No real beef with fake meat

Linsay Ketelings, a PhD candidate at UM’s Food Claims Centre Venlo, researches how marketing affects consumers’ perception of meat replacement products – with rather encouraging results.

Whilst her research is all about food, Linsay Ketelings is much more than a nutritional scientist. Her multidisciplinary approach encompasses food legislation, health promotion, nutrition information and consumer behaviour.

Meat replacement products are, according to Ketelings, anything that replaces meat in a dish whilst being, ideally, more sustainable and just as nutritious. For this study however, she has limited herself to products seeking to imitate the taste or texture of meat products customers are familiar with. Tempeh or tofu, while vegan products which can be used instead of meat, do not fall in this category. “I’ve included products that try to imitate meat products like sausages and mince in both packaging in product design.”

Why the fake meat?

Why are those like-for-like replacements a thing at all? “It makes it easier for the consumer to understand how to use the product.” Marketing-wise these products need to straddle the fence of promoting themselves as both soothingly like meat but also decidedly not meat – the USP is after all ‘meat alternative’, with the stress on both words.

Ketelings also points out the target group isn’t vegans, of whom there are too few to matter, but people trying to reduce their meat consumption for a variety of reasons. “It’s multifaceted, but sustainability plays a big role, people are becoming more aware of how animals are raised and slaughtered and food safety concerns increased also during the pandemic.”

Environmental impact analyses show that plant-based meat production uses 72-99% less water and 47-99% less land, causing 51-91% less water pollution and emitting 30-90% less greenhouse gas. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of soy grown around the world is fed to livestock, so, bizarrely, eating soy instead of meat reduces the demand for soy. “By transitioning to plant-based meat and other alternative proteins, we can use far fewer natural resources and enable entire ecosystems — and the biodiversity those systems support — to recover, function, and thrive.”

More environmental awareness

About half of the Dutch population classifies as flexitarian, that is to say they eat meat no more than four days a week. Around a third of people in the Netherlands started eating less meat over the past three years. Ketelings adds that this transition might have been helped along by inflation making animal products now as expensive as plant alternatives.

EU-wide, more than half of consumers say that sustainability concerns have some influence on their eating habits. Price, lack of information and availability as well as difficulty identifying sustainable food options are cited as the main barriers to sustainable eating.

In 2022, the plant-based meat and seafood retail industry generated $6.1 billion in global sales; combined plant-based milk, cheese, and yogurt hit $21.6 billion globally. Both are growing. Before you celebrate the sustainable revolution, note that both meat and dairy sales came in at around $1.300 billion each and grow at roughly the same rate. Also, sales of meat alternatives have seen a recent downturn.

Are there any health benefit to replacing the bits of an animal you’d have to eat on an edgy game show with hydrated soy protein, plant oils, emulsifiers and what can best be described as miscellaneous ingredients, all hardened into strategic lumps? “There’s no extensive research on this but replacing meat products with meat alternatives can improve e.g. cholesterol levels. Especially processed meats aren’t healthy, so reducing or replacing those might have overall health benefits.”

Nutritional claims and assumptions

With meat being the cultural default and seen as necessary by many, marketing is crucial for fake meat. Ketelings is interested in the tension between the marketing claims, the nutritional reality and the legal restrictions. In this study, she looked at the claim ‘high in protein’ and if and how it influences consumers. “You regularly see this claim on meat replacement products. There is an implied nutrition claim there.”

Taking a range of meat products, namely burgers, mince, chicken and sausages, as well as their meat-free alternatives, Ketelings surveyed 120 participants. Half of them saw meat-free alternatives with a ‘high in protein’ claim on the packaging. Participants were asked to rate several nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fibre, saturated fat, and salt on a scale from 0-7.

“Most consumers correctly estimate the nutritional value of products – however the high protein claim made them overestimate how much protein there was in the fake meat.” This is obviously problematic since the marketing is to some degree misleading consumers. “Meat alternatives are lower in protein than the meat products, but also lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre.”

Most consumers correctly estimate the nutritional value of products – however the high protein claim made them overestimate how much protein there was in the fake meat. Meat alternatives are lower in protein than the meat products, but also lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre.
Linsay Ketelings

Not everything goes

Food law is regulated at EU level. That includes guidelines and mandatory consumer information; but in some cases, there is room for interpretation for Member States. In order to call a product a ‘source of protein’, the EU stipulates that at least 12% of its energy value comes from protein, the claim ‘high in protein’ requires 20%.

There are no guidelines for minimal nutritional values of ‘plant-based alternatives’. Almond or oat based ‘milk’ contain virtually no protein or fat but is seen as an alternative to milk – not because of its nutritional content but because of its culinary use, e.g. in coffee or with cereal. (Does oatmeal made with oat milk qualify as incestuous? Discuss.)

“You can’t actually call it oat milk anymore – it’s oat drink now. There is a general backlash from established industries and use of any dairy related terminology is forbidden. For meat products, that’s not the case (yet) even though it has to be very clear that it’s not meat-based.”

Consumers quite conscious

Ketelings doubts anyone is actually misled by these products. She explains that the animal product terminology make sense nevertheless. “People might not know what to do with tofu for example, but if you call it ‘nuggets’ even though you make it very clear it doesn’t contain chicken, people will know how to prepare it and how to eat it.” Thus, while ‘oat drink’ is a bit of a headscratcher, ‘barista oat milk’ is basically descriptive as well as instructive.

The conclusion is that Dutch consumers are actually quite literate when it comes to nutrition – but that claims about protein slightly warp those estimates. According to Ketelings, meat alternatives have a place in a more sustainable healthy diet. While the Netherlands is relatively healthy, 36% of adults are overweight and 14% obese. “On a population level, reducing caloric intake is definitely a good idea. And we already consume too much protein anyways. Only people on a fully plant-based diet should consume a bit more protein than recommended because the uptake of plant protein is less efficient, so you want to consume more to compensate that and make sure to get all the essential amino acids.”

Text: Florian Raith

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