Critics touted Google Glass as the future of wearable technology. But that all imploded when consumers started raising serious concerns regarding safety, functionality and — most importantly — the lack of coolness.
Critics have similarly been calling imitation meat products the future of food. But just like Google Glass, the wheels are falling off the wagon.
Initially, fake meat received traction for three reasons: consumer curiosity, a belief that “plant-based” equates to healthy, and an aggressive public relations campaign led by those investing in the products. But now consumers are learning about how the fake sausage is made — and the ingredients aren’t impressive.
Synthetic meat products are ultra-processed and filled with preservatives, including loads of sodium. Impossible chicken nuggets, for example, have more calories, fat and sodium than real chicken nuggets. And although the Beyond Burger patty has slightly fewer calories, it has nearly five times the sodium of a real beef patty.
Plant-based meat alternatives often have comparable levels of protein, but two recent studies reveal even that is misleading.
The first study, which was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, revealed that protein found in fake chicken products — often soybean concentrate and wheat gluten — is not absorbed by the body as well as the protein in real chicken. A second study from the University of Auckland found a similar pattern with imitation beef products.
Synthetic meat products are often touted as a safer option, but that too has recently unraveled.
Daily Harvest, a plant-based meal-kit company, is facing a lawsuit after roughly 470 people suffered severe digestive problems — which resulted in at least one hospitalization — after eating fake taco meat. But it doesn’t take contamination for fake meat products to cause severe illness. Sometimes, the ingredients of a “plant-based” chemical brew trigger an allergic reaction.
The company Quorn, for example, was tied to some severe allergic reactions after consumers ate imitation chicken cutlets. The fake chicken was developed with mycoprotein made from fermented fungus. Any marketing professional could have told the early investors that chicken fungus was never going to be the next new thing.
Fake meat products lack the nutrition — and the taste — of real meat. But its novelty did capture the national media and sparked initial consumer interest. But fads, by definition, are not trends. As the buzz dies down, fake meat is quickly becoming mincemeat.
Beyond Meat, the publicly traded industry leader, reported a net loss of $100.5 million in the first quarter of this year. Its investors quickly took note. Their stock price cratered to some of the lowest levels in the company’s short history. If you were an early investor when Beyond Meat first went public (and was still cool), you would be down 900% from the peak price in June 2019.
McDonald’s, meanwhile, delayed a wide launch of the McPlant Beyond Meat burger after sales disappointed. Their pullback was the latest of several companies that have quietly retrenched from promoting faux meat. The two companies said they plan to “continue to tweak the product and messaging to drive broader acceptance.”
The novelty has worn off. Americans who were intrigued have tried it. And as grocery budgets get tighter, fake meat isn’t making the cut.
• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington.