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The rise of meatless meat, explained

9 questions about meat alternatives you were too embarrassed to ask.

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Meatless burgers gain popularity
A Beyond Burger at a fast food restaurant in Berlin, Germany.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

In recent years, fake meat products have gone from a niche vegan interest to a mainstream one.

In 2019, Impossible Foods announced partnerships with Burger King, Qdoba, and dozens of other restaurants and franchises. Beyond Meat started selling at restaurants, including Del Taco, Subway, and most recently KFC. Plant-based meat went from something very few Americans had heard of to something that 40 percent of us have tried.

In 2020, despite the pandemic-driven closure of many restaurants, where much of the new wave of meatless meat is bought, meatless meat’s momentum hardly flagged. Even as animal-meat competitors grappled with deadly outbreaks in slaughterhouses and concerns grew that our food system would bring about the next pandemic, demand for plant-based meat kept up. At the end of the year, McDonald’s announced that it would start offering McPlant plant-based patties.

There have been other bright spots: a new report found that almost three percent of retail packaged meat sales are now plant-based;Singapore approved the sale of cell-cultured or “lab-grown” chicken from the startup Eat Just, which alsoraised $170 million in fundingto further develop its product; in 2020 alone, the alternative protein sector raised $3.1 billion from investors, more than half of all the money raised in this space over the past decade.

And just this week, Beyond Meat’s stock soared on a recommendation from analysts at investment firm AllianceBernstein, who upgraded their assessment of the stock from “underperform” to “overperform.”

These promising developments in an uncertain year point to one conclusion: meatless meat is not a fad. But is it, as its proponents hope, big enough to solve the problems with our factory farming system?

Here are nine questions you might have had about alternative meat products and their leap to the mainstream.

1) What are meat alternatives? Veggie burgers have been around for a while — are these new products any different?

Meat alternatives aren’t new. There have been veggie burgers available in grocery stores for a long time.

But the meatless meat products on the market today are different in one important way: An alternative meat, like a Beyond Meat burger or the Impossible Burger, is a product made from plants that is meant to taste like meat, be marketed to meat-eating customers, and replace some of those customers’ meat purchases. That’s what makes them different from veggie burgers, which have typically been aimed mostly at vegetarians.

There’s another kind of meat alternative on the horizon: so-called cell-based (or lab-grown, or cultured) meat products are made from real animal cells but are grown in a food production plant instead of taken from animals raised in captivity and slaughtered for consumption. These aren’t on the market yet, except for a couple restaurants in Singapore, andsome are skeptical that they’ll work out. But they are meat alternatives too, and they might be part of the big picture as we try to move away from relying on factory farming to supplying the meat consumers want. (More on them below.)

Caroline Bushnell oversees retail research at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote meat alternatives. “Veggie burgers have been around for many decades,” she told me. “Plant-based meats are still just getting started. The next generation is really designed for meat eaters, so the stakes are higher for what the products need to deliver on. People really like the taste of meat. Instead of trying to convince them to eat a kale and quinoa bowl, why not try to make meat for them in a better way?”

The rise of meat alternatives was driven, researchers and marketing experts told me, by one realization: that alternative meats didn’t have to be a niche product just for vegans or vegetarians, who make up about 3 percent of the US population. There are lots of Americans who are meat eaters and always will be, but who are up for trying plant-based products as long as they’re tasty, cheap, and nutritious. Those consumers, not vegetarians and vegans, would be the target of the next generation of meat alternatives.

The teams behind meat alternatives work to ensure their products have the flavor, macronutrient balance, and cooking experience of meat. The Impossible Burger famously bleeds, thanks to a meat protein called heme, which the company produces from yeast.

The leading companies that produce meatless meat products have actually gone out of their way to make sure their products won’t be tarred as just for vegetarians. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, for example, comes slathered in mayo — not vegan at all — and when I went to get an Impossible Burger at a San Francisco restaurant, nearly every selection paired it with bacon bits.

So that’s the big difference: Veggie burgers are a niche product targeted toward vegetarians. But the makers of meatless meat are betting they can find their way onto everyone’s plate.

2) Okay, but do they actually taste like meat?

Some of the leading meat alternatives on the market today are burgers, ground beef, and sausages from two companies: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

“Both companies have really led with taste,” Zak Weston, an analyst at the Good Food Institute, told me. Everyone agrees that taste will be the big make-or-break factor for these companies. Does their meat really, actually taste like meat?

Food reviewers have delivered mixed verdicts so far. Reviewers at Food & Wine loved the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, and were less impressed with more traditional veggie burgers. The Washington Post’s Tim Carman wrote, “the Impossible Whopper patty, all by itself, has more flavor than the meaty one,” though he noted that while you can’t tell the difference on the first bite, you can tell eventually.

Adam Rothbarth at Thrillist was less impressed, writing that his burger had been overcooked and as a result, “it’s very one-note in its flavor and texture ... the question shouldn’t be whether it tastes like a Whopper (it does), it should be whether it tastes good (not especially).”

It’s fair to say that we’re at the point where whether Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat taste like meat to a given person depends on that person, and the specifics they pay attention to in their food experience. It’s good enough for some, but not good enough for all — yet.

3) I’ve been hearing a lot about meatless meat lately. Why now?

A live animal market in Wuhan, China may have sparked the covid-19 pandemic. But other recent pandemic diseases have been incubated closer to home, on factory farms in the United States. And in general, as humans live in dense environments in close proximity to animals, we are repeatedly risking diseases that leap from animals to humans. It is just the latest of many reasons to rethink our food system.

A more concrete thing has been keeping meatless meat in the headlines, too: widespread adoption of meatless meat products by fast food companies. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have both grabbed a lot of headlines in the last couple of years. Impossible scored a partnership with Burger King to offer meatless Whoppers. Burger King joined White Castle, which sells Impossible Foods sliders, and Carl’s Jr., which sells burgers from Impossible Foods’ competitor Beyond Meat. Del Taco announced it’ll offer Beyond Meat, too. And Qdoba announced that it will offer the Impossible Bowl and the Impossible Taco at all its US locations. And in late 2020 andearly 2021, Beyond Meat announced partnership deals with McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.

What happened, and how did it happen so fast? Experts told me they see a virtuous cycle, where consumers — more concerned with health and sustainability than ever before — demand the products, which then feeds publicity, which then fuels more customer demand.

Ricardo San Martin, who studies meat alternatives at UC Berkeley, told me that many restaurants and food manufacturers had been waiting to see whether the popularity of plant-based meat was a fad. As consumer interest has grown, “companies have become more aware that this is here to stay” — and they’re placing their own orders. That generates more publicity, which makes more consumers interested in the products and convinces other companies that the trend is for real.

Michele Simon, then-executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, saw the same pattern — that publicity meant more consumers were aware of the products, which increased demand.

“It’s a combination of increased consumer interest in healthier eating in general, and then combined with innovation and an explosion of more great-tasting meat alternatives for consumers to choose from. With that has come the mainstreaming of these types of foods,” Simon told me in 2019.

Now the burst of publicity is “getting consumers more familiar and breaking down some of the myths around them, like that they won’t taste good, that you’re sacrificing something by giving up conventional meat.”

4) Is eating meatless meat healthier than eating actual meat?

In general, eating vegetables is good for you. So many people might think it’s obvious that plant-based meat is healthier than regular meat. But that’s not quite true.

Plant-based meat is absolutely safe — but it’s not a health food. While there’s a lot of uncertainty in nutrition science, and meatless meat may avoid the cancer risks of red meat, for the most part, it is probably about as good for you as the meat it’s imitating.

San Martin called the assumptions about health effects a major misconception about plant-based foods. “Plant-based means it’s of ingredients that come from plants,” he told me, but that doesn’t mean you’re eating a salad — “they are processed foods.” As a result, they’re likely less healthy than unprocessed veggies.

Moreover, most meat alternatives attempt to imitate meat as closely as possible, including in macronutrient profile and calorie content. That’s because meatless meat makers want consumers to know what they’re getting. If eating a Beyond Burger was not nearly as filling as eating a real burger, that would probably leave consumers dissatisfied (indeed, a Beyond Burger provides the same amount of protein as a beef burger). As a result, there’s only so much that meat alternatives can do to be healthier than animal-based meat products.

That’s not to say there are no health benefits at all. Some people report sensitivities to the growth hormones or antibiotics fed to cows that then make it into burgers and steaks, a problem that plant-based meats don’t have. Plant-based meat should be able to avoid worries about food poisoning from undercooking and mad cow disease entirely. But ultimately, if you’re ordering a Whopper at Burger King, it’s not going to be health food, even if it’s an Impossible Whopper.

Some people have raised health concerns specific to meatless meats — for example, worrying that the heme in Impossible Foods could somehow be harmful. There is no reason to worry on those grounds.

Beyond Meat doesn’t use GMOs and other ingredients that health-conscious consumers often fret about. (To be clear, there are no signs that GMOs are dangerous to consumers, but many of the health-conscious consumers Beyond Meat caters to may nonetheless be wary of them.) Beyond’s products are also soy-free and gluten-free, which similarly have no known health impacts for the typical person but are priorities for health-conscious consumers.

The Impossible Burger “bleeds” like meat because it uses heme, a protein found in red meat that Impossible Foods grows from yeast. Some analysts raised worries that the Impossible Burger might, due to the heme, have the same negative health effects — like elevated risk of cancer and heart attacks — sometimes associated with red meat. An exhaustive review of the nutrition literature by Business Insider found that there are no signs heme is the reason red meat has those effects.

So plant-based meat products are safe, and they are likely at least as healthy as the products they’re replacing. But if you’re hoping for a burger that’s as good for you as a salad, food science still has a long way to go. Maybe that’s beside the point. “The real point of comparison is a meat burger, not a bowl of broccoli,” Weston told me. By that standard, meatless meat is perfectly fine.

5) Is meatless meat better for the environment than regular meat?

Yes — meatless meat can make a huge difference for the environment by almost every metric, including land use, water use, and fighting climate change. Right now, however, it’s too small a share of the market to significantly impact those problems.

A big driver of interest in meat alternatives is meat’s effect on the environment. Livestock cultivation is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive activities out there.

This is the driving motivation of Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods. In an interview with Business Insider, when asked why he cares so much about replacing meat, he said, “We are now in the advanced stages of the biggest environmental catastrophe that our planet has ever faced, and overwhelmingly the largest driver of that is animal-based food technology.” (In fact, about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock.)

Plant-based foods have the potential to have a vastly lower carbon footprint. In general, you have to feed an animal 10 calories of plants to get one calorie of meat, so you can expect plant-based foods to have about one-tenth the carbon costs of animal-based foods.

That’s an extremely rough guideline, but it’s surprisingly close to the results you get from a much more careful calculation. An analysis of the Impossible Burger 2.0 found that its carbon footprint is 89 percent smaller than a burger made from a cow. It also uses 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land. That’s an improvement from the 1.0, and Impossible Foods hopes it can slice the carbon footprint even more as it scales its operations.

So there’s potential for meatless meat to make a huge difference for the environment. But the analysts I spoke to raised one major point of skepticism: scale.

Right now, the entire meatless meat industry makes up less than 1 percent of the product volume of the meat industry. Yes, it’s growing fast, and yes, it’s in the headlines, but nearly all meat sold in the US and worldwide is traditional meat. As long as meatless meat remains a niche industry, it simply can’t affect the climate because it’s too small to matter.

Christie Lagally, the CEO of Rebellyous Foods (formerly Seattle Food Tech), which makes meatless chicken, told me, “If you’re going to make any impact on the amount of chicken in the world, and address all the health and environmental concerns, you have to be able to make chicken at scale.” Until then, all these restaurant announcements and all these taste tests won’t have the slightest effect on climate change. “One of the big concerns in the plant-based meat industry is that it really does have to scale,” Lagally told me. “Being able to redesign how manufacturing occurs for plant-based meat is what will make it work.”

Scale is the big challenge for Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, too. Both companies cited it as a motivation for their recent efforts to raise more money. “We had tough years both 2017 and 2018 because we weren’t able to keep in stock,” Seth Goldman, the executive chair of Beyond Meat, told me. “One of the reasons we raised this money” — that is, the hundreds of millions raised in Beyond Meat’s successful IPO — “was to address these problems.”

If they succeed, and if meatless meat becomes a significant share of the meat market, then the returns for climate change could be enormous. But the transition from novelty product to consumer staple isn’t easy, and there’s a lot that could still go wrong along the way.

6) What about “cell-based”/“lab-grown”/“cultured” meat? How is that the same, and different, from plant-based meat?

There’s another meatless meat idea that is even further from being realized, and that’s cell-based or lab-grown meat. (Producers are still trying to figure out which label accurately conveys what the product is without sounding too alien to customers.) While plant-based meat products try to imitate the overall taste and nutrition profile of meat using plants, cell-based meat uses actual animal cells, grown in a serum instead of as part of a cow or a chicken.

If it succeeds, it won’t just taste like meat — such products would actually be meat on a molecular level. But unlike plant-based meats, which are already workable, cell-based meat products are still a long way away.

“With the numbers we have today,” UC Berkeley’s San Martin told me, “we don’t see how [cell-based meat] can scale up and deliver products soon at a competitive price. Besides all of the technological hurdles, the scaling up can be very complex. So far, I haven’t seen a medium-sized operation cultivating these kinds of cells for this purpose. It’s very hard, and with what we know today, maybe it’s not the right approach.”

There are still a number of hurdles to overcome before cell-based meat makes it into stores. First, there’s a challenge called “scaffolding” — figuring out how to shape cultured cells into tissue. Right now, cell-based meat techniques can make a decent replacement for, say, ground beef. But to replace a steak, you need to grow the cells into the tissues they grow into in living animals. Researchers are still figuring out how to do that.

Once you have a product, there’s the question of scaling it. The hope for cell-based meat is that it can eventually meet all of the world’s demand for meat, which is steadily increasing as the world gets wealthier. To do that, it’s not enough to be able to make one steak — you need to be able to make steaks at the same incredible scale that factory farms do.

But investors are optimistic that with enough effort, funding, and researcher attention, the remaining technical challenges will prove to have a solution. Meat producers like Tyson Foods have invested in Memphis Meats, a leading cell-based meat company, and more new companies are joining the emerging field: as of 2020, there were at least nine in the US and more than 20 worldwide.

If cell-based meat can succeed, it will likely be able to win over some consumers who aren’t sold on anything made from plants, no matter how similar the taste.

7) Does all this progress on meat alternatives signal the end of meat?

In a word, no — not yet, anyway.

Demand for meat actually grew in 2020. And demand is projected to grow even further.

“As emerging economies grow and become wealthier,” Weston told me, “one of the first things that changes is that their diet becomes more like the Western diet.” That means more meat.

It’s a great thing that the rest of the world is becoming richer, and it isn’t surprising that they’d want the same luxuries that people in wealthy countries enjoy. But the increasing demand for meat poses a lot of challenges.

One is antibiotic resistance. Animals in factory farms are mass-fed antibiotics to limit the sicknesses that would otherwise sweep through animals in such close quarters. But that means that bacteria develop resistance to the antibiotics. This is a huge problem in the United States, and an even bigger problem in emerging economies like China, which haven’t agreed to US restrictions on antibiotics being fed to animals.

And then, there’s climate change. Eating more meat is just one of the ways consumers in the developing world cause more greenhouse gas emissions as they become wealthier.

All of these are reasons why it would be a huge deal if we could meet the increasing demand for meat — or even just some of it — with meatless meat.

So far, prospects look pretty good. Surveys find consumers in India and China — two of the biggest markets in the world — eager to try cell-based meat products once those exist, and broadly enthusiastic about plant-based meat, too. In fact, by one survey, they’re way more interested in plant-based meat than Americans are:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

It looks like there’s a large share of American consumers who refuse to purchase plant-based meat products, and there’s no similar contingent among consumers in India or China. There are more consumers who say they’re very likely or extremely likely to buy, too.

But it’s not all bad news in the US, either. Recent Gallup surveys have found that 40 percent of Americans have tried them, with interest from men and women and from people all over the country. Plant-based meat products might not be universal yet, but they’re not niche anymore either.

That suggests it might be possible for plant-based meat to absorb much of the increase in demand for meat. That’d make a huge difference all by itself. But replacing meat entirely doesn’t look like it’s on the horizon anytime soon.

8) Are there other ways to reduce meat consumption?

The rise of meatless meat has accompanied a lot of other interesting trends in vegan and vegetarian advocacy. For decades, advocates have tried to raise awareness of factory farming and convince people to go vegetarian or vegan. But rates of vegetarianism and veganism remain pretty low; surveys find that many vegetarians still eat meat sometimes, and advocates have begun looking at other ways to combat factory farming.

That’s the change in thinking that has driven the rise of Meatless Mondays, campaigns to serve meat-free meals once a week in schools and offices. The idea is that going meatless one day a week does a seventh as much good as going meatless full time — and if you can persuade seven times as many people to commit to it, then it’s a better bet.

The same idea is behind the rise of the awkwardly named “reducetarianism.” As Brian Kateman, founder and CEO of the Reducetarian Foundation, told Vox, we tend to see meat as an “all-or-nothing premise.” Either you’re a good vegetarian or you don’t think about meat in your diet. But if you eat a lot of meat, cutting back that quantity by half does a lot more for the environment — and a lot more to combat the harms of factory farming — than cutting that last favorite food out of a mostly vegetarian diet.

Another proposal to reduce meat consumption is taxing meat, which would allow us to accurately account for its effects on the environment but which would disproportionately affect low-income people. A more moderate version of the proposal is to just stop subsidizing meat. Currently, the US spends an estimated $20 billion a year on subsidizing agribusinesses, and much of that goes toward feed for animals. Commentators on both the left and the right have called for an end to this giveaway.

But there is, as you might have noticed, a common thread here. Many of these other approaches to reducing meat consumption work a lot better if there’s a good alternative right there for consumers to switch to. Increasing the costs of beef will affect consumers less if there are cheap products nearly identical to beef. Voluntary diet change to stop climate change is a lot easier if people can replace favorite foods with options that are just as tasty.

“Consumers want to make healthier choices, they want to make sustainable choices, but the product has to taste great,” Bushnell told me.

Ultimately, all the ways of reducing meat consumption are much simpler to make progress on if there are good meat alternatives.

9) What should we be on the lookout for next?

So what’s next for meat alternatives?

Meatless meat weathered the pandemic and is now poised for growth — as the Alliance Bernstein analysis of Beyond Meat reflects. Meanwhile, major meat companies, such as Tyson and Purdue Farms, are launching their own plant-based meat products. Those launches might pose a challenge to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but they’re almost definitely great news for the industry. More competition can bring down prices and makes it likelier that the industry can scale up to meet the growing demand for meat.

Finally, the most important thing to look out for is one you can check for yourself at a Burger King, Qdoba, Del Taco, or grocery store near you. How does meatless meat measure up? How does it compete on taste? On price? On availability? Ultimately, it’s consumers who will decide whether meatless meat is up to the task in front of it.

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