Blurring the lines in the protein battle for consumers

Fresh farmers market produce in cloth bags. Courtesy: The Wally Shop

With the help of the new food guide, Canadians are looking differently at protein sources. That doesn’t mean beef is doomed, but it will have to adapt

By Sylvain Charlebois
Senior Fellow
Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
Plant-based nutrition is alive and well in Canada, according to a recent poll.
The poll from Angus Reid Global, in partnership with Dalhousie University, found that by April 2019, 38 percent of Canadians had tried a plant-based protein food item in recent months. British Columbia had the highest rate, at 44 percent, followed by Quebec at 42 percent.
The Beyond Meat phenomenon certainly has something to do with it. Over 3,000 retail outlets across the country now carry the Beyond Meat burger product. The California-based company made plant-based nutrition more scalable and more accessible.
However, retail prices are wonky. While some stores retail two Beyond Meat patties for $8, others sell them in bulk, at $1.50 each. That’s dangerous for the brand and for the category in an emerging market.
Most of these products can be found at the meat counter, right next to protein’s bloody version. Knowing that vegans and vegetarians don’t even come close to the meat counter, Beyond Meat is after flexitarians – those consumers wanting to reduce their animal protein intake, for one reason or another.
Recent reports suggest that some stores across the country have been selling 50 to 70 units a day of the Beyond Meat product. It’s unclear how these sales have affected demand for beef, pork or chicken, but it’s reasonable to believe they have.
The new Canada’s Food Guide is apparently playing a role.
The move toward plant-based nutrition has been going on for a while, but the new guide puts an exclamation point on the trend. According to the Angus Reid survey, 29 percent of Canadians admitted that the new guide’s recommendation to incorporate plant-based protein impacted their shopping decisions. More than three months after its release, 33 percent of Ontarians acknowledged having been influenced by Canada’s Food Guide.
This move to plant-based nutrition is just the beginning. The market will evolve. The Beyond Meat product is great but it’s far from perfect. It does include natural ingredients like yellow peas, some of them from Canada. But it’s also a manufactured mix of unnatural ingredients. To replicate what beef does in your mouth requires a great deal of mastery and food science. Not all of this is completely natural.
Over time, the plant-based market will become more educated and sophisticated. The imperfect nature of the Beyond Meat product, and others like it, will need to be addressed.
So there are plenty of market gaps other startups can capitalize on. Let’s hope some of these companies are Canadian.
Consumers want to save the planet, animals and many other things, one bite at a time. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But for the next little while, an exact copy of beef will be difficult to create. But the day is coming – and much faster than cattle producers may think.
The beef industry shouldn’t underestimate food science’s wonders and influence. Plant-based products are invading the market, but we could also see cultured meat and more insect-based products in years to come. Anything is possible. Great opportunities for the food industry are on the horizon, so standing still is not a viable option.
However, despite all the noise around plant-based nutrition, beef does have a bright future. But the beef industry will need to define itself differently in the eyes of consumers, who will want something authentic, unique and natural.
Knowing that no company can replicate what beef does without a little help from research and science, nature is on the side of beef.
Our relationship with proteins is changing very quickly. Beef will need to position itself differently to compete in a world where many alternatives co-exist.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
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