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Will plant-based alternatives replace meat? Researchers say ‘unlikely’

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Consumers don’t spend less on meat, despite spending more on plant-based alternatives, a new study shows.

Plant-based meat alternatives have seen steep gains in popularity in recent years, thanks to advancements in food technology and innovation that have paved the way for a new generation of plant-based meat options that provide taste, texture and appearance similar to animal meats.

But plants won’t replace animal meat anytime soon, a new study shows (Appl Econ Perspect Policy. 2022;1-18).

Instead, plant-based options more often serve to “complement” animal meat purchases.

The study, published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, analyzed scanner data from Nielsen Scantrack to evaluate the demand for plant-based meat alternatives compared to fresh animal meats. 

For three years, from January 2017 to July 2020, researchers collected scanner data at major consumption outlets, including grocery, drug, big-box, club, dollar and military stores across 40 U.S. states and tracked plant-based meat alternatives, beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fresh fish and other meats (such as lamb and duck). 

The data captured 217 plant-based meat alternatives UPCs—with Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat brands accounting for 75% of plant-based category sales.

Results showed that plant-based meat alternatives comprised only 0.1% of average total expenditures on fresh meat during the study period. Beef led fresh meat sales with 46% market share, followed by chicken (23%), pork (12%), fish (12%), and turkey and other meats (less than 5% combined).

Importantly, the market share of plant-based meat options increased four-fold to 0.4% during the study period.

“Despite the booming popularity of the new generation plant-based meat alternatives in recent years, the actual demand remains low,” researchers wrote. “As revealed by our scanner data, the current market share of plant-based meat alternatives only ranged from 0.05% in Texas to 0.34% in North Carolina and Kansas, far below the average 46% market share for beef.”

Data showed price—and, specifically, the “promotion effect”—played a role in whether consumers purchased plant-based meat alternatives. When plant-based meat products—the category with the highest price tag after beef, costing an average of $4.84 per unit—were on sale, sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased. The increase in sales of plant-based meat products didn’t decrease sales of animal meats, however.

Reduced prices on beef and chicken lowered demand for plant-based meats, the study found.

“While existing brands in the plant-based meat alternatives category are mostly designed to mimic the sensory attributes of beef and market themselves as plant-based ‘burger patties’ or ‘ground beef,’ these plant-based meat alternatives products are not in a position to become a substitute for beef products,” researchers wrote. “Instead, our results show that plant-based meat alternatives and beef are price complements, indicating that consumers would not replace beef with plant-based meat alternatives but purchase both products together.”

Consumers may be buying plant-based meats and animal meats together to try out and compare plant-based options against meat, researchers explained, citing proprietary Nielsen Consumer Panel data showing spending on plant-based meat products dropped 75% after the initial purchase.  

Another reason, researchers wrote, may be to appease households with both vegetarians-flexitarians and meat-eaters.

“Considering the significant gap between demand for plant-based meat alternatives and meat, it is unlikely that plant-based meat alternatives will immediately replace consumer demand for meat,” study authors wrote.

Rachel Adams joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products INSIDER, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. Adams left Informa Markets in 2019.

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