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The role of plant-based, meatless meats in sustainable diets

July 27, 2017
Haley Swartz

FCRN member Haley Swartz is a Research Program Coordinator for the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics working with the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program. She researches food assistance programs and nutrition governance in developing and low- and middle-income countries. Haley holds a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Government, both from the University of Virginia.

While one patty sizzles on the grill, another bleeds onto your plate – but neither contains any beef. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two start-up companies making waves for their recent innovations in plant-based “meatlike” burgers.

The two American companies are not the first to create innovative alternative proteins (known as APs, such as tofu), meat analogues, or imitation meat (e.g. veggie burgers, tofurkey). Other start-ups such as Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats are creating animal-based cell-cultured meats. But Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the first start-ups to market their non-meat products to meat eaters (or “lovers,”), not vegetarians or vegans. The companies excel at targeted marketing: meatless meats bring to mind foods with all the sensory and nutritional benefits of meat without any of its environmental or health harms – but meatless meats are simply rebranded, repackaged, and reimagined meat analogues. After all, their products contain plants, just like veggie burgers. The difference in terminology between meatless meats and meat analogues or imitation meat is primarily in intended audience – not in substance.

Beets are the secret to Beyond Burger’s bleeding patty, while the “magic” ingredient that simulates sizzling fat in the Impossible Burger is genetically-modified plant-based heme, an iron-compound found in most animal muscles. The long-term health and nutrition impacts of meatless meat are not yet fully known. However, both the Beyond and Impossible Burger burgers contain 20 grams of plant protein per serving, relatively equivalent to one beef patty. Compared to normal burgers, these patties have significantly more calories (40-50 kcal per serving more) and sodium (about six times as much). The difference between beef and vegetable fats is also striking – the Impossible Burger has 15 grams of saturated fat (triple that of a beef burger) – and may contribute to any taste differential noticed by a serious meat eater.

Strategic marketing is the key to both start-up successes. Beyond Meat expressly focuses only on grocery stores: their Future of Protein mission is to “reimagine the meat section as the protein section of the store,” with their products placed alongside beef, chicken, and pork. Beyond Meat’s products – chicken strips, meat crumbles, and the signature burger patty – are sold in 11,000 grocery stores throughout the United States, with recent increases in higher-end “fast casual” restaurants.

Impossible Foods focuses distribution only to food service establishments and small restaurants. The company’s mission is to produce burgers with reduced environmental reliance, using life cycle assessment to estimate significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water and land use. The burger is currently the company’s only product, and it is only available in 10 cities throughout the United States. For now, Americans are the primary producers and consumers of meatless meats, but this could change in the coming years.

Cost Considerations: Are Meatless Meats Practical?

Both “meatless meat” options are more expensive than beef burgers. In grocery stores, the Beyond Burger sells for $5.99 for two quarter-pound patties. Compare this to a full pound of beef patties for $3 to $5. The Impossible Burger sells for $12 to $14 based on city location and additions (e.g. cheese). Compare this to beef burgers at fast food restaurants such as Burger King and McDonald’s: with sides (e.g. soft drink, French fries), a total of $5 to $9. The relatively high cost of both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger reflect a combination of expensive production techniques and pricing schemes the companies know their targeted consumers can afford. Regardless of their desire to reduce their meat consumption and environmental footprint, lower-income individuals and families are ultimately priced out of the meatless meat market. 

Identifying the possible role meatless meats can play in our diets requires understanding the contexts in which we make our food choices. The table below provides the definitions for diets, sustainable diets, and food environments.

Those of us in high-income countries seem to have an insatiable appetite for meat. While poultry consumption has replaced high rates of beef consumption in America and many other countries around the world, our culture and taste preferences continue to promote meat. We still expect that at least one piece of meat – chicken, beef, or pork – will be on our plates at each meal, despite the unsustainable nature of these dietary patterns. Ultimately, perceptions and access to innovative products will determine the extent to which meatless meats will constitute a major, sustainable dietary change, as well as what types of food environments will encourage the substitution of animal protein with meatless meats.

Perception and Access

The marketing and price of the Impossible and Beyond Burger target consumers in one type of food environment – i.e. an environmentally-conscious urban, high-income meat eater. For this targeted demographic, the two start-ups excel at highlighting the emotive and sensory experience of eating meat. Research indicates meat-related behavior change stimulates strong affective reactions. Graça et al. finds an emotional dichotomy towards meat’s environmental impacts – “moral disengagement” by meat-eaters (i.e. ignorance, disassociation) and “meat disgust” by non-meat eaters (i.e. consciousness, intentionality). The extent to which the Beyond or Impossible Burger can find the balance in between these two extremes among high-income consumers will depend on perception. One obstacle is that consumers tend to perceive meat and meat substitutes as different product categories. However, consumers grouped meat and meat substitutes together in the case of processed meat and burgers, indicating attitude change is possible. Acceptance of meat substitutes is influenced by meal context, specific product attributes, and previous experiences with the product, highlighting the need for further research on the circumstances in which meatless meats are accepted or rejected by different groups of consumers.

By marketing towards meat eaters, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat do not challenge consumer preferences for animal protein or its associated cultural significance. The start-ups’ message – that their products reduce environmental degradation and taste great – is irrelevant to lower-income consumers because they can neither access nor afford it. Innovative start-ups must invest in a variety of food environments and find ways to lower costs. The first step to expanding AP market share is to reduce physical access barriers – expanding distribution to a variety of grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Without reaching the majority of consumers, meatless meats will have a negligible impact on enhancing sustainable diets for all.

Ultimately, cost and convenience are crucial to an AP product’s success for consumers of all income levels. Further, there is a lack of research regarding the sensory experience of meat substitutes – including not only meatless meats but recent innovations in lab-grown meats – particularly among lower-income consumers in a variety of food environments. The challenge for meatless meat producers such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat is to replicate the “textured, flavorful, juicy, and chewy” sensory experience of eating meat – and provide access to consumers outside their primary target audience in order to have a substantial impact on sustainable diets. 

We welcome you to post your comments, input and questions on this post below. Some of the questions worth exploring might be:

  1. Within the vegetarian and vegan communities, are there debates about the merits, practicality, and ethics of meatless meat? If so, how do the views differ from the ones expressed in this piece?
  2. Given that many start-up food companies use innovative techniques and ingredients in formulating their products, do you think further research needs to critically analyse a broader consumer base, inclusive of lower-income households, as to the acceptability of genetic modification (GM)?
  3. Meat substitute consumption is not only an issue relevant to the situation in developed countries, since the densely populous BRICS countries (China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa) consume high levels of meat in aggragate and increasingly per capita. Given the projected rise in demand for meat within the BRICS countries in the coming decades, should we discuss the practicality of introducing meatless meats in these contexts (particularly in China)? How do perceptions of meatless meats differ in other countries around the world, and should the focus be on increasing access and affordability? If you are commenting on this question,  country are you based in, and what are your experiences with plant-based meat substitutes?

We look forward to hearing your opinions in the comment section below. (Note that you will need to be logged in as a member to comment. Register here or login here).

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Will Nicholson's picture
Submitted by Will Nicholson on

Interesting blog!  Here is my tuppence :-)

I am vegetarian, and I find the meat-replacements quite offputting because I don't want my food to resemble meat.  But folks like me are not the target market.  A bigger concern sounds like te nutritional impacts and whether these companies can bridge the gap and provide healthy meat-like alternatives.  The meat vs veg health benefits shouldn't be ignored in the name of low GHG.

The use of biotechnology will be a barrier in some countries, where perception of GMOs are largely negative, regardless of actual risk etc etc.  Which creates a possible catch22 : not sure if this is evidence backed, but my gut feeling is that (in developed countries) wealthier social groups are more snobby about GMOs, but they are the ones who can afford these products.  Poorer groups have less choice available, but are priced out of the market here.  Poorer countries as a whole will of course need a major price drop, but again, with questionable nutritional benefits is this a food product that is going to help in countries like China, Mexico, Brazil etc with increasing obesity rates?

Which points towards these products currently only taking a niche role, as you say.

As an ex-chef, I see one of the bigger issues being cooking skills, especially with younger people but also with older groups when it comes to preparing and cooking plant-based meals in creative and exciting ways.  We need to focus a lot more on this - my clients are food service businesses and to be honest the skill levels for cooking dishes that are 90-100% plant-based are quite low (beyond pasta carbonara!).  People don't really know how to cook with mainly plants and they end up just piling more veg into a "meaty dish", taking the meat out, and hoping for the best.  Or making plant-based versions of meat dishes (a la chili sin carne etc etc). Skills and education need to move this forward. 

Which is a bit off topic, but maybe a different take on what we mean by "meat substitution" and where the challenges lie.

thais.martins's picture
Submitted by thais.martins (not verified) on

As a long term vegetarian (and Brazilian) I would be really interested to see how meat substitute products that resemble meat would do in Brazil.

Since 1990 when I became vegetarian, ideas have been changing and vegetarianism (and veganism!) is becoming a hit in Brazil. However, the focus seems to have been cooking without meat substitutes.  Brazil is a largely carnivore country (we are very fond of massive barbecues in Brazil) and Brazilians do not look at meat substitutes with kind eyes. In my opinion, the more it looks and tastes and barbecues like meat the more chances we have to convince Brazilians. Otherwise the option is to ignore meat substitutes and create meals totally without them:)- which is what seems to be more common there...


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