Natural vs. Processed Foods

The Fake Meat Fiasco: So Much for Plant-based Protein Alternatives

Doug Firby
November 15, 2022
It wasn’t long ago that plant-based meat alternatives – fake meat – began to take over supermarket shelves and fast-food chains. Environmentalists and animal-right activists promised that shifting to a fully plant-based diet would make us all healthier and help solve global warming. Governments jumped in to rhapsodize and subsidize the next miracle food. But all that soon began to fizzle: consumers turned up their noses at fake meat, sales plummeted and restaurant chains began dropping it from menus. Chewing over the exaggerations and false claims behind fake meat, Doug Firby charts how this one-time centrepiece of woke foodies has been spat out by decidedly dissatisfied consumers.
Natural vs. Processed Foods

The Fake Meat Fiasco: So Much for Plant-based Protein Alternatives

Doug Firby
November 15, 2022
It wasn’t long ago that plant-based meat alternatives – fake meat – began to take over supermarket shelves and fast-food chains. Environmentalists and animal-right activists promised that shifting to a fully plant-based diet would make us all healthier and help solve global warming. Governments jumped in to rhapsodize and subsidize the next miracle food. But all that soon began to fizzle: consumers turned up their noses at fake meat, sales plummeted and restaurant chains began dropping it from menus. Chewing over the exaggerations and false claims behind fake meat, Doug Firby charts how this one-time centrepiece of woke foodies has been spat out by decidedly dissatisfied consumers.
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The mood at Nick’s Steakhouse and Pizza, a Calgary red-meat institution, is decidedly upbeat these days. Owners Mark and Michelle Petros have seen a big uptick in business as customers return for what Mark calls “the finest beef in the world – Triple-A Alberta beef.” The pandemic had kept people away from their 43-year-old family restaurant, Mark says, and the last couple of years have been tough. One thing they never really had to worry about, thankfully, was the government-backed flirtation with plant-based protein. The restaurant’s customers, it seems, never budged beyond beef. “We were not concerned at all,” says Mark in an interview.

“We’re in Alberta – beef country”: For Mark Petros, owner of Calgary’s Nick’s Steakhouse and Pizza, pictured here with Head Chef Anthony Lam, plant-based protein proved little threat to Triple-A Alberta beef, his guests’ unfailing choice.

But while the Petros’ experience is perhaps somewhat to be expected – “We’re in Alberta – beef country,” Mark notes – more surprising is that Nick’s Steakhouse is no mere Alberta-based outlier. From coast to coast, Canadians have wrinkled their noses at plant-based meat substitutes. Their rejection of fake meat appears to have a variety of motivations, from the “bleh” taste and often rubbery texture to the typically high prices to – perhaps the biggest objection of all – a baffling list of ingredients that reveal meat substitutes to be highly processed and decidedly unnatural food.

Pity the poor protein patty. Once the darling of the woke anti-meat set, its fortunes have landed on the compost heap of broken dreams.

Not long ago, fake meat was all the buzz, with supermarkets and fast-food outlets tripping over themselves to add so-called “plant-based products” (as distinct from actual fruits, vegetables and grains) to their shelves and menus. It was the healthy, environmentally-friendly choice, its acolytes said, and thanks to food science, it now tasted as good as the real thing. Beyond Meat, the Los Angeles-based vanguard of the movement, became a publicly traded corporation in 2019 and saw its stock quintuple in value in just months to US$234 per share. Competitors like Impossible Foods soon jumped in.

In Canada the iconic Maple Leaf Foods, whose brand is largely built around the wholesomeness of traditional items like ham and bacon, had already become a vocal proponent of fake meat. CEO Michael McCain in 2018 declared he saw a huge future in plant-based products, which he claimed offered “great taste and a great eating experience,” even as he lamented the environmental impact of the traditional food cycle, particularly of beef. In April 2019 McCain announced development of a US$310 million plant-based-protein processing facility in Shelbyville, Indiana, the largest of its kind in North America.

Meat substitutes proliferated in restaurants, fast food chains and grocery stores, goosed by intense advertising and promotions signalling that moving “beyond” real meat was novel, virtuous and healthy, as well as palatable. Brands that had laboured for decades to convince consumers that they offered the best beef burgers were now signalling that beef itself was dubious. Along with activist campaigns to stigmatize meat and government pressure to “eat healthier,” it seemed as if plant-based substitutes heralded the eating habits of tomorrow.

Brands that had worked to convince people they offered the best beef burgers were now signalling that beef itself was dubious; early on, sales of fake meat rose sharply, and Beyond Meat saw its stock price quintuple in value. (Source of top photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

For a time, consumers responded. Retail sales of plant-based meat saw double digit increases in 2019 and 2020 in the U.S., though they made up just 1.4 per cent of the market. Comparable Canadian numbers don’t seem to exist, but even if it took a similarly small bite of the market, fake meat was an irritation the country’s beef industry didn’t need. The lingering effects of the BSE crisis that shut down export markets, together with declining consumption at home, meant Canadian farmers had been struggling with low prices for years, only to see Covid-19 shut down slaughterhouses and cause further difficulties.

But there were early signs that the plant-based revolution wouldn’t take. As far back as September 2019, giant Brazil-based Restaurant Brands International (RBI) announced that its Tim Hortons chain would no longer offer Beyond Meat products like breakfast sausage patties and burgers at its eateries outside of Ontario and British Columbia. B.C. has Canada’s highest rate of veganism and Ontario the most vegetarianism, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. By the following January, Tim’s had dropped meatless “meat” entirely, saying it “was not embraced by our guests as we thought it would be.” The company did not respond to several calls and emails to its offices in Oakville, Ontario. But Charlebois isn’t shy about the likely reason: “If you ever tried a plant-based hamburger from Tim Hortons, it just was not tasty at all.”

For Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food policy at Dalhousie University, Tim Hortons’ early decision to drop Beyond Meat products was no surprise. “If you ever tried a plant-based hamburger from Tim Hortons, it just was not tasty at all,” he says.

Bad taste may well be the heart of it. Rather than continuing to expand exponentially as expected, sales of protein-based meat substitutes at North America’s five biggest producers dropped by 4 per cent last year. Among U.S. retailers, annual sales of refrigerated meat alternatives were down 10.5 per cent by volume in the year ended September 4, 2022, according to data from Information Resources Inc. Beyond Meat products have dropped off menus at chains like Hardee’s and A&W in the U.S., and McDonald’s gave up on fake meat in both the U.S. and in Canada after brief trial runs. Beef is back – or never really left – and, in this particular sector of the economy, the customer is still king.

Last month, Beyond Meat revealed it was cutting 19 per cent of its global workforce, or about 200 employees, because of declining sales. The company said it expects third-quarter revenue to be down by 23 per cent from the same period last year. Since the start of this year, its stock has dropped from US$65 to roughly US$14 per share. The company said retailers have also postponed or cancelled promotions. Beyond Meat did not respond to messages sent to its head office.

The burgeoning consumer rebellion also hit Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s plant-protein keeners. Already in late 2021 the company was noting an unexpected “rapid deceleration” in sales by its Green Leaf plant-based protein operation, according to McCain, who has announced he will step down next year. In August, McCain was losing faith in the fake meat revolution – This transformational outcome did not materialize… and we no longer believe that it will materialize,” he said – and earlier this month publicly traded Maple Leaf announced it was taking a $191 million write-down on the still-wilting Grean Leaf. Interestingly, the statement noted that the company’s sales of actual meat were increasing. Maple Leaf did not respond to several messages from C2C.

Just three short years after its heady heyday, plant-based meat and its advocates are facing a humbling comeuppance. Zealous government regulators, self-righteous eco-warriors and nutritional scolds tried to feed Canadians a bill of goods while demonizing farmers, disregarding the real environmental progress they’ve made and ignoring the fact that consumers would much rather have the real thing.

Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods and a leading Canadian proponent of plant-based meat substitutes, said the expected “transformational outcome did not materialize… and we no longer believe that it will materialize.” (Lightlife is a plant-based brand of Maple Leaf Foods.) (Source of right image: Maple Leaf Foods Inc.)

Why the sudden distaste for fake meat? In a September report, the Deloitte accounting and professional services firm cited three reasons why people have turned against what it calls plant-based alternative (PBA) meat. First, what it calls the “addressable market” may be more limited than many thought. Rather than growing without end, the portion of the U.S. population open to trying (and repeatedly buying) fake meat may already have reached saturation. Aside from PBA being unpalatable, Deloitte noted there is “cultural resistance to a product some view as ‘woke’.”

Second, high and continuing inflation means fewer people are willing to pay a price premium. “Price will likely continue to be a PBA headwind – especially for consumers who are less passionate about the product,” the report notes. A nationwide survey of steak, chicken and bacon prices this year, conducted by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Foods Analytics Lab and BetterCart Analytics, found that meat substitutes were on average 38 per cent more expensive than meat, although the difference varied widely by product. An online search by C2C of one major retailer found Plant Based Ground offered at the equivalent of $10.55 per pound while lean ground beef was only $6.47 per pound – a 63 per cent premium.

Pricey proteins: A Canada-wide survey by Dalhousie University and BetterCart Analytics found plant-based meat substitutes to be, on average, 38 per cent more expensive than animal-based equivalents.

Third, according to Deloitte, consumers are questioning the purported benefits of PBA. “Many early adopters believed that the health benefits of plants would apply to all food products made from plants,” the report states. “Last year, almost seven in 10 consumers (68%) who had purchased PBA believed it was healthier than animal meat.” That faith is already eroding. This year, the report notes, “the number dropped by 8 percentage points. A similar but smaller drop occurred with environmental sustainability, down 5 percentage points.”

A similar decline in Canada might also be occurring because Canadians just plain love beef. A May 2021 survey by Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab found that 92 per cent of Canadians eat beef. Not surprisingly, the highest proportion of weekly beefeaters resides in Alberta at 73 per cent, but even in the least enthusiastic province, British Columbia, 58 per cent dine on beef at least weekly. “We love our meat for really strong cultural and culinary traditions,” says Dalhousie’s Charlebois. “Food is our culture. It’s not just altruistic.”

Methane from livestock makes up just over 3 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, with agriculture overall contributing 8 per cent; environmentalists see a switch to plant-based proteins as crucial to reducing the country’s carbon footprint. (Sources: (top photo) Canada Beef Inc.; (bottom chart) CBC)

But culture, culinary tradition and taste were not high priorities on the anti-meat movement’s list. Ideology was. PBA advocates had pushed meat substitutes with the ambition of shrinking humanity’s carbon footprint. After all, they noted, cows and other ruminants belch and flatulate – a lot. In Canada, methane emitted from livestock makes up an estimated 3.3 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, while agriculture overall generates about 8.1 per cent.

The anti-meat campaign hit a zenith in 2019, about the time the influential scientific journal The Lancet published a report calling for people to eat less meat.  “Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts,” the report asserted. “Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

Two years later the World Animal Protection ENGO made the case for dropping meat in Canada, stating that if people cut meat consumption by 50 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050, the country would be back on track to meet the Trudeau government’s 2030 and 2050 climate targets.

Governments have been receptive to anti-meat alarmism. In a document leaked to the public, an arm of the UK government in 2021 advocated eating more plant-based protein and less meat and dairy foods. Again, the central objective was to battle climate change. The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team suggested creating an environmental rating for supermarkets to make low-carbon choices “easier” for consumers. When the document was exposed in the news media, it was withdrawn.

In the first update to Canada’s food guide since 2007, Health Canada’s 2019 National Food Guide eliminated the longstanding recommendation of two or more servings of dairy per day and suggested that people drink more water, eat a variety of unprocessed foods and choose proteins that come from plants – not animals – more often. The previous four food groups (vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and milk products, and meat and meat alternatives) were reduced to three: vegetables and fruits, whole grains and protein foods.

Then-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna supported the food guide’s shift to plant-based protein, saying the change would help combat climate change. Ottawa has not been shy about spending money on PBAs either. In 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a grant of nearly $100 million to Merit Functional Foods to build a protein processing facility in Winnipeg. “This facility will be a world leader in plant-based proteins,” Trudeau crowed.

Protein politics: The latest Canada Food Guide urged Canadians to get more of their protein from plants, something then-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said would help combat climate change. (Sources: (left image) Government of Canada; (right photo) US Embassy Canada, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

“The whole protein play was politicized early on,” notes Dalhousie’s Charlebois. The multi-pronged anti-meat campaign set off alarm bells in Canada’s livestock industry. It generates an estimated $21.8 billion in revenue annually. Canada’s cattle herd alone numbers more than 11 million animals. Driving a reduction of 50-80 per cent in meat consumption would devastate thousands of farming families and destroy thousands more businesses in the downstream agricultural sector.

“When we see Health Canada trying to exclude beef from the Food Guide, that’s where the threat comes from,” said Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches, a 134-year-old operation west of Calgary that produces about 1,200 head of cattle for market each year, in an interview. “There’s so much politics at play. The past 10 years have been work to defend what we do.”

Copithorne-Barnes said the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef found that farmers and ranchers were losing the propaganda battle because they weren’t telling the public about efforts they’ve made to cut greenhouse gas emissions. “We weren’t the bad guy, but we were painted as such,” she says.

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches in Alberta, said anti-beef propaganda hurt the industry because “consumers love beef, but they don’t like feeling uncomfortable buying it.” (Source of photo: YouTube/Conservations That Matter)

Indeed, Canada’s Trade Commission states that Canadian beef has among the world’s lowest emissions of greenhouse gas per unit of production at 11.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of live weight. It also notes that Canada was the first country to deploy the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef’s framework. As a result, it takes nearly one-third fewer breeding cattle and one-quarter less land than it did in 1981 to produce the same amount of beef in Canada.

The Canadian Roundtable cites dozens of research projects into practices that reduce beef’s carbon footprint, like improving rangeland and biodiversity, enhancing wildlife habitat, preventing wildfires and even creating virtual fencing. The World Resources Institute lists a broad range of practices that cut emissions and promote animal welfare, such as developing more digestible feeds to reduce methane production in the gut, improving feeding practices, planting pastures with improved grasses and legumes, improving veterinary care and modernizing grazing management.

Copithorne-Barnes concedes the anti-beef campaign had a role to play in recent tough times, but thinks things are turning around. “Definitely,” she said. “Consumers love beef, but they don’t like to feel uncomfortable buying it. That’s why prices were low for so long. Now, they’re finally seeing the value.”

Tyler and Dorelle Fulton raise about 600 cattle per year on a 5,500-acre farm near Birtle, Manitoba, just 15 minutes’ drive east of the Saskatchewan border. Tyler grew up in the area, worked in Calgary and Winnipeg after university and then moved back to take over the family farm in 2007. He agrees Canadian farmers and ranchers need to do a better job in telling consumers about their environmental initiatives. “There’s a broader global narrative that beef is bad for the environment,” he said in an interview. “In Canada, our carbon footprint [for beef production] is about half the global average.”

President of the Manitoba Beef Producers Tyler Fulton (left) points out that livestock bring environmental benefits. “Grasslands act as a massive carbon sink… if cattle weren’t utilizing this natural landscape, we’d be seeing it shrink and disappear.”

Fulton is president of the Manitoba Beef Producers and says that livestock bring significant environmental benefits. Raising beef on pastures preserves land that might otherwise not be kept undisturbed. “We have all these grasslands that act as a massive carbon sink,” he said. His organization estimates that 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon is sequestered each year on those grasslands. “You’re not tilling the ground; you’re not disturbing all those worms and microorganisms,” Fulton says. “It’s integral to providing an awesome wildlife habitat. Let’s be honest – if cattle weren’t utilizing this natural landscape, we’d be seeing it shrink and disappear.”

The Fultons are continually improving their own practices. These include rotating pastures to give grasses time to recover and enhance their carbon absorption, and buying a more expensive coated nitrogen fertilizer with reduced emissions during storage. Fulton is particularly excited about a new feed additive called 3-NOP which cuts gut methane production by about one-third.

Not so green after all: Emissions from fertilizer and intensive land use means that producing plants for all those plant-based products comes at its own environmental cost.

While animal husbandry is less damaging to the environment than the anti-meat campaigners claim, researchers have meanwhile found surprising effects from growing nutritional plants. Agricultural fertilizer accounts for at least 3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Their production emits carbon dioxide and methane while their use on fields releases nitrous oxide. Tilling of fields also releases large volumes of greenhouse gases and can cause erosion. All those plants for plant-based alternatives, in other words, come at their own environmental cost.

Unpalatable, ruinously expensive and, it turns out, not that great for the planet after all. But plant-based meat alternatives at least are healthier for humans to eat than actual meat, right? Yet here, too, the case is anything but convincing. As Manitoba farmer Fulton notes, real meat is entirely natural and provides “multiple amino acids, vitamins – vitamin D12 – and minerals. It checks a ton of [nutritional] boxes.” Further, the consumer can plainly see what they’re getting, allowing easy selection of leaner or fattier meat types and cuts.

Canada’s National Food Guide advises Canadians to limit consumption of processed foods, yet plant-based meat substitutes are some of the most highly processed foods of all, requiring ingredients sourced from countries around the world. Many of those countries have far less modern agricultural practices and decidedly opaque food safety. Beyond Meat, for example, lists the following ingredients for its Beyond Burger: water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavours, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, pomegranate extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin and beet juice extract.

“When you look at some of the ingredients, it’s doesn’t look very natural to me,” says steakhouse owner Petros. Nor to Allison Flach, who lives in the small town of Bellevue in southwest Alberta and describes herself as a semi-vegetarian, occasionally eating chicken and fish. She notes that fake meat is “super-high in saturated fats and it’s super-highly processed. I don’t believe it’s healthier.” Flach also takes issue with Beyond Meat’s virtue signalling: “It’s like plant-based greenwashing. It’s all marketing bull****.”

Some experts who debate the merits of plant-based meat substitutes agree, noting among other things their high level of sodium. (Notably, the Canada Food Guide advises Canadians to avoid foods with added sodium.) Nutritionist Tamar Samuels analyzed two major plant-based meat substitutes, Impossible Meats and Beyond Beef, for Byrdie magazine, a healthy living publication. “Both of these products are highly processed and don’t offer much in terms of health benefits,” Samuels said. They contain “artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives to promote shelf stability, preserve texture and increase palatability.” She also noted that several key ingredients rank as “ultra-processed.” Her conclusion: “There’s no denying that natural and whole foods are superior from a nutritional standpoint.”

Not so natural either: From the baffling list of ingredients to the high levels of saturated fat and sodium, plant-based alternatives turn out to be highly-processed foods of dubious nutritional benefit. (Sources of images: (left) Aileen Nguyen/Daily Brun; (right) AARP)

Beyond Meat did not respond to several requests for comment, but the ingredients section of its website seems to indicate it is still trying to catch up with the real thing: “With a healthy heaping of calcium, iron, salt and potassium chloride, these minerals deliver the nutrients we expect from meat.”

Dalhousie’s Charlebois says plant-based protein advocates made a fundamental error by going head-to-head with red meat. Rather than offering plant-based protein as a friendly alternative, the strategy of confrontation unleashed a divisive protein war. “That whole ‘better than beef’ idea; I’ve never understood that,” said Charlebois. “You’re replacing meat with something that’s processed and more expensive.” And obviously less palatable, as millions of consumers found out – and responded accordingly.

As customers become more educated, plant-based protein foods are likely to become niche products, with tastier, healthier and more affordable real meat winning the protein war. (Sources of photos: (left) Balee Sut /Shutterstock; (right) Shutterstock)

As consumers become more educated about the pros and cons of plant-based meat alternatives, Charlebois foresees these processed products likely devolving into a niche. Last spring Tim Hortons reintroduced plant-base protein in a new breakfast sandwich and wrap using plant-based Impossible Sausage – Beyond Meat’s chief competitor. But the company opted not to overhype. “We know many of our guests are looking for a plant-based alternative in their breakfast sandwich thats equally delicious,” said Chef Tallis Voakes, Director of Culinary Innovation for Tim Hortons, in a press release. Fake meat thus becomes a complementary item on the menu rather than a replacement – and consumers get to decide. And that is probably how the vast majority of consumers want it to remain.

Given the eternal attractions and clear benefits of natural meat, open competition on a level playing field would also suit Canada’s farmers just fine. Like Copithorne-Barnes, whose CL Ranch was founded by her great, great grandfather in 1887. Her two kids, now 20 and 22, will be the fifth generation. The Fultons hope to pass along their 5,500-acre farm to their twin 15-year-old children. Seeing the market decline of protein-based fake meat, Tyler Fulton wryly quips: “I can’t say I’m upset about it.” The anti-beef campaign was a “huge concern” for cattlemen, he says. Today, he feels buoyed by beef’s resurgence as a healthy and sustainable source of protein. “I think we can feel good about eating beef,” Fulton says. As well as pork, lamb, goat, chicken, turkey and every other form of legally obtainable meat on the planet.

Doug Firby is an award-winning veteran journalist and newspaper manager based in Calgary, Alberta, who has worked in print and electronic media for more than 40 years.

Source of main image: Michael Vi/Shutterstock.

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