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Food•6 min read
The alternative protein market is evolving rapidly — but it still might not be quick enough to outrun the environmental devastation of the meat industry.
Words by Björn Ólafsson
Twenty twenty-four kicks off after a relatively stagnant year for the alternative protein market in the United States. While cultivated meat earned regulatory wins, most plant-based protein products have seen diminishing sales and evaporating funding. Sales hardly budged in 2021 and 2022, and while we don’t have complete data from 2023 yet, it doesn’t look like last year bucked this plateau.
However, this doesn’t mean the entire industry is flailing — alternative protein sales are flourishing in Europe, and cultivated meat debuted in U.S. menus for the first time, albeit only in two restaurants.
“This past year has indicated this isn’t an inevitable shift,” says Emma Ignaszewski, an associate director for the Good Food Institute, a research and policy nonprofit for alternative proteins. Shifting diets to alternative proteins is far from guaranteed, suggests Ignaszewski, who argues that the sector needs to keep innovating if it wants to retain consumers, especially by creating tastier and cheaper products.
Here are the biggest trends to look out for as the alternative protein sector aims to further enshrine itself in mainstream eating habits.
As of 2023, only two countries, the U.S. and Singapore, have approved cultivated meat for commercial sale. More countries are expected to join this club in 2024 — first on the list are the UK, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.
Aleph Farms, an Israeli cultivated meat company, has applied for regulatory approval in Switzerland and the UK this year, and received approval in Israel. The process is expected to conclude by the end of 2024. Due to lengthy EU regulatory requirements, no other European country is likely to see commercial cultivated meat in 2024. Down under, cultured meat company Vow passed the first stage of Australian regulation this month, and might reach consumers in 2024.
But it’s not all good news for the industry — challenges to cultivated meat will ramp up in 2024, forecasted by a new law in Italy that bans cultivated meat production within its borders. Other countries and regions, including Romania, Florida and Texas, have their own bills. Bans on the production and marketing of cultivated meat are quite controversial, with groups of scientists protesting the decision in Italy. It remains to be seen how likely these bans are to spread, but because of the structure of the EU and United States, consumers in these countries and states will still be able to eat cultivated meat, just not be able to produce it.
Over the last few years, the meat industry hasn’t taken the rise of alternative meat lying down — they have launched a marketing campaign, sometimes bordering on misinformation: claiming plant-based products are fake, unhealthy, ultra-processed or otherwise harmful. (For more on this, see our explainer on health claims about plant-based meat.)
For many companies, the solution to this backlash is twofold: make products healthier, and make them tastier. See Impossible’s juicier Indulgent Burger side-by-side with its Beef Lite (complete with a certification from the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Program). Or THIS, a plant-based brand that wants to expand into both processed and whole food options to sway all types of consumers. Many producers are adding micronutrients to their products to boost health, while others are blending plant-based burgers with cultivated meat fat cells for that umami flavor.
By branching out in two opposite directions, companies are hoping to snare consumers who value different things in their foods. It’s a stance that has the meat industry worried. “If [alternative protein companies] can promise [consumers] the best tasting chicken they’ve ever had, that is a concern,” said Kevin Ryan, a food marketing expert at the 2023 Chicken Marketing Summit.
Consumer research is clear that younger people tend to be more interested in plant-based alternatives than older people. In the U.S., people aged 18-34 with relatively higher incomes were the most likely to purchase plant-based meats, and two-thirds of Gen Z and Millennials across the world are expected to eat more plant-based food in the future. Gen Z, the oldest of whom will be 27 this year, are aging into the buying power that alternative protein is now wooing — the “habits built by younger generations will set the stage for the future of food,” says Ignaszewski.
When surveyed, Gen Z also wants diverse plant-based meat options. If companies are to successfully market to them, they’ll need a lot more than burgers and filets. First on the docket might be munchies: there don’t exist as many plant-based imitation snacks like jerky, pork rinds or string cheeses — but that might change this year.
The link between alternative protein and sustainability hit the mainstream in 2023. Denmark, Germany and South Korea all released food system transition plans which prioritize and promote plant-based eating with new dietary guidelines, funding, marketing and other initiatives. Scientists, think tanks and non-governmental bodies all showed more evidence that governments need to fund alternative protein to make their food systems more sustainable. And, for the first time, the UN’s COP28 served very little animal meat to their climate delegates, while an UN Environmental Programme released a report calling for alternative proteins as a means to fight climate change.
It’s an auspicious time for investment into alternative protein sources. Alternative protein benefits from government support because governments can help companies scale up supply, lowering prices faster than the free market can. They can also unify groups. In 2022, global governments more than doubled their contributions to alternative protein research and manufacturing.
We’re bound to see many more countries open their wallets to fund a sustainable food system. Japan, India and China have all announced more public funding for alternative proteins; 2024 is bound to bring even more.
Back in 2020, there was a boom of alternative protein start-ups in Latin America. As of now, this region hasn’t been able to translate those start-ups into market penetration, but that might change in 2024: Latin America is one of two regions projected to have the greatest dollar growth globally.
Latin America has a long history of using native plants rich in proteins and vitamins like maca, algae, tarwi, quinoa and more. Some companies are capitalizing on these existing foods, creating flavors unique to the continent, while others are working on more conventional plant-based burgers and nuggets. The breadth of companies has the potential to disrupt the Latin marketplace.
Due to the global meat industry’s foothold in Latin America, especially Brazil, the land has suffered deforestation and pollution for decades. A strong alternative protein industry would bring more jobs to the region and slow down environmental destruction (though perhaps not quickly enough to avoid “the point of no return” in the Amazon).
While many might think that the plant-based and animal-based sectors are worlds apart, the borders are much grayer. It’s been seven years since Tyson invested in Beyond Meat, citing a need to feed an “ever-growing and diverse global population.” A few years later, Tyson launched a line of plant-based products of their own.
This trend is set to continue in 2024, with more meat companies creating their own products in an effort to diversify their consumer base. Mack Graves, a meat industry insider, recently predicted that the meat industry will copy and create plant-based products in their latest attempts to stay ahead of the consumer curve.
A few years ago, most plant-based brands utilized a handful of protein sources: soy, peas and maybe gluten. But that’s not going to stay the same in 2024, where we’re bound to see far more creative plants step into the limelight.
Algae, especially spirulina and chlorella, can stimulate muscle growth, and start-ups are popping up across the world to create products from these unlikely green food sources. Meat made from mushrooms, especially the root-like component mycelium, are already attracting rave reviews. Other recently founded companies are using unconventional ingredients like sunflower, jackfruit, hemp and konjac, as well as the classics like soy, oat, cashew and pea. Many of these products may hit markets in 2024, so we’ve yet to see how consumers will react to such diverse options.
Plant-based and cultivated meats have been facing down misinformation as long as they’ve been in supermarkets, sometimes even before. A report shows that narratives centering plant-based meats as unhealthy, overly processed or even conspiratorial reached millions of people in 2023. That can be a problem for an emerging market. While peer-reviewed research can debunk these claims, consumers might be dissuaded by compelling counter-narratives.
“Ensuring these products are accurately represented,” says Ignaszewski, “is an important part of having a consumer base.” Companies must work hard in 2024 to more transparently communicate with potential consumers — we’ll see how effectively they can reach them.
Coming into 2024, alternative protein companies will be aiming to break through the recent stagnation of the industry — enticing new consumers, strengthening their flavors and textures and scaling up their production to lower prices.
Correction: This piece has been updated to correct an instance of misspelling of Emma Ignaszewski‘s last name and to clarify that Ignaszewski is an associate director, not the associate director.
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