During the early stage of the pandemic, consumers had trouble buying meat as food processing facilities shut temporarily to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, consumers turned to plant-based alternatives for protein in home-cooked meals. Many were first-time buyers. As a result, for a two-week period in March, plant-based meat sales grew 148%. Nielsen also reported that sales of all alternative meat products rose 264% in the nine weeks ending May 2.
The pandemic created space for more family time and motivations to make new food choices. People were making meals rather than eating out. They were reconnecting with food on multiple levels, reflecting more on where it comes from, how it’s produced, and what it means to eat healthy. Vegetarians and flexitarians have many reasons for moving to a plant-based diet, including environmental, health, and ethical considerations. Yet only 5% of American adults call themselves vegetarians, according to a Gallup poll.
While the plant-based meat industry has seen a significant sales bump from the coronavirus, there are some challenges to overcome in order to sustain that growth. More meat eaters need to become repeat customers at a faster pace. That means for the plant-based industry to go mainstream, it’s going to take more than appeals to health and conscience. It needs to become part of people’s everyday routines.
The simple truth is that today’s alternatives lack the pleasure associated with eating the real thing. For meat eaters to make plant-based protein options a routine part of their diet, the food has to be as satisfying as meat in every sense. The taste, texture, and smell have to all be right. Most people love eating a burger; there’s almost a romance to it. The smoky aroma, the moist, juicy flavor that fills the mouth, and the feeling of biting through a solid patty. A plant-based burger has to meet these expectations. When I worked at PepsiCo, I saw the diet soda trend come and go and iced coffee and tea steal market share away from soda as new generations of consumers wanted less-artificial and better-tasting alternatives. The message is clear: Taste and health are king, and always win when it comes to choice and loyalty.
Last year, my company, Motif, which uses biotechnology to brew food ingredients, surveyed more than 2,000 consumers who said they were open to eating plant-based foods, and asked them to indicate their top considerations when they purchase and eat food. Four in five (81%) said sustainability mattered, but taste and health both rated higher. Eighty-six percent rated taste as an important factor in choosing food, and 40% selected impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers who have tried plant-based meat alternatives say the products should taste better and be healthier, that there is too much salt and they are made with fats they’re trying to avoid.
But food isn’t just taste and nutrition. It also appeals to us on an emotional, cultural, and biological level. People connect meals with family and traditions. And while COVID-19 brought people back into their kitchens, where they were able to make more conscious, healthy decisions about their meals, people gravitate to comfort foods that are familiar. For many homes, this means meat. It’s a historic part of people’s diets, and it supplies calories and proteins for building muscle. And those benefits, along with taste, have driven people to consume significant amounts. Humans are hardwired to eat meat—and we love burgers.
That’s not to say we can’t be reprogrammed. Down the road we’ll see new plant-based foods that not only provide sources of protein and essential nutrients, but also deliver on the taste and experiential aspects consumers crave. These foods will stand on their own. And they’ll follow a similar trajectory as other foods that are relative newcomers to the U.S. market, like yogurt and hummus, both of which took time for Americans to get comfortable with. But the evolution for plant-based products will be more rapid due to the urgency of environmental concerns such as land use and climate change, and the acceleration of product development.
I care deeply about my health and the environment. I’m eating more plant-based meals because of that. It’s great to see other people doing so, too. But when our lives start to go back to normal and people have less time to pay attention to their food selections, our familiar inherent food-drivers will kick in and people will return to eating meat. For this plant-based trend to be sustainable, the food industry needs to address consumer preferences for better taste and nutrition in these new products instead of focusing on the environmental benefits alone. The pandemic created a tipping point for plant-based meat. Now it’s up to us as an industry to step up.
Jonathan McIntyre is CEO of Motif Foodworks. He was formerly head of R&D at Indigo Agriculture, SVP R&D at PepsiCo, and SVP at DuPont- Solae.