What If Plant-based Foods Out-compete Meat Products?

For many analysts, the idea that plant-based foods will out-compete meat products is an example of a worst case scenario. Plant-based alternatives are often thought of as poor substitutes for the real deal, if they are considered at all. However, there has been much speculation that plant-based alternatives will out-compete animal-based foods in the marketplace. Recently, a representative of the National Cattleman's Beef Association said that plant-based meats—such as those already on the market from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—are "definitely positioning themselves to compete with us."

So why are non-meat alternatives so often thought of as inferior? The answer might be found by understanding how people perceive foods they eat. There is an interesting link between food perception and human evolution. Humans have evolved to prefer foods that provide them with high levels of energy (meaning lots of fat) without much effort or time needed to consume it. In times past, this meant consuming large amounts of meat, which contained enough fat for long-term energetic use at a fairly low cost.

Many people today experience food in a much different way, however. Humans rarely have time to consume all of the calories they need to remain healthy. As such, we tend to choose foods that are easy to get out of the refrigerator and into our mouths quickly—sometimes with very limited benefit from a nutritional standpoint. Particularly for Americans, eating meat is often quite effortless because it requires little preparation compared to other protein sources like legumes or pseudo-meats made from plants. Meat is also one of those special treats we eat regularly without thinking much about it—an unthinking indulgence that isn't necessarily related to how hungry we are when we make the decision to consume it. This associative phenomenon was demonstrated by research done with animals. When rats were given a rewarding food, they learned to associate the reward with an object that was present when they received it.

Similarly, humans often learn to associate specific foods with positive emotions (like happy memories), making us more likely to eat them in the future. What if there was a different way of eating meat? What if plant-based alternatives contained proteins that are equal or superior to animal protein? What if these alternatives could be enjoyed without all of the effort and time required for regular consumption? The reason such swaps might happen is because they would provide consumers with better value overall. Lower cost, greater convenience and increased enjoyment are factors people consider when choosing between products or services—not nutritional superiority, which many people believe to be a fixed value.

After all, how can people be convinced that plant-based products are superior? They may not even try them or consider them in the first place if they believe they will be inferior in terms of taste and texture. As such, meat producers don't need to worry—at least not yet. However, it's possible that food producers could find ways to convince meat eaters that alternatives provide similar levels of enjoyment along with other advantages. In addition, plant-based meats may contain more vitamins and minerals than animal-based foods because their production doesn't require much energy and allows for better nutrient retention during the growing process.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that meat alternatives might be produced without antibiotics at relatively low cost. This would help reduce health issues related to meat consumption and potentially increase demand for them.

Unfortunately, consumer perception of plant-based products may not change in the near future. However, if more people are educated about these alternatives and they find out that there is a higher level of enjoyment associated with consuming them, it might change their minds. It's something to think about as we prepare our meals for tomorrow—and every day after that.

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