For a while, plant-based meats—complex blends of soy, oils, yeast, and potatoes designed to look, feel, and even bleed exactly like meat—seemed unstoppable. Sales of plant-based meat brands like Impossible, Beyond Meat, and Gardein skyrocketed in 2020, when everyone was locked up, increasing 45 percent in a year. Amid growing concerns about climate change, the emergence of realistic-looking products seemed to herald a new era in plant-based meat consumption. It seemed that soon everyone would be eating burgers, chicken fingers and steaks made entirely of veggies.
Then, a collapse. Sales stabilized in 2021, and some plant-based meat products began to decline, including Beyond Meat and Impossible. Beyond Meat’s stock price has dropped almost 80 percent last year; Impossible made two rounds of layoffs in 2022, allowing 6 percent of its workforce to go out of business in October alone. Even though emissions and temperatures, driven in part by livestock, continue to rise, and roughly a quarter of Americans claim to cut back on meat consumption, plant-based meats aren’t doing as well as expected.
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So what went wrong?
Some experts believe that the fault of plant-based meat may be exactly what should have made it popular: its effort to be indistinguishable from meat.
Alternative “meats” are nothing new. In the early 20th century, the Kellogg family-owned food company, the same family that brought cereal to America, sold a meat substitute known as “protose” made from a combination of soy, peanuts, and wheat gluten. (It doesn’t look very tasty.) “First-generation” plant-based meat alternatives include tofu and tempeh, protein-rich foods that are already popular in Asian cuisines and have little resemblance to meat.
However, “second generation” plant-based meats like Beyond and Impossible are designed to look, cook and taste exactly like meat. Impossible has even developed an ingredient called “heme”, a genetically modified version of iron that allows fake meat to “bleed” just like a cow or pork.
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.
The environmental benefits are obvious. Researchers estimate that 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from growing meat. For example, producing 100 grams of protein from beef releases about 25 kilograms of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; tofu releases about 1.6 kg. Meanwhile, plant-based meats have 40 to 90 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meats.
But focusing on appealing to meat eaters may have gone against human psychology. “Imitation of real meat reveals the authenticity comparison,” said Steffen Jahn, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon who studies consumer food choices. Trying to align the plant-based meat closely with its cow- and pork-based counterparts, Jahn once said, “It’s even meatier now!” – companies did everything in a category that many consumers do not 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 really real’.”
There is more psychological complexity here too. When consumers shop for food, they tend to categorize food into simple categories: healthy, “good” foods on the one hand, and less healthy, indulgent foods on the other. Consumer psychologists refer to these categories as “virtue” and “immorality” and guide how many products are marketed and sold. A Haagen-Dazs popsicle stick is sold by its delicious creaminess, not its fat content; A bag of spinach is held hostage not for its taste, but for its rich mineral and nutritional content.
“We’re always trying to keep things simple,” Jahn said. “We divide a lot of things in half, including food.”
But plant-based meats confuse these “virtue” and “immorality” categories in a few different ways. First, many alternative meats—especially those ready to resemble hamburgers, sausages, or bacon—contain a long ingredient list. “I was pretty 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 that many consumers associate with weight gain and health problems. This creates a conflict for buyers. Consumers most likely to want to be ‘virtuous’ by avoiding harm to the environment or animals are also more likely to want ‘virtuous’ food in another sense – healthy food with simple ingredients.
Consumers confronted with sustainability or health often choose health, says JP Frossard, vice president of consumer food at investment firm Rabobank. “At the end of the day we look at our body and what our intake is,” he said.
And the taste hasn’t quite reached the point where plant-based meat can easily become a “debauchery” food as well. Emma Ignaszewski, deputy director of industry intelligence at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, suspects consumers pay too much attention to long ingredient lists. But she says the Good Food Institute’s research shows that consumers prioritize taste above all else when it comes to alternative meats. “From consumer research, we see that 53 percent of consumers agree that plant-based meat products should taste like meat,” Ignaszewski said.
Part of the problem is who exactly the customer is for the bleeding, middle-pink plant-based burger replica. It’s a bit like the all-electric Ford F-150 truck, or the Hummer EV, a vehicle with environmental capabilities packaged in a way that could appeal to a much larger group of Americans. But these consumers actually have to buy it. And while the electric Ford F-150 Lightning will run out in the United States in 2022, artificial meats are facing more resistance.
It just takes time. Prejudices against alternative meats are deep and long-lasting: According to a recent peer-reviewed study, what consumers most associate with meat is “delicious”; The third highest association with plant-based meat was “disgusting.” (“Vegan” and “tofu” were also cut.) The perception that plant-based meat is soft or oddly textured is impossible to loosen overnight. “Some may take many more years,” Jahn said. “And therefore, more than a single brand can do.”
Price can also play a role. Plant-based meat still costs two to four times more than conventional meat, according to data from the Good Food Institute. Paying double for a similar experience isn’t an ideal choice for the omnivore, as inflation lowers people’s paychecks.
But there’s a broader question: Is the right way to steer people away from meat, to offer highly processed imitations of hamburgers, sausages and steaks, or to steer them towards other vegetarian and vegan options that are less akin to traditional “meat”? (There is a third option: Some companies are pursuing attempts to make lab-grown meat from animal protein.)
“This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Frossard about switching to a less meat-heavy diet. As for overprocessed plant-based meats, he added: “We have to see if people will double up on the claim that they want it.”
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