It’s now clear that the hype is ahead of the sometimes not-so-tasty reality. U.S. plant-based meat sales are down more than 10% from a year earlier. The problem is basic: The problems that fake meat is designed to solve—from the climate impact of industrial farming to the health effects of meat—are all too real, but it offers solutions that appeal to far fewer consumers than expected.
Of course, the truth is that we eat not just for nutrition, but for enjoyment. Meat provides a strong, tasty, delicious experience that has so far been impossible to replicate.
When I asked around in a few weeks, I found very few fans of processed meat substitutes. “It’s so chewy,” a friend said. “Mushy,” said another. My oldest son made a face. The only person I could find who claimed it tasted like the real thing admitted that, in fact, she hadn’t tasted the real thing in over 20 years. Some vegetarians tell me they don’t mind and are happy to have it as an option on their fast food menu, while others tell me they like to use it in place of breakfast meats like sausage and bacon. But few people seem to think that plant-based meat is really delicious.
On the experts’ side, everyone from Wall Street short sellers to market researchers said that at least for now, many fake meat sales appear to be for people to test drive. “I think a lot of the demand is that people try it once,” said famed short seller Jim Chanos, when I called him to ask how the once-promising Beyond Meat ended up being one of the most popular shorts out there. He noted that the company was “unprofitable.” When I asked him what he thought of the offerings, he replied, “Put me in the category of people who have tried it.”
Health-wise, yes, these “meats” have significantly less saturated fat than real meat — but they also contain more sodium. They are highly processed products. “These aren’t your mom’s veggie burgers made with beans and other whole-plant ingredients,” warns a report released this year by advocacy group Food & Water Watch. The industrial food complex is a huge player, with companies like Tyson Foods and Cargill dominating the space.
These facts mean that many health-savvy people are still skeptical about adding these faux meats to their diets. “In an industrial setting, it feels the same as many other places where we think we can transcend nature,” said Kristin Lawless, author of “Formerly Called Food.”
The data shows that the new product doesn’t appear to have led to a significant reduction in meat – it’s more of a supermarket add-on. As a study published this year in the journal Nature dryly observed, “Interestingly, in a family’s first PBMA [plant-based meat alternatives] Buy, the consumption of minced meat did not fall. “
At a time when food costs are rising, these novelties become easy to dismiss. Of the people who told me they all love plant-based meat and eat it regularly (usually as a substitute for breakfast meat), several said they would eat less when inflation increased. This points to a major problem – faux meat is often more expensive than at least the budget version of real meat.
In other words, people want to do the right thing with the environment and their health — but don’t want to incur a huge cost to their taste buds or wallet.
It’s hard not to think about margarine. Back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, margarine quickly replaced butter in cooking. One ad declared that these things were so good they could “fool nature”. It’s not true, consumers know it. They just thought it was a healthier option. When it became apparent in the 1990s, sales disappeared. That’s not to say margarine isn’t with us anymore, but very little is being talked about as a substitute for butter.
What we’re seeing may be a brief pause, with the imitation meat market picking up as products and the economy improve. One reason for optimism: Overall, plant-based meat consumers are younger than other consumers, which means more room for growth.
But for those looking to stay on a vegan diet or cut back on meat, there is already a viable protein option. Like the doctor said, eat your peas…and other legumes like lentils and beans. Granted, they don’t taste like sausage or chicken. Then again, if you ask me, neither will copycats.