A new report from CoBank, a cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America, suggests that the market for plant-based meats has likely reached a tipping point after a boom period over the last several years.

U.S. consumers haven’t lost all interest in plant-based meat alternatives, but higher prices for these products are becoming a problem as Americans tighten their belts to cope with inflation. Plant-based substitutes often sell for several dollars a pound higher than real-deal meats, and not everyone is sold on the products’ taste and mouth-feel, according to the report, titled “Consumer Interest in Plant-Based Meats Fades Amid High Prices and Product Shortcomings.”

Even so, flexitarian eating styles mean there’s still a future for plant-based foods in general.

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The CoBank report notes that, according to consumer behavior research firm Circana, volume sales for meat alternatives dropped 20.9% for the 52-week period that ended July 2, 2023. Dollar sales have dropped, too, sinking to 80% of what they were in 2022.

Consumers who crave plant-based foods have been shelling out a little more money to replicate the meat experience, the report states. “Through June 2023, Circana notes the average price per pound of refrigerated plant-based meats was $8.40, up 2.7% from the year-earlier period. For animal proteins, USDA expects for all of 2023 prices of beef and veal to increase 0.7%, poultry to grow 3.1%, and pork actually to drop 2.5%.”

Additionally, Americans tend to go for familiar foods during periods of economic uncertainty. And for most of us, plant-based meat alternatives don’t exactly qualify as “comfort food”—not yet, anyway. Regardless, the report says, consumers “have long perceived plant-based meats as a poor value relative to other proteins. Even though more affluent consumers tend to be the core purchasers of these products, it is not enough to maintain sales growth.”

Plant-based meats skyrocketed in popularity in 2020 due to high consumer curiosity, greater discretionary income and shortages of some food products during the pandemic. “Yet fewer than half of Americans who tried the products at the time repeated their purchase,” the report states, citing research from global market and research firm Mintel.

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Americans also have negative perceptions of plant-based meats in terms of flavor and texture. “Innovation around taste and mouth-feel…appears essential for capturing more mass-market consumers,” the report states.

And, as PMQ recently reported, there’s yet another lingering negative perception about plant-based meats: Some consumers view them as overly processed and downright unhealthy, thanks in part to the efforts of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit with ties to the meat industry.

Finally, the “better-for-you” pitch hasn’t fully resonated with most consumers. With that in mind, companies in the plant-based meats segment have pivoted to a message of sustainability: plant-based meat, in other words, is better for the environment, appealing to customers who want to reduce their own carbon footprints.

For vegan and vegetarian-friendly pizza restaurants, plant-based meat toppings, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat, can still reel in some customers, and strides will undoubtedly be made to improve these products’ flavor and mouth-feel over time. But restaurateurs like Alex Koons, owner of the all-vegan Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles, will tell you that traditional plant-based toppings—like mushrooms, peppers and onions—and lesser-used veggies like broccoli and eggplant will often satisfy the vegan/vegetarian’s pizza cravings just as easily as plant-based meat substitutes. And for many of us, veggies are comfort food.

In fact, when Koons uses plant-based meats on his pizzas at all, he makes them from scratch. “I’m not interested in using anyone else’s meats but my own,” he told PMQ earlier this year. “And, really, it’s not something that I like that much, so I’m probably not going to extend that part of the menu.”

“Sales of plant-based meats has reached a degree of maturity,” the CoBank report notes, “particularly as its era of initial consumer trial appears to have come and gone. Plant-based foods, overall, should benefit from more flexitarian eating behaviors among consumers, but plant-based meats specifically will likely be a small component of those efforts. Barring significant innovation that attracts those flexitarian consumers, sales growth in plant-based meats has plateaued.”

Food & Ingredients