In 2020, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit group that has advocated for the meat, alcohol and tobacco industries, took aim at a new target: the plant-based meat industry
Its Super Bowl television advert showed children at a spelling competition trying to spell “methylcellulose”, an additive used in some packaged foods including fake meat burgers. “If you can’t spell it or pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it,” opined the voiceover.
The US ad hit a nerve. Among the common criticisms of plant-based meat — that it is pricey, still has an impact on the environment and does not taste as good as the animal meat it mimics — the one that the industry fears has stuck is the perception that the products contain too many additives and are highly processed.
In the wake of falling sales, insolvencies and fast-disappearing financing, the plant-based meat sector is now on a mission to win back consumers by explaining its manufacturing processes and highlighting what it says are the health benefits of plant-based meat.
Ethan Brown, founder and chief executive of sector leader Beyond Meat, said that between 2020 and 2022, the percentage of US consumers who believed plant-based meats were healthy dropped from 50 to 38.
“As a brand and category, we have significantly more work to do to reach the consumer on the health benefits,” Brown told the Financial Times, adding that the category needed to “unite around a single and impactful message” focused on process and ingredients.
In August, Beyond Meat launched a campaign with the slogan “There’s Goodness Here”, which shows farms where the raw material for its products is grown. It has also partnered with various medical institutions including the American Cancer Society and Stanford University to research the health impacts of a plant-based diet.
Impossible Foods, Beyond’s biggest competitor, has also increased its marketing efforts, creating ads that directly compare Impossible burgers to meat burgers, touting the products’ lack of cholesterol and lower saturated fat content.
Peter McGuinness, chief executive of Impossible Foods, pushed back against the perception that the company’s products were unhealthy, arguing that Impossible products were a good source of protein, iron and vitamin B, and unlike some animal meat products did not contain hormones.
“Sixty-five per cent of the whole grocery store is processed,” he added.
Plant-based meat manufacturers recreate the texture of meat by combining plant protein from foods such as peas or soya, binding agents, such as methylcellulose, plant oils, nutrients and flavours. These are fed through an extruder to produce a mixture that resembles mince, which is then shaped into products such as burgers and nuggets, or processed further to mimic cuts of meat such as bacon or steak.
Like most packaged food, plant-based meat has fallen under greater scrutiny amid the backlash against “ultra-processed” products, after a growing body of scientific research has linked them to obesity, cancer, heart problems and type 2 diabetes.
Companies are now realising that it is not enough just to replicate meat, said JP Frossard, analyst at Rabobank. “Consumers need to feel they are making a smart choice for their body. They need to fight not only to be a replacement, but be a better choice.”
A 2022 consumer survey carried out by the Boston Consulting Group found that 75 per cent of 3,700 respondents in seven countries said having a healthier diet was the main motivator for them to start eating alternative proteins.
Frossard points to the plant-based dairy industry, which has experienced consistent growth since it entered the marketplace, and has convinced consumers that products such as oat milk and plant-based cheese are better for them than dairy products. As a result, they can sell at a premium and consumers will not balk at the price.
When the current generation of plant-based meat products came to the market in the late 2010s, the primary selling point to customers was the benefit to the environment of eschewing meat. McGuinness argued it should have been the health benefits. “I don’t think enough time, attention, money was put on the quality of the products.”
Making products more appealing to health-conscious consumers comes at a difficult time for the industry, which originally benefited from the tail-end of a stock market boom following a period of record-low interest rates. Shares in Beyond Meat, for instance, surged after its 2019 initial public offering, with the company’s market capitalisation hitting almost $12bn.
However, investor enthusiasm for the sector waned amid higher interest rates and stagnating sales during the cost of living crisis. Beyond Meat is now worth about $560mn.
After a 47 per cent year-on-year jump in 2020 and sustained growth through the coronavirus pandemic years, US retail sales of plant-based meat dropped 9 per cent in the first quarter of 2023, according to data provider IRI.
New entrants into the sector have learned from the criticism of more established players and have focused more on health. New offerings include brands such as Planted and Heura, which each make chicken pieces with just four to five ingredients.
Carlotte Lucas, senior corporate engagement manager at plant-based advocacy group the Good Food Institute Europe said that more would come to market as the sector responded to “consumer expectations around taste, price and nutrition”.
Reducing the number of ingredients makes for what the food industry calls “clean label” — packaging that indicates trustworthy natural products, without artificial ingredients or those whose names consumers cannot pronounce.
Impossible’s McGuinness said the company was in the process of tweaking its recipes to improve taste, texture, flavour and nutritional content, adding that he was prepared to switch out ingredients that consumers had concerns about.
“If some folks have a problem with some of the stuff that is in our products, change it. I’d rather not spend . . . my money trying to explain an ingredient [that] people question.”
Some players in the alternative protein sector are not convinced that questions over health are the problem.
“The barriers for plant-based meat are not the level of processing but rather the taste and the cost,” said Didier Toubia, chief executive of Aleph Farms, a start-up that makes real meat grown in a lab. “A burger, which is primarily an indulgent food, is not considered healthy . . . it’s not fair to only focus on the plant-based hamburgers.”
Established players such as Impossible are confident the sector can return to growth if they keep improving the taste, price, impact and health of the products — despite the continued barrage of bad news and criticism.
“You can sit there and be a victim and say, ‘Oh, it’s unfair’. Or you can do something about it,” said McGuinness.