On May 2, Beyond Meat became the first plant-based meat company to go pub, listing its shares on the NASDAQ and seeing a nearly 600 percent spike over the ensuing months. Meanwhile, the companies chief potential competitor Impossible Foods has publicly flirted with the idea of an IPO while collecting massive investments from, among others, Serena Williams, Katy Perry Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Jaden Smith, and Paul George. The two companies are now valued at a more than $6 billion and their products are proliferating in fast food joints — the Impossible burger is a hit at Burger King — and grocery stores — Beyond Burgers and Beyond Sausages stand out in the frozen food aisle.
Does this mean that today’s children will grow to be, as Richard Branson has suggested, shocked that their parent tolerated the presence of slaughterhouses in the industrial food chain? Perhaps. Most vegans and vegetarians in America are under 50 and food industry experts have long suggested that Millennials, who constitute the bulk of new parents, and members of Generation Z are early food adopters. But with the average American still consuming some 222.2 pounds of beef annually, plenty has to change before meatless meat becomes a staple of family dinners.
Change will no doubt be driven both by personal preferences as well as, more broadly, by environmental awareness. Animal agriculture is responsible for between 13 and 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Additionally, meat takes up space. Over 40 percent of American land is farmland and a little less than half of that land is grazed by livestock. When environmentalists claim that consuming meat is unsustainable, they have a point. But that point has not historically driven change in consumer decision-making. That is really only starting to change now.
“Millennials appear to be the key drivers making choices away from meat and animal-based proteins to plant-based,” says Diane Holtaway, the Associate Director of Client Services at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. “Parents who are looking for ways to eat and serve less red meat, who want to make a positive environmental impact, and are concerned about the ethical treatment of animals themselves, will be the natural influencers to kids.”
Holtaway says that if a product like the Impossible Burger “solves a problem” for parents, it can gain a strong foothold in the market. The question, naturally, is what exactly that problem is. Though ethical consumption is part of the problem, there is another two-fold part that is likely more immediate for many parents: getting kids to eat and getting kids to eat healthy. Burgers are an immensely popular foodstuff. The average American eats nearly three a week. Veggie burgers are a significantly less popular foodstuff despite having been on the market for nearly half a century. Taste bridges that gap. Traditional veggie burgers simply don’t taste like hamburgers and most people seem to prefer the latter.
The good news for shareholders in alternative meat producers is that the taste part of the problem seems to have been largely resolved.
David Julian McClements, a distinguished professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, told Fatherly that when he took his daughter and her friends to try the Impossible Burger, they couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat. He’s bullish on meat alternatives because he doesn’t see a downside for the consumer. His daughter and her friends did not have a lesser experience because their lunch did not require the slaughter of an animal — to the contrary.
An apt parallel, according to Holtaway, is the growth of the milk-alternative industry. “Many people do not realize it, but these products have been around for years, but added momentum catalyzed by new products, have surged consumption in the past couple of years,” Holtaway says. “Soy milk was introduced to the US market decades ago, but the growth in plant-based beverages made from alternative proteins and grains, such as almond, cashew, coconut, and oat has catapulted this business into a $1.6 billion category.”
A variety of tastes better suited to a variety of consumers sparked a massive increase in demand. The nutritional benefits of new product didn’t hurt either.
In the context of alternative meats, the nutrition aspect of the consumer problem is slightly trickier to understand. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that the nutritional value of non-meat burgers might change for the better over time whereas meat will continue to be meat.
For now, meat alternatives are a bit of a nutritional mixed bag. Plant-based burgers have significantly more sodium than regular meat, but they are also high in important nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B12. In terms of health, it’s a toss up with beef products. That said, most people aren’t reading the label and research suggests that most people believe meat alternatives are significantly healthier whether or not that is actually the case.
This all suggests that meat alternatives will solve a problem for parents and that demand among family consumers will rise. And this is not just interesting as an immediate phenomenon. It’s the whole game. Decades and decades worth of studies suggest that kids learn their eating habits largely from their parents. The normalization of foodstuffs is, in other words, the stuff of the family dinner table. Younger parents who see meat alternatives as a convenient solve to both ecological and nutritional problems will normalize these products for their children and their children’s friends.
Still, this can only play out if parents have access to the product. Increasingly, they do. With Impossible Burgers already being sold at Burger King, Red Robin, White Castle, Little Caesar’s and Umami Burger, there are a growing number of opportunities for consumers to sample the goods. Still, ubiquity is a ways off. Demand outstrips supply. But with the vast majority of parents in America regularly buying family dinners for at fast food chains, the path to widespread popularity may run through a franchise. (When Burger King tested out offering the Impossible Burger in St. Louis, sales in that area went up 28 percent overall, suggesting that said path might be smoother than expected.)
Beyond Meat burgers are already available in many grocery stores, including Walmart, Whole Foods and Safeway. The company has publicly projected that its sales will double in 2019.
The natural third path to normalization looks a bit different. Meat alternatives have yet to arrive in school cafeterias in a meaningful way — though experts agree that this is inevitable if price points fall. That said, some things will have to change legislatively for plant-based meat to make it into the cafeteria.
“Last year, the Alt.Meat Lab attempted to explore the inclusion of plant-based burgers on school menus but found that federal guidelines dictating school lunch menus were so restrictive that it would have been very difficult to seriously entertain,” explains Ricardo San Martin, Research Director of the program at Berkeley. “Not only were there very specific requirements for the amount of amino acids included in the meat product, but there were limits to the amount of meat you could actually replace with an alternative.”
Until the federal government changes its policies for what kind of “meat” products can be sold at K-12 schools, it’s unlikely they’ll be making their way in any time soon. One would imagine the meat industry might lobby to prevent that from happening. That said, these products have already found their way onto college campuses, so they are making progress in reaching younger audiences while they’re in school.
“Younger generations have already demonstrated a vocal commitment to addressing the problem of climate change,” says San Martin.
The normalization of meat alternatives among members of Generation Alpha, the children of America’s newest parents, will become inevitable when the downside of the consumer experience (price, sodium) are mitigated and the ecological upside is well known and well understood. At that point, kids will be able to avoid hurting animals without avoiding staple foods. There’s every reason to believe that they’ll be happy to do exactly that.