Amid reports of declining sales in plant-based meat, many are beginning to believe the trend is becoming less popular. Sales began to flatten last year, since their unprecedented ascent in 2019. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, several factors could be at play.
Higher cost than conventional meat is considered one major factor. Due to inflation, consumer willingness to pay premium prices has dropped 9 percentage points.
Another major factor is consumer perception. Because health benefits are the primary selling-point, many consumers were misled into believing it applied to all plant-based meats. The survey further states that in 2021, nearly seven in 10 consumers (68%) who purchased plant-based meat believed it was healthier. That number has dropped by 8 percentage points.
Deloitte believes market saturation is another factor. Since it was introduced, an improvement in taste has garnered increased interest, yet based upon their insights, the number of consumers who purchase plant-based meat didn’t change in 2022. The 53% of consumers who don’t buy it have remained steady.
A less discernible, yet possible factor is consumer resistance to plant-based meat’s “wokeness.” In a recent Facebook post, homestyle restaurant Cracker Barrel announced the addition of Impossible Sausage to their breakfast menu. The announcement received surprising backlash, sparking a debate between traditionalists and “woke”-folk which has resulted in thousands of comments.
To best determine if these factors are the true culprits behind plant-based meat's decline, a closer look is required. Here are some things to keep in mind.
As an emerging market, it’s challenging to discern the actual trajectory of plant-based meat. Unlike conventional meat, the industry isn’t operating at scale yet, and that impacts the market in several ways.
An analysis by Good Food Institute found that ingredient and supply chain disruptions further skew the big picture. For example, Canada, the largest producer of yellow peas, which are commonly used in plant-based meat products, saw a 45 percent decrease in production as of September 2021 following a record-setting summer of drought. The below excerpt further details supply chain complications:
“Plant-based meat’s supply chain vulnerability stems from its position as an emerging industry that is largely not operating at scale or with the purchasing power of more developed categories. According to FMI’s The Power of Meat 2022, 38 percent of consumers reported seeing increases in out-of-stocks in the meat department in 2021. Market conditions resulted in changed meat and poultry purchasing patterns for 58 percent of consumers.”
Also, governmental subsidies tend to support the meat and dairy industry, which allows them to offer commodities for more affordable prices. Data published by the Agriculture Fairness Alliance states, “Rocked by trade wars and the coronavirus pandemic, the number of farm subsidies and bailouts in the U.S. doubled year-on-year from $20 billion to more than $50 billion in 2020. Of the total, over 60% was pocketed by meat, dairy milk and animal feed production firms, in what the U.S. nonprofit described as a 'blowout year' for some of the most 'unhealthy and environmentally damaging sectors' in the country.”
Deloitte is correct in suggesting that increasing transparency in the perception of its health benefits is key. While studies have shown that plant-based meat emits up to 90% less greenhouse gas than conventional meat, not many explore the potential health risks of processed proteins.
In an attempt to appeal to omnivores, many plant-based meats are processed to replicate their conventional counterparts. Frank Hu, a healthy-diet researcher from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says we should keep a watchful eye on plant-based meat products:
“[Of course], the data on the products like the Impossible Burger or other types of [similar] veggie burgers is still very limited. I think it’s very important to monitor the trends of the consumption patterns in the population and also monitor the health effects of those products, because some of those products, even though they contain high amounts of plant-based protein, may also contain unhealthy ingredients, such as high amounts of sodium or unhealthy fats. Being plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier.”
As you can imagine, this can be problematic when plant-based is marketed as a healthier alternative.
It’s important to look at the larger picture though, as Alliance For Science reports that only about 10 percent of Americans over the age of 18 consider themselves vegan or vegetarian as of January 2022. Comparatively, that’s only a drop in the food industry bucket which makes it challenging to make judgments. Short term data is subject to fluctuations and doesn't present an accurate long-term picture.
BusinessWire’s Global Plant-based Protein Market Report 2022 states, “According to MarketsandMarkets, the global plant-based protein market is estimated to be valued at USD 12.2 billion in 2022. It is projected to reach USD 17.4 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 7.3%, in terms of value between 2022 and 2027. The market is gaining momentum as more consumers look to shift away from conventional animal protein sources to plant-based foods and proteins.”