AEarlier this year, McDonald’s launched a plant-based burger “sizzled on a flat grill, then topped with sliced onions, tangy pickles, shredded crispy lettuce, sliced Roma tomato, ketchup, mustard, mayo and a slice of melty American Cheese.” For a moment, it felt like a glimpse into the future.
The US test of the McPlant burger was quietly scrapped last month (it is still available in some markets, including the UK) in one of a series of setbacks for a meatless meat industry that , just a year ago, claimed she could change America’s big menu forever.
Getting meat eaters in the United States to embrace plant-based alternatives has proven to be a challenge. Beyond Meat, which produces a variety of plant-based products including imitation ground beef, burgers, sausages, meatballs and jerky, has had a tough 12 months as its stock plummeted by 70%.
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 slowing sales growth. Its chief operating officer was reportedly arrested last week for biting another man in the nose during a road rage confrontation.
It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune. Just two years ago, Beyond Meat, its competitor Impossible Foods, and the plant-based meat industry as a whole seemed poised to launch a 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 sausages, while more restaurants offered plant-based meat in their stores. menus. Burger King announced the launch of the Impossible Whopper, while other fast-food chains launched similar launches, such as a plant-based breakfast sausage sandwich at Dunkin’ and pepperoni pizza without meat at Pizza Hut.
For a time, Wall Street went vegetarian. In 2019, Beyond Meat was valued at more than $10bn (£8.9bn), more than Macy’s or Xerox. The most optimistic 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 meat turned out to be more complicated than investors thought, and the adoption of meat alternatives has been slower than once hoped. Today, Beyond Meat is valued at just over $900m (£799m).
The sobering story is similar to that experienced by many new companies who see exhilarating hype after a flood of Silicon Valley venture capital fueled by enthusiasm for innovation. Bill Gates has backed Beyond Meat, and a number of venture capital firms that typically invest in tech startups have funneled money into plant-based meat startups. Even the biggest players in the meat industry have, ironically, invested in companies that offer plant-based meat.
“I think the bulls in the industry had a very wild and very optimistic estimate of how big the market could grow,” 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 product is not cheap,” he added. “It will take time to change cultural practices. This will not happen overnight. »
Some investors thought plant-based meat would become what plant-based dairy alternatives have become in the dairy market, Baumgartner said. Dairy alternatives, such as almond, oat and soya milk, now account for 15% of the market and are worth $2.5bn (£2.2bn). A third of Americans drink some kind of non-dairy milk every week.
But plant-based meats are different. For one thing, milk alternatives have been around for decades, while the development of plant-based meat only really started about a decade ago. Lactose intolerance has caused many Americans to choose non-dairy milk. And unlike plant-based meat, which is typically as expensive or even slightly more expensive than regular meat, plant-based milks are priced between non-organic and organic milk, making their cost more accessible to consumers.
Both are, of course, better for animal welfare and potentially for fighting climate change, even more so than plant-based meat. Research has shown that reducing meat consumption is the single most effective thing 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 world citizen – is “essential” to avoid a climate disaster.
But consumers seem hesitant to adapt their behavior when the environment — not their health or their wallet — is the sole beneficiary. Despite growing concern 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 in 2018 said they were vegetarians, while 3% were vegans, according to a Gallup poll.
Even when participants in a study at Purdue University in Indiana were given information about the carbon footprint of meat production, participants were more likely to opt for regular meat over an alternative herbal.
Bhagyashree Katare, 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. . Many plant-based meat alternatives are comparable to their real meat counterparts in terms of nutritional content. The fact that it costs about the same as meat also diminishes its appeal to consumers.
“If I’m spending money in a restaurant and I’m a meat eater, why should I spend money on plant-based meat? I’d rather eat a real hamburger,” Katare said. is a technology, and it takes a long time for people to trust the technology and adopt it. I think that’s where the plant meat is. Maybe the technology will improve and that she will improve in health.
Different companies have taken different approaches to developing their plant-based meat products. Beyond Meat has focused on using natural ingredients, like pea protein, mung beans and brown rice, for its meat. Impossible Food, its Silicon Valley competitor, has taken a more technological approach, using genetic engineering and fermentation to make its meat substitutes.
The goal of many of these companies has largely been to develop a plant-based product that matches the texture, taste, and juiciness of real meat. While a Beyond Meat sausage or Impossible Burger is much closer to real meat than vegan sausages or veggie burgers, researchers are still trying to make plant-based meat tastier, healthier, and cheaper.
“It’s still pretty early days in the plant-based food industry,” said David Julian McClements, a professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies plant-based food alternatives. ” It’s very difficult. Meat has a very complicated structural architecture, a very complex fibrous structure… And this structure is what determines its appearance and texture, how it behaves in your mouth when you chew it, how chewy or juicy it is. .
In their arguments against plant-based meat, meat industry lobbyists have pointed out that these meat alternatives are processed foods. An ad campaign called them “ultra-processed knockoffs” and asked consumers “what’s in your plant-based meat?”
Plant-based meat has also struck a chord in America’s endless culture wars. In 2018 and 2019, ten conservative states banned the use of “meat” on the labels of products that are not derived from animals, targeting the plant-based meat industry. Republicans spoke out in 2021 that Democrats were tackling red meat as part of Joe Biden’s climate plan, though it was mostly based on speculation and false reports.
“It’s not going to happen in Texas!” State Governor Greg Abbott tweeted in response to false reports.
Despite opponents of plant-based meat, McClements is optimistic that science can provide better alternatives to meat, ones that will ultimately be harder for meat-eaters to resist.
“Just because he’s transformed doesn’t mean he’s unhealthy. You can design good nutrition and health into these products. Some companies really go to great lengths to achieve this.
There’s still a lot of money going to companies working on better alternatives. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes plant-based alternatives, estimated that these companies secured $1.4bn (£1.2bn) in funding in 2021 – a record for industry. The companies also make a wider range of products, including alternatives to fish and steak.
“The ideal situation is to make a product that is indistinguishable from meat, and that is cheaper, convenient and accessible,” McClements said. “Then if you have a choice between meat and this product, you always buy the plant-based one because you know it’s better for the environment, it’s definitely better for animal welfare, and it should be better for your health if designed correctly.”