It’s no surprise that alternative meat products are popping up everywhere these days. In fact, they have grown so much that Ernst & Young data predicts alternative meat could see 40% market share by volume by 2040 in the United States.

Another good predictor: GFI recently awarded $5 million to boost research into alternative proteins, in an effort to help meet overarching climate goals. One thing is certain: alternative protein is being reimagined at a global scale.

Rob Dongoski, Ernst & Young Food and Agribusiness Leader, says the protein system is transforming and believes it will offer opportunities to help address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from decarbonization, to restoring ecosystems, to reducing circular and bio-based materials. 

There are three different types of alternative protein for meat replacement: plant-based, which we see most in the market today; cultured products, which aren’t readily available yet and we don't know much about; and fermentation, says Dongoski.

Consumers are now familiar with the simple plant-based burgers, and it seems to be getting some traction. “Still, I’m not sure consumers completely understand what they’re eating and I think they continue to dig in to ask, where does my food come from? How is it treated?” Dongoski says. 

To discuss the move to alternative protein, we need to know why consumers make the choice.  Most of it, Dongoski notes, is curiosity. As well, there are vegetarians who perhaps see this as a great alternative to experience the meat taste. And then there are vegans and vegetarians who chose the lifestyle for strong reasons surrounding animal welfare. 

Consumers push food and beverage trends, but what else is driving the market? There is a push for more clean consumption in the foods we eat. “Consumers definitely want to eat more plants than ever before. I think it’s the perception that plants are healthier than their animal counterparts,” explains Dongoski. 

Drivers also include the idea that plant-protein is fresh and it is healthier than the animal counterparts, Dongoski adds. Also, there is a rise in overall protein consumption (more than carbs) so even animal-based will push demand. Sustainability also is a driving force, with no greenhouse gas emissions and so forth. 

“There is definitely room for improvement with animal agriculture by using water better, using digesters to control emissions, etc. without even discussing alternative proteins,” Dongoski says.

“I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow—40% by 2040 is a lot of innovation between now and then.”

Generation to generation, the younger Gen Z and millennials care less about housing and cars, for example, than their older counterparts. Boomers and Gen Xers grew up where food was about nourishment, and their goal was to fill out the old food pyramid. Food is more fascinating to the younger generations. And with social media, Instagram-worthy food posts and the like, it’s quite popular. Having a meal out is a big deal with unique foods, small plates and getting into the “in” places.

Food is becoming a status. If you go to Aldi, you’ll see some alternative proteins on the shelf, but Whole Foods and the like have a lot of different products in different forms where most are small brands, observes Dongoski. 

“Consumers are really interested in small brands. They feel like if they buy a small brand and they've got a farmer on the package and there's a story about that farmer and how they run their farm and the values they live and the family they have—that’s appealing to today’s consumer,” he explains. “On one side it's about plant-based and fresh and some of that, but the other side I think it's about small food. Unfortunately for big food brands it's kind of guilty by association. Big food falls into an institutional category and consumers have a very, very low level of trust for institutions in today's environment.”

Dongoski concludes, “I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow—40% by 2040 is a lot of innovation between now and then.”