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What Consumers Look For in Meat Substitutes

Mainstream trends of plant-based food adoption reveal valuable insights about growth opportunities within the meatless meat product category.

Mainstream trends of plant-based food adoption reveal valuable insights about growth opportunities within the meatless meat product category.

The Future Growth of Plant-Based Food

As more plant-based food companies offer a broad range of ready meals for flexitarians and "flavortarians," meatless meats are becoming a food staple for many households.

Categories have snowballed with extended consumer trials, leading to markedly improved products’ taste profiles. Thanks to food technology advances, plant-based products now come far closer to the texture and flavor of real meat.

According to recent Innova and YouGov consumer surveys, a generational divide is emerging in this space. Older Generation X consumers want nutritionally better products, while younger Generation Y and Z consumers tend to embrace food science for planet health.

Millennials and Gen Zers are more supportive of lab-grown, synthetic, cell-cultured products. Around 70 companies are cultivating artificial meat and fish in bioreactors today, and specialty meats are in the pipeline.

As a result of these different generational motivations, manufacturers and inventors will have to keep innovating while considering those two ends of the spectrum.

With the first baby boomers hitting retirement age by 2030, marketing plant-based foods effectively to seniors should focus on embracing the plant rather than mimicking meat or doubling down on science.


Critical Challenges of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

A 2021 Mintel U.S. plant-based proteins market report hints that the health halo effect of the term “plant-based” may be wearing off.

Products using other claims like the "all-natural" statement have historically followed a similar course, slowly losing meaning and credibility with consumers.

The study shows that 25% of plant-based product consumers don’t believe processed meat alternatives are healthier than the meat they are replacing.

These consumers prefer whole foods-based protein solutions, and over half confess that they would eat more plant-based options if they were as nutritionally dense as meat.

Radical transparency is becoming an expectation rather than a “nice to know” in the food industry. The demand for total openness regarding sourcing ingredients and processing practices through plant-based certification keeps rising.

Designing Meat Alternatives 3.0: Sticking to Essentials

Plant-based 3.0 will go beyond replacing animal proteins with plant products and will instead find new ingredients and processes that optimize their nutrient density.

When discussing plant-based meat alternatives, the processing is a key issue to consider alongside GMOs and additives. These new foods are highly or ultra-processed to resemble their meat counterparts.

A slew of observational studies linked diets high in UPFs to ill health in recent years. One systematic review and meta-analysis of these studies showed their consumption is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), depression and all-cause mortality.

Metabolic ward studies, where meals are provided to the study subjects, comparing composition matched processed vs. unprocessed diets, also show substantially higher caloric intake from the processed diet.

The risks may be tied to a few problematic ingredients:

  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), otherwise most commonly labeled as canola and sunflower oil
  • Wheat and other refined grains
  • Gluten cross-reactors, like casein
  • Synthetic nonfermentable fibers, like methylcellulose
  • Genetically modified soy
  • Additives and preservatives, like modified food starch
  • "First-generation" artificial sweeteners, like sucralose or aspartame
  • Artificial colors

A Cleaner, Wholesome Ingredient Portfolio

Today's savvy consumers are looking for protein adequacy in nonmeat foods. Some studies have suggested that many faux meat products have insufficient amounts of protein. Intakes of sodium have also been called into question.

However, one study compared consuming two or more servings per day of plant-based meat alternatives to equal servings from animal products and found similar sodium and protein intakes between diets.

Saturated fat intake is usually lower for the plant-based meat alternatives, which is good, but one trial noted a reduction in beneficial monounsaturated fats in diet composition.

Plant-based products in categories like desserts and bakery will need to use safer sugar substitutes to continue consumer adoption - natural sweeteners like xylitol, stevia, and monk fruit.

Overall, most interventions suggest a slight health benefit in generally healthy Western adults from consuming minimally processed plant-based meat alternatives compared with meats.

There are still some uncertainties about the long-term health effects of these foods due to a lack of data from cohort studies. These products are new, and cohort studies generally take decades to complete.

Future studies with longer timeframes should focus on bringing the more unprocessed versions of grains and legumes into our food culture or incorporate other protein alternatives like cell-based meat or insects.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Camille Bienvenu