The problem with plants

In recent years, plant-based brands could do no wrong—touted as the antidote to the environmental and health evils of big meat and dairy. But the glow is fading and consumer perceptions are shifting; the reasons are complicated and multifaceted. Plant-based meat brands, in particular, are at a crossroads—forced to answer to consumer demands, expectations and concerns quickly if they hope to cement their space on supermarket shelves. So we’re diving into four key plant-based problem areas (and how to solve them).

1. The nutritional profile isn’t up to snuff.

At first glance, plant-based meats managed to coast thanks to their high-level designation; that is, the fact that they are inherently made from plants satisfied health- and eco-conscious consumers enough to sustain the initial buzz. But soon enough, consumers began to question: were plant-based meat alternatives really healthier than their animal-based counterparts?

Plant-based meat formulators are well aware of the issues, and working to find formulations that check the most important health-centric boxes. One easy way to achieve this is to work with new ingredient innovations that can help improve their nutritional panel. For instance, finding ways to increase protein levels and reduce calories, sodium and saturated fat (while also improving taste and texture).

2. The sustainability impact is coming into question.

While the general consensus remains that the production of plant-based meats has a lesser impact on the environment, some critics want more details. Ricardo San Martin, research director of the alternative meats program at the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times that the plant-based meat space is “really a black box” and that “so much of what is in these products is undisclosed.”

That makes it hard for environmentalists to determine the exact impact of each brand’s supply chain; they argue that because deforestation for agricultural purposes also contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based meats are not free from environmental impact. What’s more, certain oils commonly used in plant-based meats are causing a stir. Palm and coconut oil, for example, are associated with widespread deforestation and human rights issues.

As the industry evolves, plant-based meat brands can get ahead by being ultra-transparent about their production and ingredient sourcing practices. It’s also best to find vegan fat alternatives that have a reputation for being more eco-friendly, such as those derived from rapeseed oil.

3. Plant-based meats are expensive.

The price of a pound of ground beef typically hovers somewhere around $4, while a quick Google search shows prices between $5.99 and $9.99 for the plant-based alternatives from leading brands. The bad news is, R&D in this space has been costly; the good news is, it’s getting cheaper. In fact, plant-based meats are expected to be on par with the cost of real meat by as soon as 2023. And the magic ingredients aren’t locked up in brand-specific vaults. In fact, food scientists are finally cracking the code on ingredients that once seemed too good to be true because of formulation challenges and digestive side effects (particularly alternative fats). As ingredient innovation continues, brands will find ways to bring manufacturing costs down while greatly improving quality.

4. They don’t satisfy like the real thing.

For plant-based meat advocates, this may be the toughest pill to swallow. According to one survey, 73% of respondents said meat alternatives should mimic the taste of real meat; an overall deceleration and lack of loyalty in the category indicates that current offerings fall short. And while consumers are willing to sacrifice a smidge in the name of environment and health, plant-based products are far from where they need to be in terms of taste and texture. To grow even marginally beyond the current 1.5% market share (of all meat products), brands need products that satisfy the omnivorous masses.

To do this, most food scientists would say to focus on the fat since it’s key to the meaty taste, lubricity, mouthfeel and juiciness we know and love. Traditional plant-based fats can’t compete, partly because they tend to bleed out of the substrate quickly during cooking. The result is a greasy, unpleasant end product. Fortunately, new technologies are cracking the code, and it’s going a long way to improve plant-based meat products. 

Looking for ways to answer to consumer demands in this challenging category? EPG is a groundbreaking fat alternative made from plant-based oil that dramatically improves the sensory attributes of plant-based meats while reducing total calories from fat.

Talk to an Epogee plant-based meat expert today about ways to bring your brand to the next level.