The rise of ‘flexitarians’: what does it mean for meat?

BANFF, Alta. — A veritable tsunami of protein products — none based on meat — have hit the grocery shelves this month, and many of them replace at least some of the beef, chicken and pork in consumer diets.

Food companies and retailers made their moves far ahead of the EAT Lancet report and release of the new Canada’s Food Guide, both of which recommend reduced consumption of meat.

David Hughes, a professor emeritus of food marketing at London’s Imperial College who follows international food trends, says the rise of “flexitarian” consumers in higher income countries reflects a perception that reduced meat consumption is healthier for people, the environment and animal welfare.

“Most countries, particularly in Europe, maybe in Canada, are experiencing on a per capita basis, static or declining per capita consumption of meat,” said Hughes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean drastic reductions in demand for Canadian beef and pork, however. Exports will be key to that future.

“Much of the growth will come out of emerging nations and not least in China, which already has relatively high meat consumption,” Hughes told producers at the recent Banff Pork Seminar.

“If you want to look at the bare-knuckle, eye-gouging, ear-pulling slugging match, it’s going to be between — it is between — industrially produced fish and industrially produced chicken. And everybody else is on the side, to be perfectly honest.”

The reason for that is simple feed conversion, said Hughes. For fish, the ratio is 1:1 and for chicken 1:1.2. Compare that to 1:2.5 for pork, and the economics are clear.

But beyond that, Hughes said protein alternatives to meat have become much more tasty and attractive, catering to consumer desires for variety while also assuaging the guilt sometimes associated with consumption of certain foods.

A case in point: protein added to candy bars.

“There was a day when you had to be sort of guilty about eating a Mars bar,” Hughes said.

“You might sort of have a snack under the stairs where nobody could see it. And now all you have to do is say, ‘my body needs protein. I think I’ll have a Snickers.’ ”

Hughes also predicts that conventional meat will be heavily taxed in the future as governments respond to consumer pressures.

Dr. Ty Lawrence, a professor of meat science at West Texas A & M University, said the protein picture by 2050 will look nothing like today’s scene.

The meat case will continue to shrink, and plant-based protein alternatives will be common.

The retail meat case “will be half the size or less than what it is today,” said Lawrence.

“I think it will be a novelty to have fresh meat.”

Part of that relates to consumer desires for more convenience, which means less desire to cook their own food and more reliance on food delivery and prepared or ready-to-prepare meals.

Hughes thinks cell-grown meat will also have a place in the marketplace soon, but Lawrence isn’t so sure. Though he admits growing meat from animal cell cultures is “a little bit cool,” he wonders if consumers will readily accept it.

That’s because the cells need nutrients, which will include hormones, and the trend toward “no added hormones” in meat is well known.

As well, antibiotics are typically added to cell cultures, and the “no use of antibiotics” trend in meat is also well known.

On top of that, said Lawrence, is the lengthy time it takes to grow a large amount of product from cells, and when they do grow, the cultured meat has no colour or taste. Colorant and fat must be added.

All that, plus what will likely be a high cost, make Lawrence “a healthy skeptic” about the future of cultured meat.

He and Hughes agree that insect protein use is on the rise and will continue into the future. Loblaws already has cricket products, and an Insekten Burger is marketed in Germany.

It’s the vegetable protein market that shows the most rapid growth and the best consumer uptake, Hughes contends.

“The protein umbrella is getting much bigger,” he said.

Quorn, a product that mimics chicken, could be the first billion-dollar global brand of fake meat. Pulses are being added to a wide variety of foods to boost protein content.

Then there’s mushroom burgers, pea meal bacon, veggie-burgers, beefless tips — the list is steadily expanding.

“None of them are complete proteins,” said Lawrence.

“Every one of them would be limiting in one or potentially more amino acids” compared to beef, for example.

As for the taste experience of a Beyond Burger that contains no animal protein, Lawrence describes it as “a bland, wet dish sponge.”

Neither he nor Hughes considers current protein trends to be a source of panic for livestock producers.

“Don’t be discouraged, but be prepared,” said Lawrence.

Added Hughes: “There’s a brilliant future for meat, but there are some huge challenges.”

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