Interest in alternatives is certainly not new. However, enthusiasm in North America over the last couple of years and changing consumer habits as a result of COVID-19 could see these meat alternatives gaining greater market share more quickly than before.
For all meat producers this “new meat” threatens their market positions and, perhaps, the very survival of the industry. Poultry, however, may be better placed to confront these challenger proteins and may even be able to find opportunities to benefit from their rise.
There is no doubt that demand is growing for alternative proteins, with new products entering the alternative meat space growing by 13% over the last three years. The speed at which companies are entering the sector is accelerating - half of the new launches over the last three years made their debut in 2020 alone, noted Dasha Shor, Mintel global food analyst speaking at the International Poultry Council’s Resilience and Leadership in the International Poultry Supply Chain webinar series.
This quickening pace is expected to continue as the sector achieves more funding and becomes more innovative and, while Europe may currently be the largest and most established market for alternative meat products, it is North America where introductions are coming thick and fast. Yet interest would appear to be global, with interest also rising in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Alternative protein manufacturers have been smart, said Shor, with their focus firmly on flexitarians and omnivore consumers, not vegetarians.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, as only 8% of US adults say that they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, for example, the vegetarian market is small. Rather, with alternative protein producers replicating both the taste and texture of meat they have flexitarians and omnivore consumers firmly in their sights.
The range of hyper-realistic substitute meat products continues to grow and while sausages and burgers may be the products that are most familiar, alternatives are now encroaching into the chicken market.
But why do these products appeal to consumers, and how has COVID-19 increased this interest?
COVID-19 has heightened interest in health and how conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes not only increase healthcare costs but also, where the virus is concerned, affect survival rates of those infected.
While few would discourage this concern for health and wellbeing, perhaps more worrying is that most U.S. consumers believe that plant-based proteins are healthier than animal proteins. This does not mean that alternatives have already won the battle for consumers’ hearts and minds.
Where alternative proteins continue to fail is that they do not meet consumer expectations for transparency and naturalness. Many products are still too complex, with too many ingredients and are deemed to be too processed.
Four out of 10 consumers in the U.K. believe that it is unclear which ingredients are used in some of these meat-free foods, while three out of 10 believe that meat free foods are too processed to be healthier than meat.
It is in light of these concerns where meat, and particularly poultry, can continue to win.
Poultry meat, being a single ingredient, does not have to undergo the same degree of processing as these alternatives and has a healthy profile. For poultry, there is the additional benefit that it does not have the same connection to adverse health outcomes that have been associated with red meat consumption, especially processed red meat.
Consumers are expected to now pay greater awareness to how diet may put individuals at risk and to particularly pay more attention to foods that help weight management, support immune function and offer overall wellness benefits. Poultry is well-positioned to firmly establish itself in the health and wellness space.
Even before the pandemic, there was a growing interest in immune-boosting foods. For example, in China, five out 10 seniors are interested in foods that help with immunity while, in the USA, four out of 10 consumers who have not tried immune-boosting foods would be interested in trying them.
Highlighting the role of animal protein in health, in weight management and the importance of a balanced diet for immune health will become increasingly important if poultry meat is to continue to resonate with consumer demands.
Blended products bring consumers the benefits of both poultry and vegetables along with poultry’s texture and taste. | Courtesy Perdue
In some instances, poultry meat may be able to directly gain through the rise of alternatives, and this may be the case with blended products.
An example of a blended product is the Chicken Plus range from Purdue, combining chicken breast meat with vegetables. The product combines good animal protein with the health halo of vegetables. If offers the taste and texture of meat that consumers still want with all of the health aspects of plant ingredients – appealing to both worlds from a nutritional point of view.
Using smaller amounts of meat can help to boost its perceived value, whether this is in combination with vegetables or served on its own, and emphasizing the value of chicken, whatever value may mean to a particular consumer group, can help to keep the meat firmly in consumers’ minds.
Producers can remind consumers that a small amount of chicken can go a long way. A small amount of chicken can meet nutrient needs and help to promote overall health and wellbeing without buying an expensive alternative product.
Sustainability more important than ever
Consumer interest in sustainability has been growing for some time and, while it is taking a back seat during the worst of the pandemic, it will return to the consumer agenda.
However, COVID has changed what sustainability means for consumers. Once markets begin to return to normal, consumers will again want to know what companies are doing to protect animal welfare and the planet, but there will be a new dimension to consumers’ sustainability interests.
People and communications will form this new sustainability element. They will want companies that put protection of people protection of communities on a par with that of animals. Recent years have seen environmentally packing being a key component of product launches over recent years, but producers are likely to know have to prove their community credentials.
Consumers will be looking for local. This may be translated into national production, rather than imported, but the protection of people and communities will grow in importance. Consumers will want to know where their protein comes from.
Given the details that some processing plants have faced during the pandemic, consumers will become more concerned about hygiene and the safety of products.
Traceability and cultivating consumer trust will be central to all animal protein producers if they want to ensure their long-term survival, particularly given the zoonotic origins of COVID-19.
For those still concerned about the rise of alternative proteins, Mintel research from earlier this year might offer some additional reassurance. In May, the company asked consumers if they had become more interested in following a vegan diet and whether COVID-19 had made vegan diets more appealing. Very few people responded positively to these questions, suggesting that, for the time being, traditional easing habits still dominate.
Even with more alternative products entering the market, poultry still scores highly in terms of its health profile and cost. Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com
Can poultry survive the rise of alternative proteins?