By Mayzie Purviance
The Center for Food Integrity hosted a webinar in September titled “The Protein Play: Emerging Trends and Consumer Appetites for Protein Alternatives.” This webinar contained a panel of four key players in the alternative protein (fake meat) game, two of which were David Ervin, Vice-President of Alternative Proteins for Tyson Foods, and Ujwal Arkalgu,creator of big data ethnography and the co-founder/CEO of MotivBase, a company dedicated to predicting trends that shape consumer culture through extensive data collection.
The following article provides specific insight into the minds of someone who’s whole job is centered around the fake meat market and someone who knows society’s opinions and beliefs in regard to fake meat.
How did Tyson Foods got involved in the alternative protein niche market?
“Our purpose, as you might have heard, is raising the world’s expectations for how much good food can do. Our strategy was set on sustainably feeding the world the fastest growing protein source.
“In this market, we believe that we have core capabilities that can help grow, sustain and lead with our consumers in this space. As people have seen, we’ve recently launched a new brand called ‘Raised & Rooted,’ and anticipate building this out as a platform versus a brand.”
- David Ervin
“It’s not just vegan culture that’s driving this, it is a renewed interest amongst consumers to introduce plant-based or alternative protein sources into their daily or weekly diet. It’s not about it being a regular source of protein, it’s about having the choice and having the occasion to make that choice. There are a few interesting factors, one that really comes to mind is the increased confusion in the marketplace about what the consumer considers to be the quality of meat they buy.
“Fundamentally, fear on one side drives an interest. So, if I’m unsure as a consumer about the quality or the consistency of the quality of the meat that I’m getting, then suddenly I go and consider alternatives every now and then — especially when it comes to my children.
“Another area that often comes up is a really interesting territory of enriched foods or functional foods. We are seeing consumers consider plant-based sources or alternative sources as being better suited to deliver a more enhanced nutritional value out of the things they eat and this obviously in particular applies to packaged food and snacks. But it’s just really interesting because as opposed to traditional sources of protein, the alternative sources are seeming better suited to improving the sort of ‘per bite’ nutritional value.”
- Ujwal Arkalgu
“I think we’re clearly seeing a tipping point of consumer acceptance within the space. I think the biggest barrier that we’ve had in the past has been one of taste. As we’ve gotten better at creating tastier products from plants, we are seeing a renewed interest from consumers and I think it does go back to what Jamie [Vice-President for White Castle who was also on the panel] said previously. It’s actually not the vegan-vegetarians that are driving this market, it is meat eaters who are driving this market. Because it is meat eaters, you need to deliver on the expectations that people are getting from meat in order to win them over. And with the recent landscape, we’re seeing that change and broad consumer acceptance.”
- David Ervin
What can traditional meat sectors learn from this?
“It’s not like meat eaters are only going to consume plant-based sources by any means. We’re definitely seeing an interest in this, but I think this is the one critical insight that the industry is slowly grabbing on to. From a consumer prospective, we’re seeing this loud and clear: the consumer has a different set of expectations when it comes to plant-based or protein alternatives. The expectations are actually different than the expectations for traditional proteins or meat-based proteins for example.
“Right now, a lot of the conversations, especially from a marketing perspective, are about how the alternative taste or the experience is just like the original. But I think this will evolve slowly because what the consumer has always wanted is a different set of expectations and that applies to expectations around environmental sustainability; expectations around labeling; messaging and openness in the sourcing of the food; and the nutritional value it carries as well as different expectations in terms of how easy or difficult it is to digest and the overall impact on health and weight management and so on and so forth.
“There’s lots of different demand spaces emerging here but the point I wanted to make, and I think this is the most critical, is that expectations are new and emerging, and they are different. Because these expectations are different, we’re finding that it’s become a culture in-and-of-itself. It’s relevant to about 40 million Americans, but it’s not going to become relevant to 80 million Americans tomorrow, it’s growing by 4-5 percent year over year in terms of cultural relevance. So, this is definitely a trend, but it’s a trend that’s slowly picking up speed. There’s a lot of work yet to be done by companies and organizations that are trying to deliver what consumers really want and need but it’s definitely going to be a slow and steady process.”
- – Ujwal Arkalgu
“The reality of what’s next is, we don’t exactly know right now. I think we’re all learning everyday about what consumers are willing to accept and what consumers want. There’s been a lot of discussion around deli-based meats which is clearly an interesting area and we’ll see how that continues to unfold. We’re also seeing lots of dialogue around algae and other protein sources. Insects continue to pop up, that’s the one that I’m always a bit cautious of, at least from a U.S. perspective but we are clearly seeing lots of different spaces and I think the story is a little bit out. I think as consumers learn more their language and even their cultural norms are going to change as some of these things come out. I do think that the labeling will be a big predictor for us and how these things are accepted, they might have different acceptance across different countries.
“I think we’ve all been saying it, but the number one driver of plant-based areas is really around health and nutrition. That’s what people are ultimately looking for in this space and so different avenues in and different ways to help with health and nutrition, whether that comes from cleaner labels or a different kinds of sources, I think these will be areas we continue to dialogue, especially in the U.S.
“Health and wellness, while super important in the U.S., we are seeing different markets actually responding to different drivers. We’ve talked about how there’s also taste and convenience in the U.S. and the third area of importance is sustainability. In the UK, for example, animal welfare is the driver. And so, in those markets, what you develop and how you market are going to be very different than what our choices are in the U.S.
“The number one barrier continues to be taste. I think that’s going to continue to take a while for us to get over the taste profile and one [factor] that we’re going to have to continue to focus on. But there again, I think it’s the balance of taste and nutrition that we’re going to have to balance as we continue to go forward in the future and as this market develops fully.”
- David Ervin