The Van Trump Report

Most Consumers Just Don’t Like “Fake Meat”

Plant-based meat alternatives hit the US market with a bang a few years ago to what seemed like enormous popularity. So much so that some US state have even moved to ban labeling these products as “meat.” The concerns about meat alternatives killing the livestock industry appear to be greatly overblown, however, as most Americans still prefer the real thing.

Sales of plant-based meat and seafood fell -12% in 2023 by value and nearly -20% by volume, according to a new report from The Good Food Institute (GFI). To put it another way, only 15% of US households purchased plant-based meat products in 2023, compared to 19% in 2022. And while sales for conventional meat and seafood have also declined over the past two years by about -6%, the plunge in alt-meat and seafood sales has been far steeper at around -26%.

“Consumers continue to see higher prices at the shelf, making the price gap between plant-based and their conventional counterparts a relevant challenge to plant-based brands hoping to reach a broader swath of consumers,” the report said.  Plant-based meat still carries a +77% price premium per pound compared to real meat, according to SPINS data for 2023.

Affordability is only part of the problem for alt-meat companies, though, with consumers also not impressed by the taste and texture of these products. According to GFI, around 50% of lapsed consumers claim they would buy a new plant-based meat product if they were offered a sample and found its taste and texture were exactly like conventional meat.

Meanwhile, 51% of US adults have never tried plant-based meat products. The alternative protein industry has often placed the blame for this on the meat-packing industry, claiming they are creating undo concerns about plant-based meat being “ultra-processed.” However, GFI data shows that US adults actually believe plant-based meat is “better” or “equal to” animal-based proteins.

Interestingly, that belief is not really supported by the science. A small-scale study published in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry shows that while some “plant steaks” and “plant cold cuts” might be comparable to meats on some fronts, their amino acid content and protein digestibility fall short.

The researchers, based in Italy, found that the tested plant-based products contained more carbohydrates, less protein, and reduced amino acid content than their meat-based counterparts. Different products also showed differing levels of digestibility due to the variety of ingredients they contain.

While that was only a small study, it backs up other data that indicates plant-based alternatives are not necessarily the healthy replacement their marketing departments would have you to believe. A US-based study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that opting for vegan meat products, such as faux sausages and burgers, does not provide a clear advantage for heart health and may even be associated with higher blood pressure in some cases.

Another study from the University of Goettingen in Germany found that supplementing reduced consumption of red and processed meat with plant-based meat alternatives had a positive effect on the intake of unsaturated fatty acids and dietary fiber, but showed no difference in energy intake and also resulted in lower intake of micronutrients, especially zinc and vitamin B12, as well as macronutrients such as protein. In addition, salt content as well as sodium levels were found to be significantly higher in the plant-based meat alternatives than in the corresponding meat products.

Bottom line, whole-food plant-based diets are considered to be beneficial to health, but that does not hold for vegan diets which contain high levels of ultra-processed foods, including many plant-based meat-alternatives. Convincing increasingly well-informed consumers to pay more for less nutritious food is likely to remain a major challenge for the alternative-meat industry. (Souces: AgFunder, FoodDive, LabManager, University of Goettingen, Good Food Institute)

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