The Vegan Meat Mistake: Focusing Too Much on the Real Thing?


briefly, vegetarian meat Those complex blends of soybeans, oils, yeast, and potatoes designed for look, feel, and even bleed Just like meat – It seems unstoppable. In 2020, with everyone staying home, sales of plant-based meat brands like Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein are up 45 percent in one year. The arrival of realistic-looking products amid growing concern about climate change heralds a new era of plant-based meat consumption. And soon, it looked like everyone was going to be eating burgers, chicken fingers, and steak—made with vegetables.

Then stagnation. Sales have leveled off in 2021, and some plant-based meat darlings — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — are beginning to decline. Beyond Meat’s stock price has fallen nearly 80 percent in the past year; Impossible will hold two rounds of layoffs in 2022, allowing 6 percent of its workforce go In October alone. Even as emissions and temperatures continue to rise—fueled in part by animal agriculture—and nearly a a quarter of Americans They claimed to have reduced their consumption of meat, the vegan meat is not working out as expected.

Some experts think the vegan’s fault may be exactly the thing that was supposed to make it popular: its attempt not to discriminate between meat.

Alternative “meat” is nothing new. In the early 1900s, a food company owned by the Kellogg family—the same family that brought cornflakes to America—sold a meat substitute known as “prominenceMade from a blend of soy, peanuts, and wheat gluten. (It didn’t look like it was Very delicious.) “First generation” vegetarian meat alternatives include tofu and tempeh—protein-rich foods popular in Asian cuisines that don’t look very much like meat.

However, “second generation” plant-based meats – such as Beyond and Impossible – are designed to look exactly like, tender and taste like meat. Impossible even to develop an item called “hemeGenetically modified version of iron that allows fake meat to “bleed” like beef or pork.

The idea was to attract carnivores and so-called “flexibility enthusiasts” – people who eat meat but want to reduce their consumption for environmental or health reasons.

Is all plant meat a hat, not cattle?

The environmental benefits are clear. Researchers appreciate that 15 percent Of the global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat farming. Produce 100 grams of protein from beef, for example, is sent 25 kg greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; On the other hand, tofu exports around 1.6 kg. Meanwhile, plant-based meats emit greenhouse gases 40 to 90 percent Less than traditional meat.

But the focus is on attracting meat eaters It may be contrary to human psychology. “Real meat imitations offer a comparison of authenticity,” said Steffen Jahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon who studies consumer food choices. By trying to align plant-based meats more closely with their bovine and pig-based counterparts – Beyond Meat once introduced packaging that said “Now even more meat!”, Gann argues. The companies have done everything in a category that many consumers don’t like: synthetic.

“They’re trying to imitate it and say, ‘We’re almost real,'” Jan said. But then some people will say, ‘Yeah, but you’re not fact fact.'”

There’s more psychological complexity here, too. When consumers shop for food, they tend to simplify foods into categories: healthy, “good” foods on the one hand and unhealthy, tasty foods on the other. Consumer psychologists call these two categories of foods “virtue” and “vice,” and they guide the number of products marketed and sold. Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream Bar is sold for its deliciously creamy texture, not for its fat content; A bag of spinach is full of its mineral and nutrient-rich contents, not its taste.

“We always try to keep things simple,” said Jan. “We swear by many things, including food.”

But vegetarian meats confuse these two categories of “virtue” and “vice” in many different ways. First, many alternative meats—especially those prepared to resemble burgers, sausages, or bacon—include a long list of ingredients. “I was very shocked when I saw the ingredient lists,” said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition and food studies at New York University. ‘I thought, ‘Oh dear. “

These products fall into the category of “ultra-processed” foods, which many consumers associate with weight gain and health problems. This creates a conflict for buyers. Those consumers who most likely want to be “virtuous” by avoiding harming the environment or animals are also more likely to want “good” food in other words – healthy food with simple ingredients.

Faced with sustainability or health, consumers often choose health, says JP Frossard, vice president of consumer foods at investment firm Rabobank. “At the end of the day, we look at our bodies and what our intake is,” he said.

And the taste has not reached the point where vegetarian meat can easily also be a “vice”. Emma Ignaszewski, associate director of industry intelligence at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, is skeptical that consumers pay so much attention to long lists of ingredients. But, she says, Good Food Institute research 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 delicious exactly like Ignaszewski said.

Part of the problem is exactly who the customer is for the pink version of the veggie burger. It’s a bit like the all-electric Ford F-150 truck, or Hummer EV—an eco-themed vehicle, packaged in a form that would be palatable to a wider group of Americans. But these consumers actually buy it. And while the Ford F-150 Lightning electric car run out In the United States in 2022, artificial meat faces greater resistance.

It may just take a while. Prejudices against alternative meats run deep and long-standing: according to one recently reviewed study study, consumers’ main association with meat was “delicious”; The third highest association with plant-based meat was “disgusting”. (“Vegetarian” and “tofu” also made the cut.) Perceptions of plant-based meat as bland or oddly textured are impossible to shake overnight. “Some of them may take more years,” Jean said. “So it’s more than just one brand can do.”

Price can also play a role. According to data from the Good Food Institute, plant-based meats are still around Two to four times Expensive as traditional meat. With low inflation in people’s salaries, paying twice as much for a similar experience is not an ideal option for carnivores.

But there’s a broader question: Whether the right way to wean people away from meat is to offer highly processed imitations of burgers, sausages and steaks — or to steer them toward other vegetarian and vegan options that look less like traditional “meat.” (There’s a third option, too: Some companies are pushing ahead with attempts to make lab-grown meat from animal protein.)

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Frossard said of switching to a diet less dense in meat. As for ultra-processed vegan meat, he added, “We’ll have to see if they’re going to double down on the ante that people want it.”

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