What’s All This Buzz About Alternative Proteins
by John Lundeen, Senior Executive Director, Market Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff
There is a presumptive tone in the media about the desire for consumers to move to plant-based proteins and meat alternatives. Yes, there is a market for these items, in fact this market has existed for decades. Consequently, the grocery store operator or restauranteur will find a consumer for this type of alternative product. The key questions are whether this behavior is substantial, is growing, and if growing, at what speed. Check-off funded market research indicates slow growth and interest in the more exotic meat substitutes, at best.
Every day one sees press articles about the consumer shift to plant based proteins. Or the investments being made by Silicon Valley venture capitalists in new companies that will offer alternatives to conventionally raised animal protein. Or distribution wins for these organizations, with their new products being featured in a leading natural grocery chain or innovative restaurant. Or stories about senior executives with animal protein experience joining one of these start-up organizations that plan to “revolutionize” protein marketing.
Most speak with a tone of inevitability. Most emphasize their protein alternative as a more humane, more sustainable, more nutritious, sometimes less expensive alternative to animal based protein.
This article will not attempt to determine whether these new businesses will succeed or not – there are already successes on the market, if one considers, for example, the sales increases that nut and soy based dairy beverages have enjoyed. Success will be predicated on each company’s strategy, promotional spending (just how deep are their pockets?), product taste, consumer interest and price … information which the author is not privy to. Instead the article will focus on two important points which indicate how steep a climb it will be for these companies to succeed:
- What has been the success to date of organizations working to convince consumers to buy alternatives to the traditional animal proteins (beef, veal, chicken, pork, lamb and seafood)?
- Does the consumer look ready to embrace the really radical new protein options being proposed? For this discussion that will include crickets and mealworms as a dinner choice or lab grown meat. Excluded from the discussion are soy alternatives (this is not a new innovation … the Boca Burger was introduced in 1979, and purchased by Kraft Foods in 2000).1 Likewise the McVeggie is on the menu of McDonald’s in India (consisting of a fried, breaded patty of ground vegetables, with lettuce and ketchup, in a whole wheat, sesame or focaccia bun).2 Once again, a veggie based burger is not earth shattering.
Success to Date
One of the longest campaigns against animal protein consumption is Meatless Mondays. This emphasis of this campaign began in 2003, with a simple message to eliminate animal protein one day a week.3
Let’s start with a bit of context. In 2003, 50 percent of in-home dinner meals included beef, chicken, seafood or pork. In 2013, 49 percent of dinner meals included beef, chicken, seafood or pork.4 Two points are important here. First, there have always been a significant number of dinner meals without a traditional meat as the centerpiece. So, you could argue that in 2000, 50 percent of dinner meals were indeed “Meatless Meals.” The second point is that there has been very little erosion in the percentage of dinners with meat, despite the recessionary market that still existed in 2013, and the significant reduction in protein supply as a result of draught and high feed prices in America.
The check-off funded Consumer Image Index is a nationally representative survey of adults aged 18-65 years old, with standard security screening. All of the respondents indicate at least minimal involvement in food shopping and meal decisions within their household. An indication of the inclusiveness of the survey, is the fact that 55 percent of the respondents had noted buying some type of organic product in the past 12 months. Other standard steps are taken to cleanse the data, eliminating, for example respondents that are “speeders” (take the survey at a speed that indicates the respondent could not be reading the questions) or “straight-liners” (providing the same answer to the majority of questions).
In the October, 2015 Consumer Image Index, a question was asked about the product that was eaten instead of meat “when you intentionally make or order a meal without meat.”
The consumer appears to make two choices in these situations. One is to make a meatless version of a dish they already have in their repertoire. The second is to switch to veggies, fruit, yogurt or nuts.
Meat substitutes (TVP, Tofu, Tempeh, Fungus, Seitan) were the #18 choice on the list provided, with a response rate of 13 percent.5 Our conclusion is that “swapping out the meat” for a meat analogue is not the go-to solution for most consumers.
In the checkoff funded October 2015 Consumer Image Index, the consumer was asked “which of the following best describes your attitude regarding meat substitutes versus traditional meat-based meals."6
Our interpretation of the data is that only 7 percent of the population could be seen as ardent meat substitute supporters (option 4). Certainly a vegetarian would have picked this alternative, in which case, no significant loss of beef volume would occur.
Note that younger “socially conscious” consumers were more likely to answer option three in the chart above and less likely to answer option two. There was not a significant difference in the percentage that were ardent supporters of meat substitutes (option four). It will be important for the beef industry to continue emphasizing the reality of low stress animal practices and ongoing improvements in sustainability, since younger consumers seem somewhat more open to meat replacement, and expect a discussion about production practices in forming their opinions about any industry.
Finally, a look at the more exotic meat substitutes, lab grown meat and edible bugs. One must recognize that there is always “noise” in any survey. We note this because 13 percent of the survey respondents noted having tried lab grown/cultured meat. To our knowledge, only a handful of people in the world have actually eaten lab grown meat. Thus, perceptions of trial in this case are preceding actual usage.
Non-meat meals have always existed. New companies providing meatless solutions may find success, but it will be largely by stealing share from existing meatless alternatives. If these new alternatives do not taste as good as beef, they will find survival as a business daunting. The beef industry must continue to tell its environmental story and the increasing norm in adopting low stress animal handling practices. Beef’s nutrient density must also be emphasized. This will mitigate the sales appeal of these competitive protein products. If the real facts are about beef are part of the purchase decision, beef should retain its share of the grocery and foodservice markets.
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boca_Burger
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veggie_burger
- The NPD Group/National Eating Trends/In-Home Database, data for two years, ending August.
- Consumer Image Index, October 2015.
- Consumer Image Index, October 2015.