*The opinions expressed here represent only the author, and not any companies he may be affiliated with.
Innovation often brings with it heated debate, and plant-based meat is no exception. With the recent wave of highly-realistic meat alternatives, we’re faced with the question: is the perfect taste worth arguably imperfect ingredients?
How can those of us in the plant-based foods industry move forward together? We are, after all, in pursuit of largely common goals – a sustainable food system, reversal of diet-related disease, protection for animals, and financial success, among others. How do we determine, pursue, and defend the right choices for our own businesses? Considering that our impact can only be achieved with consumer buy-in (and buying), we must first engage with the public’s competing interests.
For many consumers, the decision to eat less meat is motivated by health. For that reason, plant-based meats with long and hard-to-pronounce ingredient lists pose the risk of consumer backlash. But despite “health” being the hot topic it is, a look at the data reveals what food marketers already know to be true: taste, cost, and convenience are the biggest drivers of purchase decisions between products. People simply care more about these attributes than about values-based motivators like health, sustainability, and animal welfare. Nevertheless, if we want to maximize social good and lasting impact, we should strive to improve across all these measures, while also focusing on financial success.
In a perfect world, plant-based companies would all use clean, cost-effective ingredients that taste amazing to even the least healthy consumer. But tofu and kale have been around for millennia, and we haven’t yet eradicated climate change, heart disease, or factory farming. Therefore, we have to do the best we can while we continue to innovate. So how do we do this?
I posit that there are four steps.
First, each company needs to define which practices it deems unacceptable by its own values and commit to avoiding them. Second, assuming that a company believes that its products are a net good to the world because it is displacing lesser products, it is that company’s responsibility to maximize sales. Will there be trade-offs? Absolutely.
But what’s important is how those trade-offs are approached. The third step is therefore to be transparent about the company’s choices. If, as a company, you believe that minimizing the number of animal-based meals being consumed is the most effective way to achieve your mission, and that using a particular ingredient enhances a product’s texture or reduces costs enough to sell more, share that rationale clearly, humbly, and without judgment of those who feel differrently. Showing consumers that you are engaging with these issues in a thoughtful way will humanize your company and build trust. The final step is, whenever possible, to set measurable goals and timelines for future improvements.
We are closer than ever to creating the perfect meatless product. One that’s healthy, affordable, good for all stakeholders, and unbelievably delicious. Until then, let’s hold ourselves to the highest scrutiny so that we may be proud of our decisions, and celebrate our shared victories as an industry that is leading the change we wish to see.
David Benzaquen is one of the world’s leading experts in the plant-based food industry. Among his experiences, he spent nearly a decade leading a corporate strategy consulting firm for plant-based products and founded one of the first plant-based seafood companies.
He has invested in a number of startups in the space and has spoken all over the world about the plant-based industry. He and his companies have been profiled in The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, Wired, Inc, CNN and more.