Commentary: Analog angst

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Here’s some breaking news, as reported by National Public Radio: “According to new research, consumers—and not just vegetarians—are warming up to products like tempeh, tofu and seitan that can stand in for meat. In a survey released this week by market research firm Mintel, 36% of U.S. consumers said they buy meat substitutes—even though only 7% identified themselves as vegetarian.”

Surprised? Don’t be.

“The bottom line is that vegetarians and vegans aren’t the only people eating 'fake' meat’—meat eaters are also exploring this newfound protein superpower,” Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst at Mintel, said in a statement.

According to Mintel, the most popular meat substitutes are faux burgers, either made from vegetables, and/or wheat or soy protein, followed by fake poultry products, such as tofurkey. Women were slightly more likely than men to buy the foods.

This isn’t news; this is intel that’s more warmed over than last week’s meatloaf. And even the cheerleaders at Mintel reported that this “hot, new market” reached sales totals of about $553 million in 2012, an increase of 8% from 2010. Moreover, grand total of 110 new meat substitute products were brought to market in the 24 months from 2010 to 2011.

Now, $553 million’s nothing to dismiss—and 55 new products a year is . . . well, it is what it is. But in comparison to other center-of-the-plate categories, those totals are miniscule. Just considering beef alone, forget consumption: The United States exports more than 10 times the amount of vegetarian alternatives purchased domestically.

So why all this enthusiasm for meat substitutes? Here’s what the survey identified as the top two reasons:

  • Health perceptions. One-third of consumers indicate using alternative meat products because they are healthy, and 51% of users believe they are healthier than real meat. In addition, some 31% are trying to reduce their meat consumption, according to Mintel.
  • GMO-free. Products that can present a “clean profile” will be best positioned to attract the attention of shoppers, according to the report.

To that pair I would add environmental concerns. Thanks to a nearly a decade now of propagandizing from activists amplifying scientific calculations regarding livestock production’s carbon footprint, the notion that eating beef is contributing to a host of ecological problems has become firmly implanted in the national psyche.

The irony is this: Not only are vegetarian analogs decidedly not healthier, they’re absolutely not helping turn the world GMO-free, nor are they some big contributor to a reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions. The same “industrial farming” systems, the same centralized harvest and processing channels, the same big-bucks packaging, marketing and advertising machine—all of which is lustily condemned by natural food advocates and animal activists is exactly how soybeans, wheat, corn, tree nuts and the other food ingredients used in veggie products arrive at your friendly neighborhood supermarket store.

Which is typically owned and operated by a multi-billion-dollar, multi-national corporate behemoth. You know—the kind that organic and natural foodies love to hate.

Not to mention that the drivers of meat analog purchasing are negative in nature. Rather than touting the so-called health benefits of meat analog products, the consumer responses documented by Mintel confirms that the positioning of vegetarian alternatives is all about persuading people to avoid eating “bad-for-you” animal foods, lest one ingest unhealthy fats or scary Frankenfoods.

Yet to hear the shills hawking all this processed vegetable protein, veggie analogs are all about choosing “natural,” eco-friendly, super-healthy food products that they hope people will consider to be perfectly acceptable substitutes for the animal foods that have occupied humanity’s center-of-the-plate for the last couple dozen millennia.

The bottom line is that veggie burgers, soy dogs and tofurkey are neither healthier nor more environmentally benign than red meat or poultry. Nor are they supporting an emerging group of mom ’n pop processors. The leading brands that comprise the lion’s share of that $553 million in annual sales are manufactured and marketed by the same corporate entities that activists who demonize meat-eating are quick to condemn.

Let’s face it: The growth in analogs, although it pales in contrast to animal foods, is a positive trend—if the benefits are limited to nutritional ones. In other words, adding some variety to one’s diet, trying out new flavors and new tastes—it’s all good.

Saving the planet and improving people’s health by paying more—a lot more—for processed vegetable protein concoctions?

Not so much.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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