A new Rabobank analysis traces the market for meat alternatives, comparing the trend with substitutes for other foods such as sugar. The document notes the ongoing drive to replace conventional meat with products such as the Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger or Omnipork is bound to continue.
However, Rabobank points out, substitutes historically don't usually come up to the same standards as the foods they're trying to replace. One reason is that they tend to have functional shortcomings, the analysis says.
The bottom line, in Rabobank's view, is that while food innovations and substitutes for the real thing have been continual throughout history, perfection is elusive and there will always be challenges in coming up with acceptable alternatives.
Rabobank, a Dutch multinational banking and financial services company, notes that it receives frequent inquiries about the meat alternatives market and has been answering a number of related questions.
The analysis calls this segment both a fad and a lasting trend. It's driven by consumer concerns about sustainability, animal welfare, and health and wellness — although taste is a separate issue. Rabobank also says the market is bound to grow larger, but is "not as big as some are making out."
Investment firm UBS projects the growth of plant-based protein and meat alternatives will increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. The firm said that estimate could be conservative if innovation and consumer awareness drive more consumption.
Rabobank's analysis draws parallels between today's meat alternatives market and those for dairy and sugar alternatives, which have been in play a lot longer. The sugar substitute segment has seen new products emerge for decades, with each one promising to deliver the same taste and behavior as table sugar but with fewer calories.
However, whether the product is stevia, allulose, monk fruit — or any of the other potential sugar stand-ins that have debuted through the years — none has permanently dethroned the real thing, which Rabobank notes still claims more than 75% of the world's sweetener demand.
It remains to be seen whether plant-based dairy alternatives will play a similar role with real milk and products derived from it such as cheese, yogurt, sour cream and others. But they're certainly giving conventional dairy a run for its money. U.S. sales of plant-based milk products grew by almost 6% in the past year as brands including Silk and Oatly became household names. The plant-based dairy market alone could hit $37.5 billion by 2025, according to UBS.
Sugar may not be the best ingredient with which to compare meat and dairy, though. Meat and dairy require live animals, along with land, water and feed, to facilitate production. But one common denominator for all three are the health and environmental concerns raised about them — and which persist to this day when it comes to marketing the alternatives.
Because of this tension between legacy commodities and the recent trends toward products billed as healthier for both humans and the planet, it's likely consumers feel torn between the foods they've known all their lives and the alternatives trying to replace them. Also, as meat and dairy compete with substitutes, they will all be using price and availability — plus any health claims that can be made — to vie for consumers' business and loyalty.
Moving forward, it's a safe bet that some consumers are going to stick with meat, dairy and sugar substitutes. They're used to new, and sometimes better, options being on the market, and they aren't likely to settle for less now.
But, as Rabobank notes, some alternatives present functional shortcomings. Those simpler, cleaner-label "real thing" products could still pull through this current climate and stay profitable. The key will be responding to consumer demand, balancing price and value, and always maintaining that most important aspect of flavor.