From burgers at Fourth of July barbecues to hot dogs from the food truck on the corner, meat is ubiquitous in American culture. Whether being consumed at a fast-food restaurant or eaten as part of a dietary lifestyle, as with the trendy Paleo diet, meat dominates our social landscape. And yet, in spite of this long-standing love affair with meat, more people than ever are opting to consume meat alternatives.
The Carnivore’s Dilemma: Consumer Concerns Over Meat Production and Consumption
Once primarily consumed by vegans and vegetarians, plant-based proteins have been steadily growing in popularity among the meat-eating population. This trend ties in directly with the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact meat production has on the environment. For example:
- A large amount of destructive deforestation, specifically in Latin American countries, is caused by the livestock industry. Livestock agriculture also uses approximately 30% of the planet’s available land.
- Food production, in general, contributes the vast majority of CO2 emissions in the United States — 83%. Beef production, in particular, accounts for nearly half of these emissions.
- Livestock animals produce up to 170 million metric tons of methane gas through their own digestive processes.
- By 2024, the global population is expected to balloon to about 8 billion. The current meat production system is incapable of feeding a population of this size without doing irreversible damage to the environment.
On top of these environmental issues, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the ethics of meat consumption, especially with how livestock and poultry are raised and treated before slaughter. These concerns have created a void in the market, with some meat eaters consuming little to no meat. But, as with nature, commerce abhors a vacuum.
An Oxymoronic Solution: The Rise of Meatless Meat
Meat alternatives have come a long way since the days of chickpea burgers and tofurkey. In order to meet the demands of meatless meat eaters, several companies have developed viable alternatives that allow omnivorous humans a guilt-free way to experience meat.
These meat substitutes are available in two forms: clean meat, which is meat grown in a lab using animal cells, and plant-based meat, which is formulated using a combination of plant-derived protein isolates and fats to create a food that mimics meat in terms of flavor, appearance, and texture. These plant-derived meats often contain other ingredients designed to mimic the meat experience, such as beet juice to create the illusion of a bleeding burger.
The Mainstream Meatless Market
While it may seem like a niche market, meatless meat has actually garnered quite a bit of attention from high-profile investors, massive corporations, and major food companies; 2017, in particular, was a big year for this young industry.
- Influential industry moguls and major corporations, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, Tesla, and others invested $17 million in Memphis Meat to help commercialize the company's lab-grown clean meat products. Cargill also sold off its cattle lots with the intention of reinvesting that money into meat alternatives such as plant-based proteins.
- Tyson Foods, known primarily for their chicken products, was one of several companies to invest in Beyond Meat, making for a total of $55 million. The company produces a variety of plant-based meats.
- Another plant-based meat manufacturer, called Sweet Earth, was acquired by Nestle.
Not only have major investors, including massive food production companies, taken an interest in these companies, but consumer interest has also made these products commercially available on a large scale. For example, Beyond Meat products can be found in almost 25,000 stores, restaurants, and other food places across the country.
However, plant-based meats are not without their detractors, skeptics, and critics. Opponents have claimed that the ingredients used to create these faux meat concoctions are in some cases very bad for human consumption. Soy protein isolate, carrageenan, and titanium dioxide, for example, common ingredients found in some meatless meats, have been shown in various studies to cause serious illness or negatively impact overall health.
The Future of Meat-Free Meat
In spite of this growth, it’s unlikely that the meat industry will be entirely eclipsed just yet. While consumers are definitely showing the desire to eat less meat, there is nothing to indicate that the vast majority of meat eaters are ready to cut traditional meat from their diets completely.
Still, it’s estimated that plant-based meat alternatives will reach $5 billion in the market by the time 2020 rolls around. As consumers become more dedicated to contributing to a greener food market through their purchasing decisions, it’s expected that the demand for meat alternatives will continue to rise, which could eventually put traditional meat producers at a crossroads.
However, as with other forms of market disruption, the trend toward clean and plant-based meat also has the potential to open up a wealth of opportunities for the traditional meat production industry. It all depends on how companies choose to invest over the next few years.
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