Plant-based packaged meats – those products trying to imitate animal protein in appearance, taste and even nutrition – have been in mainstream supermarkets for less than a year and the space has already become a battleground. National brands and private label companies are using creative nomenclature and package callouts to garner shoppers’ attention. Many retailers have allocated sections of the refrigerated meat department to these products, using shelf tags and even plant-like visuals.

While the category resonates with some consumers, for others the draw is more out of curiosity as an occasional purchase. In larger urban and younger communities, product sells. But so does meat and poultry. In rural America, for the most part, consumers prefer the real deal.

The category is up against some hurdles as we approach 2020. For starters, there’s growing media attention being given to the highly processed nature of plant-based meats. There’s also increased scrutiny of labeling nomenclature, and this is causing some curious consumers to question product integrity and quality.

“Plant-based meat is a factory-made, ultra-processed imitation, not a medley of vegetables,” says Will Coggin, managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, Washington, DC, which is communicating this message through the placement of full-page ads in newspapers such as The New York Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. “Despite what people who hawk the product may believe, fake meat is not healthier than real meat.”

This view is consistent with one of six projections by the Specialty Food Association’s (SFA) Trendspotter Panel for 2020. The group of food industry authorities expects there to be a meat replacement pushback across retail and foodservice. While they currently are “undeniably popular,” according to the panel in a Nov. 19 report, they predict a consumer return to real fruits and vegetables. Consumers will begin to think critically about meat replacements, looking more closely at the ingredient lists, supply chains, water usage, and food safety, prompting renewed interest in plants as plants, according to the panel.  

“Consumers are going to become more discerning regarding the ingredients and production practices behind products with plant-based call-outs,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president, The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Washington. “To an increasingly number of consumers who are enduring plant-based fatigue based on what we see as a fad, health doesn’t come from eating meat or avoiding meat, eating vegan or not eating vegan. Whether they bend toward ancestral or plant-based eating, sustainably and wellness-minded consumers believe that highly processed, ‘denatured’ foods, often sourced from highly processed industrialized grain and seed oils, are not health supportive. To them, it’s about the integration of whole plant-foods in whichever diet you choose.

“We anticipate plant based to largely go the way of natural as consumers seek out more plant-rich offerings that include more mindfully sourced ingredients with greater attention to farm-level distinctions,” she said. “Overall, it’s less about ‘meat’ as the problem and more about ‘factory farming’ and “Big Ag” perceived as being more about profit than well-being of people, animals or the planet.”

Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing, CCD Innovation, San Francisco, and a member of the SFA’s Trendspotter Panel, adds, “Consumers are being inundated with plant-based burgers, in retail and on fast-food menus. But keep in mind that these burgers are designed for omnivores with the goal of having them skip a beef burger, occasionally at first and perhaps more routinely in the future. For vegans, vegetarians and those seeking an option that doesn’t taste, look or bleed like true beef, these are not appealing. So there is a big opportunity to get more creative with vegetables, grains and legumes to meet the needs of this segment.”

“With this massive arrival of so many plant-based burgers, many with similar-sounding names, confusion is sure to reign among consumers,” Nielsen says. “They will need to sort out what differences there are between these offerings, which are gluten-free or soy-free, which taste more like beef and which don’t. In the end, price, value and access will guide people and the whole category will just become one generic set, with an interested eater just picking the one available on a menu or at the grocery store.” 

Indeed, many products are starting to sound the same. This is why marketers are starting to get creative with nomenclature, much to the dismay of regulators.

The US Food and Drug Administration is in the process of modernizing guidelines regarding the labeling of plant-based foods. While waiting, some states have considered or have already enacted restrictive regulations regarding the labeling of meat alternatives with words and phrases commonly used to describe conventional meat products.

In efforts to thwart additional regulations, the Plant Based Foods Association, San Francisco, has issued voluntary guidelines whereby the product may reference the type of animal meat it is mimicking and the form of the product, e.g., burger, nugget, strip, etc., along with a qualifier that clearly indicates that the food is plant based or vegetarian. The association says such qualifiers would include: meatless, meat free, plant based, vegan, veggie and vegetarian, as well as phrases such as “made from plants.”

Improved Nature, Garner, North Carolina, markets a range of easy-to-prepare, soy-based meat alternatives that carry the phrase “chicken free.” They come in chunks, filets, nuggets, tenders, shreds and slices.

All-natural infant formula manufacturer Nature’s One, Lewis Center, Ohio, is entering the plant-based meat category with breakfast options. There are vegetarian patties designed to taste like pork sausage with a hint of smokiness. They are sold frozen and cook in the microwave in minutes. There’s also vegetarian bacon described as being lower in fat, calories and cholesterol with no nitrites/nitrates and sustainably sourced.

Retailer Wegmans, Rochester, New York, now offers a range of private-label meatless alternatives to beef, chicken and pork. Sold frozen, Don’t Have a Cow, Don’t Be Chicken and Don’t Be Piggy products carry a tagline of “Food you feel good about.” The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, is also rolling out a private-label line. New Simple Truth Plant Based is a collection of fresh meatless burger patties and grinds, as well as plant-based sausages (chorizo and kielbasa) and deli-style slices.