Plant-based boom: How meat eaters, flexitarians are driving the sector

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  • The market for plant-based meat in the US hit $5 billion in 2019, and a recent report predicted the industry could be worth a massive $74.2 billion by 2027. 
  • Companies like Impossible Foods already have beef-inspired products in grocery stores and restaurants like Burger King and are developing new products that mimic lamb and fish.
  • Instead of targeting vegetarians or vegans, makers of plant-based meat are expanding their reach to “flexitarians” — people who eat meat but are trying to reduce their overall consumption.
  • It’s this group that’s driving revolution and innovation in the sector, three leading experts told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The plant-based revolution is well underway in the US. American sales of plant-based foods grew 11% from April 2018 to April 2019, while the total US retail-food market grew just 2%. In 2019, the market hit $5 billion, and a report from Meticulous Research in July predicted it could be worth $74.2 billion by 2027.

Just 5% of Americans self-identify as vegetarian and less than 3% consider themselves vegan — but many others are embarking on “flexitarian” diets that minimize meat and dairy. The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) says one-third of Americans are “actively reducing” their intake of meat and dairy by participating in “Meatless Mondays,” opting for an occasional veggie burger or stocking their fridges with plant milks alongside dairy.

It is this new group, not vegans or vegetarians, that is driving the explosion of the market and inspiring companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to revolutionize plant-based meat substitutes, experts told Business Insider.

Those less committed to ditching meat aren’t as keen on health food like bean burgers or tofu, which have traditionally dominated the space — instead, the market has embraced items like the Impossible Burger, which emulates the texture and flavor of beef, thanks to a genetically modified heme protein made from soy. A far cry from the bean burger of the past, Impossible’s original claim to fame was its plant-based burger that “bled.”

“Impossible has been very, very clear from the beginning that they were not targeting vegetarians,” said John Grubb, the board president of Naturally Boulder, a Colorado natural-products company. “It was absolutely a mainstream play.” 

It’s working. In March, Impossible Foods raised $500 million to develop new plant-based alternatives to lamb, goat, and fish, and its products are now present in mainstream outlets like Burger King.

Flexitarians are ‘the biggest part of market growth’

That reach should not be surprising, given the variety of people who want a meat alternative.

“There’s all kinds of different consumers that are driving this trend,” Michael Robbins, a PBFA spokesperson, said. But he said flexitarians were “the biggest part, for sure, of market growth.”

For some flexitarians, their diet is about ethics. For others, it’s health, particularly given the pandemic, which Robbins said “has accelerated what was already a period of strong growth.”

“In part because of panic-buying and people stocking up, and in part because of perceived shortages of animal products and people looking for new ways of experimenting with food when they’re at home, there was just a perfect storm of events that really led to a pretty dramatic spike,” he said. In late April, shares of Beyond Meat, which produces plant versions of beef, chicken, and pork, jumped 49%, which analysts attributed in part to supply shortages amid the pandemic.

One major pre-coronavirus motivation was sustainability. In 2018, an Oxford University report found meat and dairy production accounted for 83% of farmland use and 60% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, but just 18% of the world’s calories. According to one PBFA consumer survey, sustainability resonates deeply with millennials, while their parents’ generation tends to choose plant-based products for health reasons.

According to Grubb, this market shift means “the old bean burger is destined for a sort of residual niche role,” relinquishing space for the technological advances that taste like meat without the devastating impact. In addition to Impossible and Beyond, other products include Meati, a mycelium-derived meat made from a fast-growing fungus rich in protein and fiber, or Daring, which emulates chicken but is made with natural soy.

John Grubb, Managing Partner, Summit Venture Management

John Grubb, a managing partner at Summit Venture Management.

Summit Venture Management


Both companies seek to emulate the flavor and nutrition of meat with a fraction of the carbon footprint.

“The way that these new products deliver on taste and texture is just phenomenal,” Grubb said. “The perception of the level of compromise that was necessary to be a vegetarian or a vegan has really, really diminished.”

Grubb is looking forward to even more innovation, specifically with hemp hearts, which he said would likely prove even more palatable — and nutritious — than market leaders like pea protein.

“For many years, consumers have told pollsters that they intend to eat less meat,” Matt Ball of the Good Food Institute, an American nonprofit that promotes plant alternatives, said. “Yet until the past year, per-capita meat consumption went up and up and up, both in the United States and in the world.

“Now that plant-based meat is starting to give people what they want in terms of taste and familiarity, we see plant-based-meat sales increasing sharply.”

To hear analysts tell it, this sounds like only the beginning of a long upward trend.

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