The demand for alternative protein products may have appeared to be growing few years ago, but the novelty is wearing off, said Maeve Webster, CEO of Menu Matters.
While speaking during the 2022 Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit on May 11 in Kansas City, Missouri, Webster cited recent research that offered a look into trends involving meat and poultry alternatives like plant-based proteins.
The survey Webster referenced showed that alternative protein categories may be seen as “less scary” than they were two years ago, as 62% of those surveyed said they have tried alternative proteins, compared to two years earlier when only 42% said they had tried them. And of that 62%, nearly two-thirds said they would continue to purchase such products. But, she added that the vast majority of those will continue to consumer traditional meat and poultry, while only consuming the alternative products “every once in a great while.”
“The numbers for these categories are actually on the decline,” she said. “There’s a lot of trial. They’re kind of like the shiny new object that everybody gets distracted by, but they are not maintaining, and a lot of it has to do with a lack of transparency and opacity, as well as some issues around taste and texture. In the end, it’s not really satisfying.”
Alternative protein sector hurting itself
Webster said that the alternative protein sector hasn’t necessarily been transparent about the ingredients used or the processes involved in making these products. Instead, the industry played on consumer concerns about sustainability, touting their products as more sustainable than animal-based proteins.
The industry leaders – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – also got their products into major restaurants and glommed onto their images, she said. That created a perception that if McDonald’s and Burger King had enough confidence in these products to put them on their menus, they must be products in which consumers could also have confidence.
But consumers still do not have a clear picture of what is in these alternative proteins, or how they are produced, and Webster said the industry hasn’t done a good job of explaining it, which isn’t helping consumers desire them.
“This issue of transparency around what these products are is probably the biggest Achilles heel that this entire category has. There’s a lot of talk around what these products can do for you with regard to health, in particular around sustainability, but (consumers are asking) is this all true, and what exactly am I eating,” she said.
Webster compared the public’s lack of knowledge of these products to their lack of knowledge about COVID-19 vaccines. In both cases, people wondered what they would really be putting into their bodies, and would the health effects be beneficial or harmful.
“There are mounting concerns around what exactly these products are, and what will they mean to consumers long-term,” she said.