July 22, 2024

Isobelle McClements was 13 when she came home from school and told her parents she was going vegan. Reading one book that delved into meat processing was all it took to convince her it was time for a lifestyle makeover. The logistics of seamlessly feeding a family is a big reason her parents followed suit.

That was a decade ago. These days, the freezer often has plant-based meatballs, sausages or nuggets. When dining out, a faux burger sometimes makes the cut. Her father, David Julian McClements, is a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies how to make such things healthier and tastier.

Yet everyone in the family prefers to prepare meat-free food using fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other ingredients. They can afford the more planet-friendly options now common in grocery stores, but have the time and means to make them from scratch. Of course, most people can’t do either of these things, which is a barrier to the wider adoption of beef, pork and chicken alternatives that can help the nation meet its climate goals.

“Finding good quality ingredients [and] bringing them all together and combining them into something that tastes good but is also affordable, healthy and sustainable is very, very challenging,” said McClements.

Pound for pound, plant-based mock meat costs average 77 percent more than their conventional counterparts. These proteins are typically heavily processed as they are made from things like soy and pea protein. “That’s partly why it’s so expensive.”

When you think about who buys these expensive proteins, an affluent, urban, Tesla-driving white woman who has sworn off all animal products might come to mind. The high tax bracket is often true, but the rest of that mental picture is a hackneyed misconception. Even the idea that only vegans or vegetarians buy it is not entirely the case.

Young and non-white consumers are most likely to eat plant-based meat, according to a May 2024 survey commissioned by alt-meat advocacy nonprofit the Good Food Institute. About 38 percent of Gen Z and 35 percent of Millennials report that they dine on such alternatives at least once a month, which is about twice the number of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who do. About one-third of Black and Latino consumers regularly eat meat substitutes, compared to one-fourth of white consumers. And just 2.79 percent of households put only plant-based proteins in the shopping cart. Almost 95 percent of them also buy the real deal.

Income is where the most striking inequalities lie. American households with a income approaching $100,000 is most likely to buy plant-based alternatives, but most of those earning less than $45,000 rarely do. One reason is federal assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, often provides too little financial help to make it affordable.

“It’s just a matter of cost, and if it’s going to be feasible for them, to make sure they make it through the month,” said Parker Gilkesson Davis, a senior analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy that feeds study and poverty.

About 12.5 percent of Americans are enrolled in SNAP, which provides a monthly benefit based on income, family size and certain expenses. In April 2023, the average benefit was $181.72 for a single person or $343 for a household. Making it last is a challenge when food prices rose by 25 percent in four years. Those working to reduce hunger argue that safety nets like SNAP haven’t kept up with inflation, dietary shifts and all that. climate change affects the food supply chain. When low-income residents struggle to buy meat with food stamps, it reinforces the fact that more expensive plant-based alternatives are only for the wealthy.

“SNAP has already fallen short in terms of supporting traditional diets, so adding other non-traditional items could be even more difficult,” she said. “There are many lower-income people who do want to consider non-traditional protein products or meat, but these products are more expensive, so we have to account.”

Of the plant-based meat, beef substitutes have the smallest premium at 20 percent more per pound as the real thing. This is because they have been around the longest, relatively speaking – hamburger analogues arrived about 15 years ago. Beef also tends to cost more than other meats (and wax becoming more expensive as climate change affects herd sizes), making the financial jump to its plant-based versions smaller.

And yet even those who can afford the alternatives seem to be cooling on them amid concern about them sustainability, nutritional value, and even their taste and texture. The $8.1 billion fake meat industry, which experienced sharp sales during the pandemic as the supply chain for conventional meat has collapsed, struggled last year. The industry’s sales volumes down 9 percent between 2022 and 2023, with a 2 percent decrease in revenue.

A variety of alt protein products in a grocery store.
Of all the plant-based proteins, beef substitutes command the smallest premium at 20 percent more per pound than the real thing. One reason is because they are the most established of the faux meats. ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images

Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, runs the Meat Demand Monitor, a database which monthly examines the meat buying habits of consumers. The trend he is seeing suggests that changing eating habits may have something to do with the market decline. In May, plant-based patties held 2 percent of the retail market and 4 percent of the food service market, which is half and a quarter, respectively, of the market share they controlled in May 2021, Tonsor said.

Declining volumes don’t help prices either. Conventional meats are commodities sold on a large scale for more than a century through a well-established and robust supply chain, with the benefit of government subsidies. All of this keeps costs down.

“Right now, plant-based meat products are not commodities, so that means plant-based brands tend to sell lower volumes,” said Daniel Gertner, a business analyst at Good Foods Institute. “They can, with those lower volumes, in certain cases make a higher net profit, but then a lot of that profit is reinvested in things like overheads, research and development, [and] marketing. With any emerging category, there is this need to just build the infrastructure from the ground up.”

The Bezos Earth Fund wants to boost the industry by finding ways to reduce the cost of plant-based alternatives to animal proteins.

“The food we eat is one third of global emissions. And if you look at where it comes from, half of it comes from animal foods, from livestock. So it’s a big piece of the emissions puzzle,” said Andy Jarvis, director of the fund.

In an effort to solve that mystery, the fund earmarked $100 million for the creation of three research centers – the first of which last opened month at North Carolina State University – focused on sustainable protein alternatives such as plant-based products, precision fermentation and cultured meat.

But the biggest obstacle to making plant-based protein a more viable alternative for everyone is the US government’s deep investment in the status quo. Washington spends up to $38 billion subsidizing the meat and dairy industries each yeara move that lasts prices artificially low. Meanwhile, nations around the world have invested a total of little more than $1 billion in the alternative protein industry.

“There’s no surprise that it’s not at price parity when you certainly don’t have a level playing field on the government support,” Jarvis said.

Except for a major federal intervention, one is similar to the financial support that catalyzed explosive growth in renewable energy, getting plant-based meats to a point where they can compete with conventional counterparts will take quite some time. Until that happens, it won’t matter if plant-based chicken tastes just like the real thing. Only when it is more affordable will more people be able to make a major lifestyle change, much like the McClements household once did.

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