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Appetite: The Downfall of the Alt Protein Movement?

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
March 29, 2021

People like meat. 🥩In some ways, this statement can sum up the entire reason for the alternative protein movement's existence. But what if that very assumption—that "narrative," as Seth Godin would call it—is a dangerous trap that has the potential to undermine the industry instead of moving it forward?

What if offering meat alternatives isn't the solution to a broken food system, poor human health and the environmental crisis? What if continuing to satisfy the human appetite for meat by replacing it with alternatives is actually what’s going to destroy us instead of save us?

These are questions worth exploring as both plant-based and cell-cultured meat options continue to develop at an increasingly fast pace. Before the market becomes dominated by animal-free animal products, it's important to examine the hidden issues behind why people like meat and why it might not be the best idea to continue to encourage the dietary status quo. 📈🍔

meat and seasonings on a platter

Meat Consumption is Not, In Fact, Decreasing

Meat production has more than tripled over the past 50 years. The world collectively raises, slaughters and consumes 80 billion animals per year. Yes, that's 80 billion. 🐄🐄🐄 As of 2018, the US, Australia, Argentina, Israel and Brazil were responsible for eating the majority of these animals.

But global meat consumption is expected to rise 1.4% per year through 2023, with the fastest increase projected to be in Africa and the Middle East.

Pork and poultry are the biggies. 🐖🐔 Poultry is cheap and is often seen as a "healthier" alternative to red meat which, particularly in the U.S., consumers associate with diet-related diseases.

So, as much as the alternative protein movement would like to see people eating less meat and reaching for plant-based burgers instead, it's not happening yet.

It's Awfully Meaty Here in Status Symbol Land

One huge driver of the increase is status. Or, at least, the perception of status. Generally, the richer the country, the more meat the population eats. But it's not only the rich springing for the filet mignon; people of lower socioeconomic statuses also gravitate toward diets heavier in meat.
Why? Because humans want to feel like they matter, and societal cues suggest people who eat meat are somehow more important.

👑Meat—particularly red meat—is also associated with strength and power. Poultry and seafood are still largely considered alternatives, which can be seen in the way consumers gravitate toward these choices when they want to make "lighter" dishes. (Turkey sausage, anyone? 🦃) But the association that's likely to remain the biggest barrier to the adoption of alternative proteins for the foreseeable future is normality.

Society, by and large, still views omnivorous diets as normal and vegetarians and vegans as different or weird.
People who choose not to eat meat tend to be viewed as fanatical, judgmental, holier-than-thou, less masculine, and/or excessively ideological. While it's not inaccurate to blame some of these perceptions on the more extreme aspects of the vegan movement, it's likely the basis for the ideas was already there, rooted in societal norms surrounding diet, appetite, and identity.

Alternative Protein to the Rescue? 🦸‍♂️

It makes sense, then, that alternative proteins appear to be the logical solution. After all, if people are going to eat meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood anyway, why not give them healthier, more sustainable versions? Ambitious and creative startups are working to do just that.

Plant-based protein has gone far beyond the earliest dry, thin, green-tasting veggie burgers and now dabbles in the realm of whole cuts,🥩 aged artisan cheeses 🧀 and eggs that crack open to reveal whites and yolks. 🍳 Formulators are experimenting with ingredients to find the right combination of texture, performance, taste, and nutrition that will create both an eating experience and a nutrient content identical to—or better than—animal meat.

And it's become a booming industry. Alternative protein across categories is projected to reach over $290 billion by 2035, making up 11% of the protein market as a whole. If the technology develops more quickly and regulations are supportive, that number could double to 22%. It's an astonishing feat of innovation that deserves recognition for the changes it has already been able to make, but this exponential growth has a couple of troubling aspects:

  • It's based on the assumption that consumers aren't going to change—while simultaneously hoping that a vast majority of people will change by adopting meat alternatives.
  • It operates on the basis of taste first, believing consumers don't actively care about the impact of their choices. ♻

An additional confounding factor: Consumers, in general, don't think about food or see the market the way alternative protein innovators do. The public isn't yet as informed as the industry would like them to be, which requires a simplified approach to marketing. This, in turn, can lead to the temptation to borrow tactics from the existing food system—an approach that could have unintended consequences.

burgers on grill

The Problem of Appetite

It all comes back to appetite. Why is this an issue? Consider one of the definitions of the word: an inherent craving. This is where things become troubling. Craving is defined as:

crav·ing, noun: an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing

The word gets tossed around almost nonchalantly today, but it's not a word to be taken lightly. To crave is to feel intense urgency. To crave is to long for something. By extension, to have an appetite for meat is to intensely long for meat in a way that, on both a biological and mental level, can be unhealthy. 🤤In Biblical times, appetite was a serious issue.

In fact, appetite is often portrayed in both the Old and New Testaments as a form of lust, an inordinate desire for something people shouldn't have, ultimately leading to destruction.

This may not be so extreme as it first seems—what we desire, after all, is rarely what's good for us. It only takes a cursory examination of the current food system and the associated health crisis to see the truth of this. 🤕When considered in such a light, the idea of creating products to satisfy the current appetite for meat takes on an ominous tone.

It's possible to trace the negative consequences of humanity's increased meat consumption by mapping it to the concurrent increase in chronic disease and environmental degradation over the years. And then there are the less visible, but equally as devastating, effects on the people caught in the downward economic spiral of the factory farming system, as well as the systematic contamination and destruction of environments on which many societies in less-developed countries rely for their livelihoods. (Antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases aren't exactly fun, either.

💊🧬 If appetite brought humanity to this point—could it be that attempting to make a wholesale swap to meat alternatives may wind up creating the next monster instead of fixing the very problems today's novel proteins were created to address?

Imagine a World Without Meat 🍗

The core of the issue may not be that people eat too much meat but rather society's attitude toward meat and meat consumption. Faunalytics states the problem in an interesting and eye-opening way:

"Although vegetarians are a diverse group of people, vegetarianism is generally understood as a particular philosophical position or an explicit food ideology. The dominant practice of meat consumption also has a particular ideological basis. However, the dominant ideology supporting meat consumption has been described as implicit or invisible because the underlying beliefs are commonly perceived as the ways things should be."

In other words, meat has always been there at the center of the plate. On the grill. In the bun. Or, in times past, roasting over the fire. 🍔🍖What if we were forced to find an alternate solution that didn’t involve imitating meat to fit in with societal norms? What if society as a whole was forced by necessity—due to the growing burdens of animal protein production—to make massive, sweeping changes in eating habits?

Of course, such a state of global disaster is part of what the alternative protein movement seeks to avoid. But it's troubling to see some of the very same drivers that created the massive ultra-processed food industry now taking precedent in an attempt to put more alt protein on plates.

Taste, convenience and price are the three big reasons consumers reach for dollar menu burgers and fries. 💲💲Hitting the drive-through is a quick way to quiet a craving, to satisfy an appetite. Is playing into this really the best way to further a movement built on the hopes of making a global impact for the betterment of humanity?

burger and fries

The Problem of Perception

The argument in the alternative protein industry unfortunately supports the dietary status quo rather than seeking to change it. Consumers, the assumption goes, can't be expected to make big changes.

They want what they want, so let's give them what they want in an alternative form to drive faster adoption.

This approach ignores some of the most disturbing issues with the societal narrative surrounding meat consumption. 👻🥓Eating meat isn't only associated with status. In many cultures, it's also lumped in with masculinity, power, dominance and the support of oppressive social hierarchies. Real men, apparently, still eat meat—often red meat.

Lighter fare, including vegetarian food, is for the dainty ladies.

Appetite, it turns out, may not just be a lust for a particular type of food. It could also be a lust to be bigger, stronger and better than everyone else. To be seen as rich, powerful and important. 🤴🏻While this isn't 100% true across cultures (some don't value masculinity and power as much as others), it's still enough of a problem to warrant consideration. If these are the attitudes driving meat consumption—if it's not just about personal preference—swapping meat for alt protein won't solve the biggest issues. It certainly won't create the compassionate future many of the movement's proponents are hoping for. 🌎

What's the Way Forward for Alternative Protein?

Of course, it's hard to blame the alternative protein industry for wanting to do whatever it takes to transition as many people to animal-free proteins as possible. The consequences of a broken food system are compounding fast, and the fewer animals on factory farms, the better. But adopting this approach in the long term could backfire. It could result in consumers transferring the current meat-eating narrative to alt proteins without any significant change in thought or behavior.

The invisible ideologies may remain, subtly suggesting that consuming meat is the way things should be—even if the meat no longer comes from an animal. 🐮This bears thinking about product development and marketing. Focusing solely on flavor and eating experience dances dangerously close to the edge of the more troubling aspects of appetite.

As a movement, alt protein would do well to avoid playing into the current dietary status quo that supports the idea of meat as a symbol of power or status. The best way forward may involve creating a trajectory that, as part of the process of encouraging a shift away from animal protein consumption, is designed to lead society out of its love affair with and attachment to meat and all the ideological baggage it carries. 👜👜

Would that involve an overhauling of the entire food system—and societal norms as a whole? Of course. But that's ultimately what the alternative protein movement is trying to do anyway. Making a positive impact by changing the very nature of consumers' appetite for meat is a logical extension of that goal.

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