Vegans and vegetarians are not necessarily the driving force behind the growing market for protein alternatives, industry stakeholders noted during a recent webinar hosted by the Center or Food Integrity.
During the event, MotivBase co-founder and chief executive officer Ujwal Arkalgud, who is also a cultural anthropologist and author, said one of the major themes he’s seeing in the growing market space is that the interest isn’t necessarily coming from vegans.
“It’s not just vegan culture that’s driving this; it is a renewed interest among consumers to introduce plant-based alternative protein sources into their daily or weekly diets,” Arkalgud said.
He added, “It’s not about it being a regular source of protein; it’s about having the choice and having the occasion to make that choice.”
David Ervin, vice president of alternative proteins for Tyson Foods, confirmed that meat lovers are driving the market growth and added that the market is clearly at a “tipping point” of consumer acceptance. In the past, he said taste was the biggest barrier, but improved products have sparked a renewed interest for consumers.
White Castle has experienced success through a partnership with Impossible Foods in which the restaurant started offering an Impossible Slider in 2018. After a limited-time offer, the company decided to place it in all of its restaurants as a permanent menu item.
“We felt it was important to have alternative choices for our customers,” said Jamie Richardson, vice president of corporate relations for White Castle.
While the hamburger is the heart and soul of the company, he said the Impossible Foods slider added variety for customers who were seeking different options.
“Candidly, sometimes it’s not a vegan customer. Often, it’s someone who’s getting a bacon double cheeseburger and one Impossible [Slider] to go. So, we’re seeing that with our smaller sandwiches, it’s a nice way to mix and match,” Richardson said.
Arkalgud noted that one of the drivers behind the growing trend is increased confusion in the marketplace about what consumers consider to be the quality of meat they buy.
“Fundamentally, fear on one side drives an interest in openness on the other side. So, if I’m unsure, as the consumer, about the quality or the consistency of the quality of the meat that I’m getting, then suddenly I go and consider alternatives every now and then, especially when it comes to my children,” he explained.
Another key factor is a growing interest in enriched foods, or functional foods.
“We are seeing consumers consider plant-based sources or alternative sources as being better suited to delivering a more enhanced nutritional value out of the things they eat,” Arkalgud said.
As opposed to traditional sources of protein, Arkalgud said alternatives are seen as improving nutrition.
Overall, he said the growth is not the result of a fad but is a trend.
According to Arkalgud, one critical insight that is being revealed “loud and clear” is that consumers have a different set of expectations when it comes to plant-based or protein alternatives than they do when it comes to traditional protein.
“Right now, a lot of the conversation, especially from a marketing perspective, is about how the alternative taste or the experience is just like the original, but I think this will evolve slowly, because what the consumer has always wanted was a different set of expectations,” he said.
These expectations surround issues like environmental sustainability, labeling, messaging, transparency in the supply chain and nutrition values, Arkalgud explained.
The bottom line is that while there are lots of different demand spaces, the expectations are new and emerging, and they are different, he noted.
“Because these expectations are different, we’re finding that it’s become a culture in and of itself. It’s relevant to about 40 million Americans, but it’s not going to become relevant to 80 million Americans tomorrow. It’s growing by about 4-5% year over year in terms of cultural relevance,” Arkalgud explained.
It’s a trend, but it’s a trend that’s slowly picking up speed, he added.
For Tyson, Ervin said the reality is that what’s next for meat alternatives is unknown.
“Labeling will be a big predicator for us as to how these will be accepted,” he said.
Ultimately, health and nutrition are what people are looking for, but the number-one barrier continues to be taste. As such, he said the two will have to be balanced.
That’s exactly what Tyson is focused on doing. Ervin relayed that Tyson soon will be launching a product in the fresh meat case that has Angus beef and pea protein in it.
“By adding half plant to half meat, we’re able to get all of the lusciousness that you get from meat but also are able to get the functional benefits of plant. So, we’re actually 60% less fat than a traditional 80/20 [percent fat] burger and 40% less calories than a traditional 80/20 burger. For those people that are looking for a super lean but yet super delicious burger, we will have an offering for them that will be launching in October.”
Arkalgud said over the next 12 months, many questions will emerge as the trend begins to slow. “What’s going to happen once the shiny new object is no longer shiny? What are the questions that are going to be raised? We are already seeing it happening,” he noted.
He said people are going to ask about specific preservatives as well as the level of processing, while other questions could emerge about whether protein alternatives aid or worsen the food waste issue -- “and, of course, nutrition is going to be a huge component of that as well.”
All of these questions, Arkalgud noted, will provide an opportunity for the traditional meat proteins to showcase their benefits.
The alternative protein market growth opens a door for all protein products, Arkalgud said, adding, “I don’t think any one industry is free from the pressures that consumers are exerting, and it applies to everybody.”
We have to focus on the “why” and not the “what,” he said.
“We live in a world where there is a new shiny object every two days. If we can focus on why people take an interest in something, then we can solve those problems many different ways,” Arkalgud said.