Plant-based meat could be about to have its breakout moment. But this will only happen if we overcome our worst impulses and be honest about what it will take to win over the omnivores.
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated global trends towards plant-based meats. Supply chains are strained, consumer habits are shifting and people are as conscious as ever about health, cost and sustainability. Investment dollars are pouring into the space and products into the market. Big brands are incorporating plant-based offerings into their own product lines. Barely a week goes by without the launch of a marketing partnership with an international burger chain or a new range hitting supermarket shelves.
But there is a real danger that in the haste to capture a projected market, our industry has neglected the one thing most important to bringing plant-based meat into the mainstream: taste.
When a high-growth niche emerges in any industry, there is a rush into that space as companies try to capitalise on sudden actual or projected demand. Poor quality or ill thought-out (but very nicely marketed!) products are pushed out and consumers who purchase them have a bad time. Both product and purchaser become the object of ridicule - a story that will sound familiar to anyone unlucky enough to have owned a Microsoft Kin.
Eating animal meat is one of the most intimate and cherished moments of an omnivore’s weekly routine - a truth that is problematic for many long-term adherents of plant-based diets.
Launching a failed phone trying to capitalise on an exploding market for social media services is one thing, but in the case of plant-based meats, the danger is greater. Eating animal meat is one of the most intimate and cherished moments of an omnivore’s weekly routine - a truth that is problematic for many long-term adherents of plant-based diets. Unless our industry recognises this we could turn large parts of the potential market for plant-based meats away for life. If we replicate or improve on this experience, we are opening the biggest door our industry has ever seen.
Taste is far more complex than most people realise. We are taught at primary school that there are four or five basic flavours. But taste as we experience it is a mystifyingly complex combination of flavour, aroma, texture and mouthfeel. There are receptors that can taste calcium and others that interpret weight and moisture. And that’s just in the mouth and nose. There are nearly countless nerves and neural connections that contribute to what we usually understand as “taste”. When we are talking about taste what we are really describing is the user experience of food.
ProForm has been researching the production of meat from plant-based inputs for more than 15 years, long before there was a viable commercial market for it - our founder was one of the early researchers in this area. There are a variety of processes that companies employ to approximate the experience of animal meat. The least satisfying of these yields something like a crushed rice-bubble material which has a meaty texture when combined with water. But it tends to crumble when cooked and does not deliver anything like a comparable meal.
Other more sophisticated methods involve cooking plant proteins to produce something that is much closer to the texture, flavour and nutritional profile of animal-sourced meat. The resulting products can replicate and extend on the sensations that omnivores experience when they consume animal meat, while delivering less saturated fat for a healthier meal. These methods are more complex and costly, and those companies that are rushing products to market often don’t take the necessary time to refine them before launching to consumers.
This matters because adults are not that different to children. Anyone who has had to get their kids to eat vegetables knows how important that first experience of a new food is. An unpleasant first experience of plant-based meats will send an adult omnivore away from the entire category for a long time. A burger chain partnership might generate individual novelty purchases, but there is no brand in the world beloved enough to engender repeat purchases if the user experience doesn’t stack up.
Right now, we are at a crucial stage in the development of the plant-based meats industry. All the people who choose not to consume animal-sourced meats for ethical or environmental reasons are already eating plants. These are important consumers, but they won’t drive the seismic shift. We need the omnivores. There is no ethical, environmental or even financial argument that we can make to them that is going to compete with the sensory experience of eating meat. “Not quite” is not going to cut it. The industry must resist the temptation to turn a quick profit and use its accumulated decades of research to collectively break the taste barrier and upend the way the human race eats.