based meat products. Beyond Meat has focused on using natural ingredients like peas, mung beans and brown rice for its meat. Impossible Food, its Silicon Valley competitor, has taken a more technical approach, using genetic engineering and fermentation to create its meat substitutes.
Many of these companies aim to develop a plant-based product on a large scale 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 vegetarian sausage or veggie burger, researchers are still trying to make plant-based meats tastier, healthier, and cheaper.
“It’s still quite early in the plant-based food industry,” 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 complex anatomical architecture, a very complex, fibrous structure… and that structure determines its appearance and its texture, the way it behaves in your mouth when you chew it, it How chewy or juicy is it.
In their arguments against plant-based meat, lobbyists for the meat industry have pointed out that these meat substitutes are processed food. An advertising campaign called them “ultra-processed imitations” and asked consumers “what’s hiding in your plant-based meats?”
Plant-based meat has also struck a nerve in America’s never-ending culture wars. Ten conservative states in 2018 and 2019 outlawed the use of “meat” in the labels of products that do not come from animals, targeting the plant-based meat industry. One thing Republicans did in 2021 was that Democrats were going after red meat as a part of Joe Biden’s climate plan, though it was mostly based on speculation and false reports.
“Not gonna happen in Texas!” State Governor Greg Abbott, tweeted In response to the fake report.
Despite those opposed to plant-based meats, McClements is optimistic that science can bring about better meat alternatives, which will eventually be harder for meat eaters to resist.
“Just because it’s processed doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. You can design good nutrition and health into these products. Few companies are really making a big effort to do that.”
Companies working on better alternatives still have a lot of money. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit 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 wide range of products, including fish and steak substitutes.
“The ideal situation is that you create a product that is indistinguishable from meat, and that is cheap, convenient and accessible,” McClements said. “Then if you have a choice between meat and this product, you always buy plant-based because you know it’s better for the environment, it’s definitely better for animal welfare, and it’s better for your health. better if it is designed properly.”