vegan meat alternatives are pretty much over - but why?

5 mins
14 Aug 2023
vegan meat alternatives are pretty much over - but why?

Pioneering Beyond Meat has seen a large dip in sales so what does this say about our eating habits?

image The Menu TSG Entertainment 2022

words Rhys Thomas

Just under a quarter of the global population is vegetarian. Many of these people have always been meat-free, partly through culture and religion, but also economic necessity. Across western society, we’re seeing more people make the switch to flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets, but not quite for the same reasons. Here, along with animal welfare and environmental concerns, much of it is down to health.

Almost half of the people considering going vegan cite health as the primary driver, according to a survey from Mintel. But recently, Beyond Meat, one of previously lauded plant-based meat alternatives, has had a revenue drop of 31 percent year on year.

The official line for this loss of revenue is to do with the cost of living, a spokesperson detailing: "softer demand in the plant-based meat category, high inflation, rising interest rates, and ongoing concerns about the likelihood of a recession". And in fairness, Beyond Meat can cost roughly four times more per kilo than beef quarter pounders (at Sainsbury's right now, the plant-based patties are a whopping £22.50 per kilo; beef quarter pounders are £5.70 a kilo). But plant-based alternatives have always been expensive, and I’m not convinced that such a large proportion of people who were already spending lots on it have decided this is the thing to cut back on when amending their budgets. Sure, some might have switched back to meat or decided to just stock up on vegetables, which are even cheaper than both. This is backed up by the fact that the majority of the people in the world who are vegetarian are only vegetarian because it's cheaper. Part of that drop will be because Beyond Meat isn't the only fake meat brand stocked in supermarkets and faces more competition now. But really, I think the harsh fall in revenue is more about our perceptions of health than cost.

In, for example, Beyond Meat Plant-Based Burger Patties, the ingredients are “Water, pea protein* (16%), canola oil, coconut oil, rice protein, flavouring, stabiliser (methylcellulose), potato starch, apple extract, colour (beetroot red), maltodextrin, pomegranate extract, salt, potassium salt, concentrated lemon juice, maize vinegar, carrot powder, emulsifier (sunflower lecithin).”

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Other than the ominous sounding “flavouring”, most of these are ingredients we can just about comprehend. Proteins derived from rice and peas, fats from oils that we use in cooking, seasonings like salts, acids from juices, sweetness from carrots, a bit of potato starch to keep everything bound together. But it's arguably curious that we're conditioned to see beef as one ingredient, or mushrooms as one ingredient, as opposed to each a composite of minerals, hormones, vitamins, and more. This adds to our impression of what feels processed and what feels pure. The narrative around processed foods is that they're generally not great. As a result, people may deem less processed foods healthier. Including meat, so eat those instead.

Under the banner of so-called healthy foods, we have two broad sectors. On the one hand there's ultra-modern foods like plant-based alternatives to burgers and vegan/low sugar meal replacement drinks that still contain required daily minimums of vitamins and minerals. On the other hand there's a regression to the olden, pre-mass-produced food times: actual meat which people have been eating for thousands of years since the, yes, Palaeolithic times, with some people even eating it raw. There's also bone broth and simple vegetables. Many people eating with health considerations look to pick a side. It’s a curious fracturing of the health conscious.

Healthy food doesn’t equate to eating for holistic wellness, far from it. A portion of the people swapping out plant-based alternatives are likely people who are eating food to enjoy it, and the joy of eating can have mental health benefits in itself. These people might be increasingly thinking that these slabs of meat-free disc are a little unusual because of the highly processed mystery that makes them. So they might just switch back to meat, as it’s something they grew up with, understand more, and maybe prefer the taste of. But for those who stick with vegetarianism, or even veganism, yet are still straying from the plant-based alternatives, well, they might just be learning more and more interesting ways of cooking vegetables. After reading this, take a brief scroll through the food sections of TikTok and Instagram, you’ll see people showing you how to turn mushrooms, cauliflowers even canned banana blossom into delicious meaty bites.

For better or worse, we increasingly live in a world of binaries, and you could argue that plant-based alternatives are a middle ground. A grey area where you get the taste of meat but none of the baggage. Some people don’t really want that, though. Sure, it might be more expensive, it might be absolutely delicious, but it's an extra choice and it’s more of an unknown. The novelty of fake meat might be wearing off for some, and for others, it might be a case of trying to prioritise foods that are less processed and more comprehensible. It works for Beyond Meat to put a sudden dislike of their products down to money problems, because they may one day alleviate; what won't change is the ultra-process that turns plant-based products into a succulent umami meat-like burger. Regardless, there’s a clear shift in our approach to plant-based alternatives, and as Jessie J once said: it’s not about the money, money, money.

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