The “fake” meat arena has recently taken quite a blow, as seen with Beyond Meat recently announcing that sales have dropped by a third, and Meatless Farm (once another pioneer in the sector) was close to falling into administration back in June. Although turbulent, this recent decline in alternative meat sales has a positive spin for food engineers and designers in this space—we need a food revolution; a new venture into tastes and textures. We need to strip it back, redesign protein and flavors from scratch, celebrate the source of nutrition for what they are, and end our obsession with counterfeit meat. 

Initially, brands like Beyond Meat flew off the shelves and every week there was a new competitor on the market. But with the cost-of-living crisis and an unpredictable economic climate post-pandemic came a decline in consumer enthusiasm for meat replicas. Instead, people were heading straight for the frozen veg aisle for a convenient and cost-effective way to meet their flexitarian needs. All the science to give the consumer a “guilt-free” alternative to what they had came at a cost; like-for-like bean patties and soy sausages were becoming more expensive than their meat counterparts. And with this steep rejection came a consumer epiphany: The meat-free movement has its own host of heavily processed ingredients and equally damaging environmental issues.

So, what will replace the “fake” meat trend? Another meat imitator borne from a petri dish? Or some soy derivative injected with color and flavorings to mimic beef?

We’ve gotten so used to the textures and flavors of beef, chicken and pork that trying to replicate these flavors has become the norm. Equally, it’s not just the flavors and textures of meat these alternatives are trying to mimic but the nutritional value too, with the latest protein fad derived from peas. Protein doesn’t always equal health, however. We now know the Beyond Meat’s of the world can be just as processed and have the same detriment to the environment as the meat industry, with things like water pollution from fertilizer runoff, soil erosion and pesticide use.

The Broadening of Palates

That said, a paradigm shift has already occurred. Consumers have broadened their culinary repertoire from meat-based meals to meat alternatives, creating a burgeoning market that appeals not just to vegans but to the health and socially conscious too. And despite the slump in sales for these brands, veg burgers and the like are here to stay and will continue to improve their authenticity and value, albeit with fewer brands on shelf. However, persuading consumers to try out new things beyond what they're accustomed to is a whole new challenge.

For a short while, meat alternatives seemed to be dominating the market, with data showing that plant-based food dollar sales grew 6% in 2021; that’s three times faster than overall food sales, bringing the total market to $7.4 billion.

As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe, sales of plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond Meat saw huge increases in sales. As a food category, it’s also undergone somewhat of a renaissance, in part due to food innovation and consumer consciousness but also because of marketing tactics that have successfully convinced enough of us so-called “flexitarians” that quality and taste need not be compromised. 

Impossible and Beyond Meat brought in exciting new products that provided us with a sense of realism: The food they provided smelled like meat, tasted like meat, even oozed “blood” like meat. That might seem repulsive to some but, for “recovering meat eaters,” if the juiciness of a medium-rare patty was a key feature of burger consumption that was sorely missed, the aping of this experience in an alternative food is quite revolutionary. 

Post-pandemic, however, the plant-based revolution saw a slump and food inflation saw the alternative meat market reach premium prices rivalling or exceeding that of real meat. People were unwilling to pay for what they essentially considered a dietary fad.

Nonetheless, there is a gap in the market to fill and a sustainable food problem to solve—so what is next? Bringing together food engineers, designers and brand consultants from the outset creates an environment for revolutionizing how we engage with foods, for the betterment of our health and carbon footprint. But what has been missing from the processes of creating new food concepts is, quite simply, keen observation. It’s the brand experts' position to understand and analyze what exactly is the role of meat in our diets. The answer is multifaceted and, once broken down, provides a strong framework for new food that does not try to emulate meat characteristics obsessively.

Emotional Eating

Emotions play a huge role in perceptions of meat as the centerpiece of our meals. Meat was once deemed a luxury, reserved mainly for special occasions—like a turkey at Thanksgiving or a lamb joint at Christmas. Terms like “prime cut” indicate that we’re still shackled by misconceptions that providing meat for the family—“bringing home the bacon” as it were—signifies success. The reality today, however, is that mass farming has made meats available all year round; thus they are no longer the status symbol they once were. 

Despite this, the ritualistic relationship we have with meat being the centerpiece of our meals remains significant. It’s hard to imagine carving up anything else. A tofurkey, (a sizable piece of tofu shaped just like a turkey), for example, may not exactly conjure up the same warmth and conviviality as a family coming together to feast on a succulent, aromatic, roasted bird. Maybe it shouldn’t try to be a turkey. No amount of seasoning or shaping will make it look, smell or taste like the real thing. What it should do is be celebrated for what it truly is, not what it is trying to replace. 

Undoubtedly, the sensory, functional and experiential elements of meat do give vital cues to what criteria a new food must espouse to be compelling, without becoming an out-and-out meat imitator.  When it comes to function, food needs to provide balanced nutritional value. The sensory relationship also determines how texture, weight and shape play a part in making food appealing. Then there’s the act of consumption itself: How do we eat it? With our hands or with a knife and fork? Do we grill, stir fry or tenderize it in a pressure cooker like the humble brisket?  

All such elements must be carefully considered to develop and therefore successfully market an entirely new food concept. Once we understand what the true insights are, it can inform food engineers, designers and technologists of an inventive framework from which to work. 

Convincing Fussy Food Snobs

Bringing in brand experts to bridge the key observation step isn’t a new concept. Brands like Cheetos and Wotists sit alongside potato chips on the supermarket shelf. However, getting the consumer to engage with what is essentially flavored puffs of corn and water, was never going to be as easy as the recognizably sliced, fried and flavored incumbents we have fondly come to know as “chips.” 

This is where brand and observation are key. A Wotsit or a Cheeto isn't trying to be a potato chip. It’s because of clever marketing, branding and consumer focus groups that an aerated corn structure fashioned into weird and wonderful shapes has become a snacking favorite for so many. Its difference and flagrant aesthetic departure from its origins as a potato does not put off the consumer, although it is interesting to note that mechanically reclaimed meat shaped into breaded dinosaurs or twizzlers conversely elicits snobbery. 

When it comes to “real” food—that is food that has been minimally processed—natural will always be deemed best. An exception to this rule, however, is insects. Often mooted as the future of food and sustainable eating, many products within this category still feature these little critters in all its entirety, with little eyes and tiny legs still in view, fixed hard and fast by frying. It is difficult to see many consumers wanting to be reminded that their honey-roasted “alternative corn puffs” were once fat and juicy mealworms happily writhing under a log in the undergrowth. If such products were to penetrate the market meaningfully, producers and food designers must work sympathetically with consumers’ disgust reflexes and innate suspicion of food radically alien from its original form to navigate these tensions successfully. 

Taking a Page from Cheetos’s Book

It’s hard to put a timeframe on how far off we are from really changing our eating habits and creating new foods that can help offset health and environmental concerns. But we are in as strong a position as ever. 

When it comes to new foods and alternative meat and proteins, designers should be taking a page from Cheetos’ book and channel authenticity in a way never done before. Consider this: Does a vegan sausage have to share the same coarse and gristly texture of real sausage mincemeat for it to be truly enjoyable? Or can it simply be appreciated and enjoyed for its difference rather than being an imitator? 

The potato snacks market, if anything, shows us that food innovations can change consumer consumption patterns. Meat alternatives share the same potential if they can remain authentic. Today’s technology allows food inventors to become more daring. Resources, like 3D printing, can aid experimentation with new shapes and textures using other sources of protein, like insects, provided these are created with careful consideration for human behavior and societal norms.  

It’s an exciting time for foodies, and if we can get all of the right people together to creatively conceptualize what food might look like in 10 to 15 years, we could see entire eating habits shift for the better.