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Is plant-based meat dying, or is the industry just feeling growing pains?

What do the recent struggles of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods mean for the future of the alt-meat space?

Is plant-based meat dying, or is the industry just feeling growing pains?
[Source photo: Hoowy/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

The death knell of plant-based meat is ringing once again. According to features published last week by Bloomberg and The Washington Post, sales of brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been plummeting toward oblivion since enjoying a surge in popularity during 2020, when everyone was bored at home and craving some novelty. That it was a sustainable alternative to farmed meat helped generate some momentary interest. However, customers have grown tired of the taste of near-meat, inevitably preferring the real thing. They’ve also wised up to the fact that these plant-based products are processed and contain ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen. And “processed,” of course, equals “unhealthy.”

Before we pour one out for meatless burgers, though, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Detractors have been predicting the end of plant-based meat alternatives for as long as they’ve been around. Even before the 2020 lockdown—what many consider plant meat’s peak moment—food critics and business leaders were gunning for its downfall.

But the average consumer isn’t necessarily concerned about whether their diet is unimpeachably healthy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than a third of Americans eat fast food daily. Yet no other fast-food category seems to get as much heat as plant-based meat. No one is trying to break the news that McDonald’s french fries, for instance, are nutritionally lacking. Everyone already knows that. Yet people roll up to the drive-through because they want cheap, convenient, “craveable” foods. Despite the paternalistic panic some critics seem to have over what the American public is eating, customers are capable of reading nutrition labels—if and when they want to.

In any case, plant-based meats are still generally healthier than the traditional meat products they’re aiming to imitate. While it’s true that these new-wave plant meats aren’t as healthy as whole fruits or vegetables, much of the concern is overblown or seriously biased.

Misleading headlines dramatically exaggerate the nutritional drawbacks and draw broad, unfounded conclusions about plant-based meats. For instance, a Newsweek headline last year called “fake” meat “less nutritious” than the “real thing,” though the scientist quoted in the article offers a much more nuanced assessment.

Terms like processed and GMO spark emotional reactions, but there isn’t really any hard data to back up the panic. At the end of the day, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are comparable to their animal-flesh counterparts in terms of protein, fat, and sodium. Yet they lack undesirable elements like cholesterol and probable carcinogens.

Despite what the latest media hit jobs argue, plant-based meat isn’t lagging in terms of business—the entire economy is. Detractors are jumping to unfounded conclusions in their analysis of the market. The Bloomberg article cites layoffs at Impossible Foods, “plummeting” sales, and . . . some internet controversy about whether or not Kim Kardashian actually swallowed a bite of a Beyond burger. However, the numbers aren’t as dramatic as the press might make you believe: Sales “plummeted” by only 14%. Considering that the economy as a whole is struggling these days, a drop of that size isn’t particularly telling about the future of the industry.

In difficult economic conditions, companies across the board are going to struggle. The meat titan Tyson is also facing layoffs, which no one interprets as a sign of the meat industry’s end times. It would be unrealistic to expect plant meat’s star to continue to rise while everyone else, including partner brands, fights to stay above water.

There are legitimate problems with alt-meat as it exists now. It’s more expensive than regular meat (although it’s possible that could change), and few customers are willing or able to pay a premium for a more planet-friendly cookout. Studies commissioned by the meat industry show that consumers perceive meat as superior to alt-meat in almost every respect, including taste and appearance. But as with any developing technology, it will take some time to work out those kinks.

Bruce Friedrich, founder and president of the Good Food Institute, says that giving up on alt-protein now would be like “abandoning solar in 1986 or electric vehicles in 2003.” As food scientists have more time to engage in research and development, alt-meat is only going to get better, tastier, and more affordable. Upending the way humans have eaten for millennia is not going to happen overnight.

The plant-based-meat industry is still nascent, and in its short life thus far it’s made some huge strides—landing in retailers like CVS and Costco around the country, partnering with some of the world’s most recognizable chains like Burger King and KFC, and perhaps most impressive of all, convincing lifelong meat eaters to try something new. The alarmist headlines are reactionary at best, and seem to be laden with schadenfreude from those rooting for the alt-meat space to fail.

Of course, we should all be rooting for plant-based meat to succeed, because what’s good for the planet is good for all of us. Producing an Impossible Burger uses 87% fewer greenhouse gasses and 75% less water than a traditional beef burger. A Beyond Burger uses 93% less land.

Climate change is already making its mark on the planet, threatening ecosystems and life as we know it. And those who claim to be concerned with human health should be aware that people will get sick and die as a result of climate change, due to heat-related incidents, the exacerbation of chronic conditions, food-borne illnesses, heightened risk of pandemics, and exposure to pollutants. That’s to say nothing of the moral crisis of raising and slaughtering 80 billion land animals in factory farms each year.

Out-of-touch elites love to point to nutritional drawbacks that the average American just doesn’t really care about. Meat alternatives aren’t perfect, but they’re rapidly becoming cheaper and tastier than ever as the newborn industry develops. With time, it seems they’ll continue to do so. And most important, they could be our best bet for saving the planet. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have gone from fringe experiments to household names in a short period of time. With patience and support, there’s no telling how much further they can go.

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Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Kateman is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017). More