The plant-based industry has also struggled with claims that its products are ultra-processed and unhealthy. The science around food processing and its effects on our health is still poorly understood, but that hasn’t stopped campaigners from using the ultra-processed label as a stick with which to bash the plant-based industry. The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization that campaigns on behalf of the meat industry, has run full-page ads in national newspapers in the US attacking plant-based companies for their processing. One campaign compared plant-based meat to dog food, while another labeled them “ultra-processed imitations that are assembled in industrial factories.”
The idea that plant-based meats are unhealthy appears to have filtered through to consumers. In the earnings call, Brown cited industry research indicating the percentage of people who thought that plant-based meats are healthy was in decline. He put this down to “competitive marketing” deliberately targeting the plant-based meat industry. “[They’ve] done a very impressive job in changing the consumer perception,” he said.
The perception isn’t entirely fair. Most plant-based meat alternatives are processed, but so are many of the meat-based products that they are intended to replace. And as the data scientist Hannah Ritchie wrote in WIRED, meat substitutes tend to be lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in fiber than their animal-based equivalents. Sure, plant-based meats aren’t a great alternative to lentils or peas, but they stack up reasonably well against burgers, sausages, and other processed meats. It’s a stretch to call them healthy, perhaps, but the ultra-processed argument is hardly a slam dunk.
Impossible Foods tried to embrace the ultra-processed label, calling its burger “unapologetically processed” in a post on its website. Beyond is taking a different tack with a campaign called “There’s Goodness Here” that features shots of bucolic fields and a smiling farmer while pointing out that Beyond Steaks have been certified by the American Heart Association.
It’s too early to know how these campaigns will pan out, but it’s an interesting shift in tone for an industry that has positioned itself as tech-adjacent for a long time. Early on, these alternatives were marketed as breakthrough gadgets. Genetically modified burgers that bleed! More protein than beef, but from plants! And what’s more, they were gadgets that promised to solve a real problem: the colossal emissions that come from farming animals for meat. When Beyond Meat went public, it was riding a wave of enthusiasm that the plant-based meat industry would figure out the killer app for our dinner plates.
But food isn’t like the technology industry, Reams points out. Food companies—even ones with a cool technological edge—do not grow like a software company, he says. Food companies operate on razor-thin margins, prices are volatile, and customers can be extremely picky about what they’ll put in their mouths. There’s also a scaling issue. Software companies can scale rapidly because getting their product to new customers costs almost nothing. It’s just a matter of duplicating lines of code, or hooking up a user to a centralized database that already exists. Food isn’t like that. Every extra plant-based burger requires more soy and pea plants that have to be grown, plus labor costs and processing time. Bigger factories and more efficient production will reduce the cost per burger, but scaling is a slow process that requires expensive physical infrastructure, with no guarantee that customers will buy those slightly-cheaper burgers once they’re made.