The Two Compromises Limiting Alt-Protein Product Development

Future proteins, meat alternatives, sustainable proteins. The category of new products entering the market to replace the traditional and unsustainable meat in our diets has many names. Latest big article on the topic calling it the alt-protein sector was released in The Guardian on 30th of April 2018. You can read the article here.

In the article, some of the main players in the industry are interviewed. The main message given by the companies is clear: The most important thing in attracting large audiences and saving the planet is the taste.

“I don’t think mayonnaise, even ours, is healthy at all,” “I’d much rather people have a box of carrots if they are concerned about health, without question.” Josh Tetrick of Just.

“From our perspective, health is not the point,”  Bruce Friedrich of Good Food Institute.

The widely accepted approach shared by the interviewees seems to be that two clear compromises must be accepted in order to introduce these better options for meat eaters.

Compromise no 1: Healthiness

These modern food companies like the interviewed Just and Impossible Foods have a clean slate to do almost anything imaginable in the field of food technology but they have selected a path where healthiness is not the main factor. Is this really the best way? These companies might answer no, but at the same time, it is a must in order to attract large masses. Obviously, everyone would like to do very healthy products, but it has been accepted that as long as the taste is good, health- questions can be put aside.

Compromise no 2: Variety

When looking at companies like Just, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, there is another question that they have accepted as fact: For wide customer base acceptance, their products must resemble known animal-based products they are aiming to replace. The products are aiming to resemble animal-based products not only by taste but also by how they look, feel and smell.

The thinking behind these compromises suggests that it is easier to market people familiar, but inferior product instead of unfamiliar superior one. It is important to notice here that we are not talking here about cost as the motivation for these compromises, but marketing.

These two compromises might be well justified, but they are very limiting from product development’s perspective. The management of these companies are telling their R&D- departments:  “let’s do a sustainable product and tastes good but it must look, feel and taste like this other thing”. When working from the point of view where you are copying something, not making the best possible product, you are incentified to sacrifice not only health but also the optimal environmental impact.

What if the management’s message to R&D would be the following: Let’s do a product that is sustainable, tastes good and is healthy? What kind of amazing products could these companies create if they would work without these listed compromises?

The clean meat industry is a bit different story. Clean meat- companies are not copying animal-based products, they are making the original thing but in a more sustainable way. Producing muscle-cells in bioreactor instead of rearing an animal brings an impressive list of improvements in comparison to the traditional method of producing animal flesh: No manure-derived issues, no use of antibiotics, the end product is free of animal-based pathogens to name a few.

The justification for the need of clean meat products comes from the well-founded assumption that people must have a meat option and to provide that to them the bioreactor way is clearly better way than rearing the full animal.

Clean meat- companies and the “plant-based meat imitators” are in the same line in the way that both want to introduce meat alternative to meat eaters. It is absolutely clear that there is a huge demand for this. In clean meat’s case, we don’t need to think of the issue of the product being familiar or not because the end product is the very same meat we eat today.  In the plant-based product’s case, this conclusion that product quality should be sacrificed for marketing purposes should be seriously questioned. If the imitator- companies follow the chosen path they are bound to find it to be a dead end. Eventually, the clean meat technology matures and the products hit the market shelves with comparable prices to the imitators. At this stage, the plant-based meat imitators have nothing on clean meat when marketing to meat eater audience.

For more detailed comparison of clean meat, plant-based meat imitators and plant-based meat replacements read my earlier blog post here:  https://ilkkataponen.com/2017/07/27/imitators-replacements-and-clean-meat/

 

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Imitators, Replacements and Clean Meat

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:

  1. Slow Changing Factors. Marketing is the only line here.
  2. Changing Factors. Regulation and Production Cost.
  3. 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.

The Matrix

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Before analyzing this one, lets jump to the future where there are no regulatory barriers and production costs of clean meat have decreased significantly:

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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.

Conclusion

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.