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Plant proteins are scaling up – but can they ever compete with meat?
Plant protein companies are investing in increased production capacity as demand has increased, but meat alternatives are still dwarfed by the meat industry.
The figures are impressive. Launches of plant-based meat alternatives accounted for 14% of all meat launches in 2018, according to Innova Market Insights, up from just 6% in 2013. And Barclay’s predicts the sector will reach a value of $140 billion over the next ten years. It’s still a tiny fraction of the global meat industry, however, which is valued at about $1.4 trillion.
Meanwhile, companies are pouring cash into the plant protein sector. In the United States alone – a current global hub for innovation in the sector – there have been 19 acquisitions of plant-based companies in the past ten years, including Danone’s $12.5 billion purchase of WhiteWave Foods. Beyond Meat has said it will triple sourcing of its pea protein in 2020 to keep up with demand, and Cargill invested $75 million in pea protein supplier Puris in August. In Europe, plant protein suppliers are investing in local facilities and production, including pea specialist Roquette, while the DonauSoja initiative aims to help European businesses become less reliant on imported soy.
On the other side of the equation, meat consumption is either static or falling in many developed markets as consumers increasingly are paying attention to its associated health, environmental and animal welfare issues. A recent EU report predicts that overall annual meat consumption in the bloc will decline by a modest 0.7 kg per capita over the next decade. However, in many developing markets like China and Brazil, meat consumption is on a steep incline, meaning that total EU meat production is expected to rise over the same period. In China, for instance, average per capita meat consumption has increased from just 4 kg in 1961 to 62 kg in 2013 – not far off the EU average of 64 kg.
It may seem obvious that in a world with increasing pressure on land and water resources, meat consumption is likely to become less desirable – and more expensive – over time. But taste remains a major factor, governing food choices more than any other. Cost, health and convenience round out the top four purchase drivers, but in developed markets, if a meat alternative is considered less tasty than its meat equivalent, researchers suggest that consumers are more likely to choose meat.
Manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives have struggled with the taste and texture of their products, and although some have made strides in this area in recent years, flavour off-notes and mushy or chewy textures still plague the sector. Suppliers and manufacturers have stepped up with potential solutions, such as Impossible Foods’ plant-based heme, said to give its meat alternatives their meaty flavour; extrusion technology allows for plant protein products with the texture and shear of meats like pulled pork or chicken; and flavour companies have come up with convincing, vegetarian, meat-like flavours.
But despite the hype, the innovation, and the investment, plant protein foods still have a long way to go. A recent survey from London-based intelligence firm Streetbees is a case in point. It found that fewer than half of US and UK consumers had heard of pea protein, which has been broadly promoted as one of the most promising new sources of plant protein. In its poll of nearly 1,600 consumers, 55% of people have never heard of pea protein, and only 24% were sure they had eaten it.
For those in the food industry, it may seem that plant protein has firmly entered the mainstream consciousness – but many consumers might still question that assessment.