Americans are quitting plant-based meat in droves due to high prices, worse taste, and questionable health benefits
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Meat producers have nothing to fear from Fake Meat. Plant-based meat looked poised to change the world — but then Americans stopped buying it.
In 2020, retail sales of plant-based meat grew 45%, surpassing the $1 billion mark for the first time. Increasing awareness of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, in addition to climate change and animal welfare concerns, nudged many Americans to give fake meat a shot.
The nature of the pandemic helped sales as well. Many consumers faced meat shortages, had extra cash to spend, and sought something new to break up the day-to-day monotony.
But things have changed over the past year.
As of December, supermarket sales of refrigerated plant-based meat had fallen 14% vs. the prior year, according to the retail data company IRI. Orders of plant-based burgers at food service outlets were down 9% in November compared to 2019.
The slowdown is among the reasons Beyond Meat — whose stock price has fallen nearly 75% in the last year — laid off 20% of its workforce in 2022. Despite seeing 50% retail sales growth last year, Impossible Foods let go of 6% of its employees last October and is reportedly planning to shrink its headcount by an additional 20%.
An Impossible spokesperson commented on the company’s recent workforce reduction.
“We took steps last week to position our business for sustainable, balanced growth over the long term by bringing our costs more in line with our revenue, which includes reducing our workforce. We remain confident in our business’s strength and future growth, and we’re grateful to all of the talented, dedicated employees who have contributed to our mission.”
If inflation was the only reason for the industry’s struggles, there’d be less cause for concern. Plant-based meat is still two- to four times as expensive as traditional meat, according to the Good Food Institute, so many fake meat fans may have simply cut back temporarily to save money.
Some experts, however, say the industry’s problems run deeper.
Questionable taste and health benefits are scaring off consumers
First, it’s unclear whether the plant-based meat industry has a growing customer base.
In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 5% of Americans were vegetarians, in line with the 5% and 6% reported in 2012 and 2001. The same poll found the share of vegans increased from 2% in 2012 to 3% in 2018. Last year, the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 6% of the US population were vegan or vegetarian, though some surveys suggest the share could be higher.
Given there doesn’t appear to have been a surge in vegetarians, the 2020 sales spike was likely driven by meat eaters and “flexitarians,” people who eat meat but are trying to reduce their consumption. But for a variety of reasons, some of these people aren’t sticking with plant-based meat.
It’s a “great product for a small subset of the population,” Brian Yarbrough, a consumer research analyst at Edward Jones, previously told Insider, but a “difficult sell for most consumers.”
Many Americans say plant-based meat disappoints on the all-important issue of taste, and some experts think the industry’s efforts to compare plant-based meat to the real thing is a losing battle.
“The mimicking of real meat introduces that comparison of authenticity,” Steffen Jahn, a University of Oregon marketing professor who studies consumer food choices, told The Washington Post, adding, “They try to mimic it and say, ‘We’re almost real.’ But then some people will say, ‘Yeah, but you’re not really real.'”
Additionally, while plant-based meat has environmental benefits, growing research suggests it may not be much healthier than traditional meat, something consumers are beginning to suspect.
“Nobody should be under the illusion that these are health foods,” Michael Greger, a physician and founder of NutritionFacts.org, told Bloomberg.
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