By DOUG SCHMITZ
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Despite sales of plant-based meat alternatives doubling in the past two years, this growth has not been enough to impact U.S. beef demand, according to a new study by University of Kentucky agricultural economists.
“We were surprised by the results,” said Shuoli Zhao, University of Kentucky assistant professor of agricultural economics and lead author of the study. “Those products are usually marketed as a competitor of red meat.”
Zhao and Yuqing Zheng, a fellow University of Kentucky agricultural economist and study co-author, collaborated with Wuyang Hu of The Ohio State University and Lingxiao Wang of the University of Wisconsin, to analyze Nielsen sales data collected from grocery and convenience stores across America between 2017 through 2020.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the study found only a small percentage of consumers have tried plant-based meat alternatives.
While plant-based meat alternatives were intended to serve as a substitute for beef, the researchers found consumers were often purchasing plant-based meat alternatives alongside beef and pork – and consumers were using the plant-based meat alternatives as a substitute for chicken, turkey and fish.
Published by Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy, the study said plant-based meat alternatives had $10 billion in global sales in 2018, more than $20 billion in 2020, and is expected to rise to $30 billion in the next five years.
“The demand is not currently there yet for plant-based meat alternatives to replace a portion of beef sales,” Zhao said.
Zheng said, “Even though the market has grown, plant-based meat alternatives only make up 0.5 percent of the fresh meat market share.”
The study also found that due to their high processing, plant-based meat alternatives often cost more than many other meat options and are currently priced similar to Angus beef; however, consumers were more likely to try plant-based meat alternatives if they were on sale.
“The plant-based meat alternative industry is a new industry that is still evolving and currently not at a consumer-friendly level due to the high prices,” Zhao said.
In 2019, the study said, “One of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc.’s top priorities was to battle false and deceptive marketing of ‘fake meat,’ which points to plant-based meat alternatives that contain meat-related wordings in their labels.”
In December 2019, the bill, the Real MEAT Act (or Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act of 2019) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate the labeling of plant-based meat alternatives with the word “imitation” immediately before the name of the product, along with a statement that the product is not derived from or does not contain any meat, the study said.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, researchers like Iowa State University meat scientist Rodrigo Tarté have been seeking to find alternatives for saturated animal fats that retain the original meat products’ desirable qualities of taste, texture and appearance.
“While animal fats can be part of a healthy diet,” he said, “a growing number of people want to reduce or avoid them. The meat industry is trying to adapt, and that’s where these new fats fit in.”
A new technology Tarté developed in collaboration with Nuria Acevedo, formerly of Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, uses a biphasic gel with both water- and oil-based components that can simulate solid and semi-solid animal fats.
He said this result overcomes a big industry challenge: holding up well as a replacement for semi-solid animal fats in foods like sausages, salami or bratwurst. He added the new gel could also replace highly-saturated vegetable-based fats, like coconut and palm oils, used in trendy vegetarian meat substitutes.
He said the gel has a very similar ‘mouthfeel’ and appearance as solid fat and holds up to being ground and further processed as part of meat or meat-like products that have larger, chunkier fat particles that give them a distinctive texture.
“This technology can allow food processors to tailor the fatty acid profiles of their products, while turning out items that taste and perform very much like the original,” he said. “It can replace fat on a one-to-one basis, using a combination of water and unsaturated plant-based oils like soybean oil, so it reduces fat overall and also uses those that might be considered more healthful.”
Supported primarily by the United Soybean Board, Tarté and Acevedo’s work reflects years of trial and error in the lab where the most promising outcomes were scaled up for inclusion in meat products.
However, one of the primary drawbacks to the biphasic gel is it requires both hot and cold processes to produce, whereas meat processors work almost solely in cold environments. As a result, Tarté said the new fats would be sourced from a third-party as is the case with many other food components.