There is no questioning that people are eating too much meat and high meat consumption leads to enormous problems globally. While there is growing interest in sustainable alternatives, it seems that the substitute products widely available in the market today are not attractive enough to quickly bring down meat consumption. Multiple new food industry branches are growing to answer the demand. One of the future branches that have gathered a lot of media attention during the past few years is insects. Even though insects are exciting and clearly better protein source than conventional meat, for me it has become clear that insect does not hold the highest market potential nor are they the best ecological solution when comparing to the other new alternatives. You can read my earlier blogs here and here for my reasoning.
The top three options to replace the modern meat industry are Plant-Based Meat Imitators, Plant-Based Meat Replacements, and Clean Meat. Plant-Based Meat Imitators are products that are 100% plant-based but aim to resemble meat as much as possible. Plant-Based Meat Replacements are products that resemble meat’s nutritional content, in particular, the high-protein level.
These three categories have a lot in common. They all aim to replace conventional meat in human diets with same sales arguments: All are more sustainable, ethical and healthier choices over meat.
To better understand the differences between the categories I made a simple Pugh-matrix. In the matrix, the weight is the multiplier that tells of the importance of that factor. The multiplier can have a value between 1 and 5. The value that each factor gets is selected between -3 and +3. The higher the total number the better. Further, I categorized the factors (the lines) into three parts:
- Slow Changing Factors. Marketing is the only line here.
- Changing Factors. Regulation and Production Cost.
- Unchangeable Factors. Ethics and Nutritional Factors.
The categories are rough and they could be named or categorized in many different ways, but I chose these ones the serve this quick look at the topic. The numbers in this matrix are based on my personal evaluation.
Marketing means how difficult it is to introduce this category to the markets. Conventional meat would get a high score because people are used to it and it has been accepted to be part of a weekly diet. I gave marketing clearly the biggest weight because in the end facts have little to do with our food choices, there are countless examples of this.
Regulation is the law environment that either allows or restricts operating in the markets. Production costs is self-explanatory. These two factors are given small weight because they will not be a deciding factor of the fate of the different industries. The two will either slow it down or help on the way. Also, regulations and especially the production costs can be changed for the better relatively quickly if there is significant market demand. Production cost is the part that is the most difficult to evaluate and the one that keeps on changing the most.
Nutritional facts and Ethics form the “Unchangeable Factors” line. Ethics are a nice plus, but have the least impact of all the factors on the overall score. Nutritional facts are the core of the product on which the marketing is based on. I was thinking hard between giving the nutritional facts 2 or 3, but in ended up to 3 because I wanted to give it more weight than production cost and regulation.
Before analyzing this one, lets jump to the future where there are no regulatory barriers and production costs of clean meat have decreased significantly:
The differences are not very significant, especially in the case where regulatory factors are not considered and clean meat production cost has decreased significantly. It is hard to make a clear conclusion other than that the Plant Based Meat Imitators- category will flourish only until Clean Meat technology advantages enough. Yes, the Imitators will get better imitating as well but it cannot escape its fundamental issue that is visualized in the line Nutritional facts and health. No matter if Imitators would become 99% like the real thing, there are always some trade-offs when aiming for the imitation and this we will see in the raw material choices, amounts of additives, sugars, fats and salt. Also, having (unnecessarily) complex product increases the production costs.
When looking at the remaining top two categories we see that the total score is almost the same, but that the score is coming from different factors. The main question is what is more difficult, introducing new products to people’s regular diet or bringing down the cost of producing clean meat at scale? Answering this will tell you which of the categories holds more potential.
If we should decide what people should eat based on science, we would give them a plant based diet including Plant Based Meat Replacements. But when we are talking about food that has strong cultural connections we must consider the bigger picture. The only reason why Clean Meat and Plant Based Meat Imitators are on the same line is not the product itself, but people’s associations to them.