If interest in meatless burgers is waning, how can plant-based eating be sustained?


Despite signs the meatless burger industry is losing steam, writers, chefs and industry experts say there is hope consumers will continue exploring other plant-based options to replace the meat on their dinner plates.

Last week, Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat-substitute maker, said that in its second quarter, revenue dropped by 30 per cent compared with a year ago.

The news — though discouraging to some — isn’t surprising to American food writer and cook Alicia Kennedy, who says “tech burgers” are mostly just a distraction from the more important task of getting people to replace the meat in their meals with interesting and tasty vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Five years ago, a Dalhousie University study estimated that 6.4 million Canadians limit the amount of meat they eat; it also found that 63 per cent of those respondents who said they were vegan were under the age of 38.

The United Nations has long said people should eat less meat since “the largest chunk of food-related greenhouse gases comes from agriculture and land use.” According to the UN, meat production often requires extensive grasslands, which often means cutting down trees and releasing carbon dioxide stored in forests.

Alicia Kennedy sits in front of her kitchen aid mixer
Alicia Kennedy is a food writer and cook from New York who is now based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She gave up meat in 2011, first for veganism and now as a vegetarian. (alicia-kennedy.com)

Meatless burgers touted as solution

For a number of years, meatless burgers were seen as a big part of the solution to convince people to give up meat, Kennedy, author of the new book No Meat Required, said in an interview with The Sunday Magazine.

“It was heralded as the real answer … to solve the climate crisis,” said Kennedy, who ditched meat in 2011, first for veganism and now as a vegetarian. “If only we could replace our hamburgers with something that was hamburger-like. Then people would make this switch.”

There was a lot of fanfare when Beyond Meat and its main competitor, Impossible Meat, hit supermarkets, fast-food joints and even expensive restaurants.

In 2016, renowned New York City chef David Chang posted a photo of a meatless burger on social media and wrote, “Today I tasted the future and it was vegan: this burger was juicy/bloody and had real texture like beef. But more delicious and way better for the planet. I can’t really comprehend its impact quite yet … but I think it might change the whole game.”

“That moment really shifted how we were able to talk about vegetarian and vegan food because suddenly it wasn’t strange,” Kennedy said. “Then in 2022, we start to see a drop in the market for these kinds of meat…. People are less interested in them.”

She added: “I think we had to go through this kind of phase of normalizing tech meat, getting plant burgers into fast-food restaurants in order to come back around and say, ‘Hey, I kind of liked it better when I could see the carrot in my veggie burger.'”

No Meat Required cover shot
Kennedy’s new book, No Meat Required, which is due out this month, explores the historical and cultural significance of plant-based eating in the United States. (alicia-kennedy.com)

It’s not how the Good Food Institute (GFI), a Washington-based think-tank, sees things. According to its website, the group is “working to accelerate alternative protein innovation…. By making meat from plants and cultivating meat from cells, we can modernize meat production.”

And it’s not worried about a downturn either.

“Despite recent sales declines, consumer tailwinds are strong. Consumer research indicates that many are interested in cutting back their meat consumption and/or increasing their consumption of plant-based foods,” GFI associate director Emma Ignaszewski wrote in a recent blog post.

“Product development and enhancement opportunities remain, including to improve taste and lower prices in the plant-based meat category.”

Inviting veganism into the mainstream

Toronto restaurant manager Lauren Soo, who has also been on a journey toward eating only plant-based food, recalls trying her first Impossible Burger in 2017.

“I was at one of the food festivals, and I was, like, ‘This is actually great,'” she said. “It’s great to fill a craving, you just want a greasy burger, but in general it’s not a staple of our diet.”

That year, she and her husband quit meat cold turkey, despite a penchant for always ordering steak when she was eating out. (“A meal without meat wasn’t a meal,” Soo said.)

Three people stand in front of the restaurant sign, Soos
Lauren Soo is flanked by her brother, Zack Soo, left, and her husband, Johnny Kountouri, right, at Soos. In addition to its regular menu, the Toronto restaurant offers a fully vegan menu under the banner Fat Choi. (Submitted by Lauren Soos)

It was a brow-raising choice given that the couple are part of the family behind Soos Restaurant in Toronto, a popular spot for Malaysian and Chinese cuisine. They worried about waste and the planet, and wanted to make a change, Soo said.

It’s why, in 2018, the family launched a sister vegan menu at Soos called Fat Choi, which today accounts for 40 per cent of the dishes leaving the kitchen.

Plant-based food lovers sometimes ask Soo why the eatery still serves meat, she said. The answer is simple.

“We’re trying to accommodate everyone, and I think we reach a bigger platform doing what we do,” she said, adding that meat lovers still eat at the restaurant and are suddenly enticed by some delicious-looking vegan options.

“I think it’s better if everyone eats less meat,” Soo said. “On a large scale, if everyone’s doing that, it’s way better than just a handful of people eating strictly vegan.”

A delicious plate of food
A dish from the Fat Choi vegan menu at Soos Restaurant. (Fat Choi Instagram)

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