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Is Plant-Based Meat Set to Be Replaced with Whole Food-Centric Alternatives?

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Widespread reports that plant-based meat is a sector in significant decline raises the question; what’s next for sustainable and ethical food trends?

While much of the naysaying surrounding plant-based meat can be attributed to inherently compromised sources–including the conventional meat and dairy industries–it is an unavoidable truth that in recent months a number of animal-free brands have fallen on hard times. However, the misfortunes of a few do not herald the state of play for an entire subset of the food manufacturing market.

If plant-based meat truly is experiencing a decline in popularity, it leaves a gap to be filled by another alternative to animal protein and industry insiders suggest that heart-healthy whole foods and vegetable-centric protein sources are set to become the next big thing.

The rise and plateau of plant-based meat

Arguably, 2019 was the beginning of what would be a fast-paced boom for the meat analogues niche. So much so that it has been reported that close to one-quarter of all food products launched that year were vegan-friendly.

The upward trajectory continued into 2020, resulting in the sector being valued at $1.4 billion. The Good Food Institute revealed that plant-based meat was a key driver for US retail sales, thanks to sustained growth between 2019 and 2022 that saw a 45% growth rate. Notably, the same report also revealed that repeat custom of plant-based meat was at more than 60% (63%), marking a potential long-term consumer shift away from meat.

Theories as to the rise in popularity of meat alternatives center around three main motivations: health concerns, sustainability, and animal welfare. The former became a pertinent factor as the world grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic but the stratospheric rise of alt-protein companies proved to be unsustainable.

Why is interest in plant-based meat declining?

Big names within the market have been held aloft as an example of the so-called “boom and bust” of vegan meat products. In the case of Beyond Meat, a lot of media attention focussed on personal falls from grace, plummeting share prices, and falling retail sales. Its singular story has been used as a marker of a sector in serious trouble.

Analysts have speculated that plant-based meat’s overall decline is due to a combination of cost, taste, and new trends. It’s no secret that price parity is a key selling point, with flexitarian consumers not always looking to pay more for a meat mimic that contains no actual animal protein. Flavor and texture concerns have also been raised as a potential sales-killer, with consumers claiming that meat analogues are not yet able to faithfully mimic the sensation of eating an animal protein product.

Earlier this year, the Kerry Group revealed data that claimed plant-based meat needs to be both tasty and delicious to convince consumers to buy it regularly. Additionally, findings included that diners look for deep umami notes, chargrilled, and smoky flavors.

Despite not maintaining 2019 levels of consumer interest, plant-based meat continues to weather the storm with brands releasing new products and announcing fresh tie-ins with major fast-food chains. And why? Because the health and environmental implications of meat consumption are more widely acknowledged and understood than ever before. With this comes a choice: change dietary habits or contribute to personal and planetary downfall.

The emergence of new protein alternatives

A new trend appears to be arising within the wider plant-based food sector that puts whole foods, including beans, pulses and fermented vegetables on the menu. What’s more, they are not trying to mimic meat in any way, nor are they aiming to replace products that do. Instead, they appear to be a whole new niche within the meat-free manufacturing world.

Three key players in the field are Better Tempeh, which produces flavored tempeh pieces for cooking with, Vegbloc, a new vegetable and bean-forward protein source, and Simplicity, which showcases fermented vegetable products. All three appear to highlight their nutritional superiority over traditional meat mimics, with Vegbloc also noting that it is minimally processed, to be a natural alternative to both animal meat and highly processed plant-based counterparts.

Vegbloc becomes even more interesting when you understand that its co-founder, Simon Day, previously founded Squeaky Bean, a well-known UK meat mimic operation that produces a range of deli meats, filets, and chorizo.

“Meat mimics will continue to have a big role in our food system I believe, but there have always been barriers to adoption amongst significant parts of the population,” Day told Plant Based World Pulse.

“When I worked on the meat mimic brand I created, reaction was split between fans and doubters. After leaving that business, I wanted to launch a product that would work for the latter. Something that would help people eat more plants and answer their concerns about the plant-based category as it stood. The barriers for some were mainly around perceptions of meat mimics as overly processed and less healthy, as well as a frustration with the constant comparisons to meat and consequent underselling of delicious plants!”

This potentially explains why, despite the death knell being rung for plant-based meat by the mainstream media, the meat-free food market as a whole is expected to reach a value of $77.8 billion by 2025. Moreover, predictions claim that 2020’s value will be more than doubled by 2030.

Rising numbers of plant-based eaters will drive food trends

“I passionately believe that plant-forward will become a powerful and much broader trend.,” Day told PBWP.

“With growing concerns around highly processed foods, increasing interest in gut health, growing understanding of the benefits of eating a real variety of plants and pressure on global land use, it seems inevitable to me that we will eat more plants. The good news is that it isn’t just necessary, it’s also delicious!”

Consumers are apparently being driven by a revitalized interest in ‘functional’ foods, alongside those that promote healthy gut biomes, making fermented products popular. This, in place of recreations of popular meat and dairy items. As such, companies such as Better Tempeh, Simplicity and Vegbloc are presented with an opportunity to take advantage of a slew of new or curious buyers.

Amy Buxton