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  • Ujwal Arkalgud

Are plant proteins really the way of the future?

What market data and projections will not tell you.



According to NielsenIQ, the Fresh Meat Alternative category has grown by over 25% this year (last 52 weeks) compared to the period before. But so has Traditional Fresh Meat, although only at 4.2%. I was recently in a meeting where an executive used these data points to tell her team that they needed to accelerate their plant protein innovations because they were missing out on important growth opportunities.


At first glance, one might be tempted to conclude that plant proteins are the way of the future.


But a quick look at the comparative size of the alternative meat category gives us much needed perspective. The fresh meat category is twenty-four times the size of its alternative counterpart, making what previously looked like a rather nominal 4.2% growth rate appear a lot more significant. While this type of market analysis is necessary and can provide a good understanding of what might be going on, it does not help us understand why.


Queue in the music...here comes the Cultural Anthropologist.


Understanding why the marketplace might be exhibiting two seemingly contradictory behaviors is exactly the type of question for which you need to keep the anthropologists around. Because their job is to study and decode meaning. By asking not what people are saying or doing but rather what they mean or imply by their actions, anthropologists can decode ‘the why’ behind shifts in culture and help us avoid the tunnel vision that market data often creates.


To do this in the context of plant proteins, an anthropologist must study the natural language and specifically, the words that are used by consumers when they are engaging in conversations in the broader context of plant proteins. This is fundamentally what the field of structural anthropology is all about.


It tells us that the structure of language in any context is representative of the structure of the human mind.

Which means, studying the language used in and around plant proteins allows an anthropologist to understand and pinpoint the most dominant interpretations of plant proteins in people's minds. For example, if a lot of the words used in this context are about nutrition, then an anthropologist asks why there is so much discourse around it only to discover that it is because people are concerned about whether alternative meats will lack the nutritional density of their traditional counterparts.


In fact, in a recent study that my team of anthropologists conducted using MotivBase Trends, examining discourse among more than four hundred thousand unique Americans around alternative meats and plant proteins, we discovered that the meanings around “plant proteins” were quite different from the meanings around “alternative meats” or even “faux-meat burgers”.


When people talk in the context of “plant protein”, they are referencing a new way of eating and living. The requirements are significantly more stringent for consumers in this context because they are thinking about it as a lifestyle change to adopt more plant proteins in their day-to-day diet. On the other hand, when people talk in the context of “alternative meats”, they are referencing a single moment in time when they feel the need to replace a traditional solution with an alternative one. Perhaps it is to accommodate a vegetarian guest in the house, or to simply reduce one's meat consumption from time to time, but the mindset is one that is short-lived. Which also means that the requirements that go along with it are less stringent.


For example, in the context of “alternative meats”, consumers expect less in terms of matching the nutritional qualities and density of traditional proteins. They are also less concerned about how these alternative products are made or how much sugar they contain and tend to focus their time and energy on the issue of taste and experience rather than nutritional density and value. All this of course changes when we enter the culture of “plant protein” where the conversation is significantly more nuanced around the specific micro- and macro-nutrients that traditional and alternative meats need to deliver to ensure a balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle.


So if you looked at the growth numbers around the industry-defined category of Fresh Alternative Meats and thought you needed to expand or accelerate your plant protein strategy, I'd urge you to think again. Take a step back and ask if you are making any blatant assumptions about what these category names really mean to the consumer.


Ask whether the way the industry defines alternative meats is the same as the way people define it. Because when you do, you'll discover that you need to be very specific in how you interpret market performance data. Growth in substitutes represents a different culture and a different opportunity than plant protein does. Industry measurements may not make this distinction, but you have to...because your consumers do.

Unfortunately, these types of assumptions of meaning are commonplace in corporative innovation and marketing and it results in the launch of products and brands that end up hurting an entire category or culture. In fact, Mintel has just released a study claiming that the food industry's obsession with plant-protein claims is actually making the category lose its credibility in the eyes of the consumer.


Plant protein on the left, Alternative meat on the right. Source: MotivBase Trends, Aug 20, 2022

It only takes a few minutes for us to ask such questions through an anthropological lens.

For example, we can see that "plant protein" as a culture is stagnating and volatile, while "alternative meat" as a culture is growing...and now we know why that might be the case.

This is why you need to keep the anthropologists around. They will help you ask not what people are saying and doing but rather what they mean. Meaning invariably opens up doors we didn't even know existed, and perhaps most importantly, gets us out of an industry-led mindset to begin to speak the consumer's language.