Lars Obendorfer says he was “badly insulted” after he first began offering vegan sausage at his 25 German stands, dubbed “Best Worscht in Town.” He even found himself mediating between customers arguing on social media.
“There was downright hostility between the meat eaters and the vegans,” he said.
That was six years ago. Today, 15% of the 200,000 sausages each year are plant-based.
“It actually tastes like a normal sausage,” customer Yasemin Dural said.
Eating more plants and fewer animals is among the simplest, cheapest and most readily available ways for people to reduce their impact on the environment, climate scientists have long said. According to one University of Michigan study, if half of U.S. animal-based food was replaced with plant-based substitutes by 2030, the reduction in emissions for that year would be the equivalent of taking 47.5 million vehicles off the road.
An explosion of new types of plant-based “meat” — the burgers, nuggets and other cuts that closely resemble meat but are made from soybeans and other plants — is attracting customers all over the world. Between 2018 and 2022, global retail sales of plant-based meat and seafood more than doubled to $6 billion, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm.
Still, that’s dwarfed by global retail sales of packaged animal meat and seafood, which grew 29% in the same period to $302 billion.
And sales have been uneven. While demand for plant-based meat is growing rapidly in some countries like Germany and Australia, sales have flattened in the U.S.
NEW RECIPES TO THE RESCUE?
Plant-based meat has been around for decades. Morningstar Farms, a division of Kellogg Co., introduced soy-based breakfast sausage in 1975. But the current boom began about 10 years ago, when startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat began selling burgers that more closely resembled meat and were aimed at carnivores.
Those products quickly took hold in Germany, where widespread concern about climate and animal welfare have been driving big changes. Last year, Germans’ annual meat consumption fell to a 33-year low of 52 kilograms (114 pounds) per person. At the same time, plant-based meat sales rose 22%, according to Euromonitor.
In Australia — where the average person ate around 120 kilograms (264 pounds) of animal meat in 2020, according to the United Nations — retail sales of plant-based meat have also been growing, up 32% between 2020 and 2022.
Sam Lawrence, the vice president of policy for the Asia division of the Good Food Institute, a plant-based advocacy group, said health concerns are changing Australians’ habits.
But it is the U.S. that represents one of the biggest hopes for a solution: It is the largest market for meat substitutes. It is also one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases from animal agriculture, weighing in as the second-largest consumer of meat per capita behind Hong Kong, according to the United Nations.
Reversing that trend would have a significant impact on global meat consumption, and Tyler Huggins knows it.
Huggins is the co-founder and CEO of the plant-based food company Meati. He comes from a family of bison ranchers and he still eats meat occasionally. But he says it’s imperative to wean Americans from their meat-heavy diet because the country is already using most of its arable land.
Colorado-based Meati makes chewy, fibrous steak filets and chicken cutlets from mushroom roots. Its chicken cutlet has fewer calories, less cholesterol and nearly as much protein as animal chicken.
Meati collects spores from mushroom roots, feeds them sugar and ferments them in stainless steel tanks full of water. In four days, a single microscopic spore can produce the equivalent of a whole cow’s worth of meat.
A MATTER OF TASTE
Meati came onto the plant-based meat scene in 2017, around the same time that dozens of others were trying their hand in the space. US. plant-based meat sales more than doubled to $1.6 billion between 2017 and 2020. But then sales plateaued, inching up just 2% between 2020 and 2022.
Some contend that the high price of meat alternatives is limiting their appeal. But Peter McGuinness, the CEO of pioneering plant-based burger maker Impossible Foods, says taste is the biggest issue.
“I think the category is not good enough,” McGuinness said. “What is the number one thing people want in food? Taste. If I don’t have the taste, they don’t care about the cholesterol and the saturated fat.”
A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 8 in 10 U.S. adults said taste was an extremely or very important factor when buying food, with cost and nutritional value following close behind. Americans are much less likely to prioritize the food’s effect on the environment (34%) or its effect on animal welfare (30%).
FOR THE SAKE OF THE PLANET
The meat industry has sown its own doubts about its plant-based rival. The Center for Consumer Freedom — which says it’s funded by food companies but won’t say which ones — has run Super Bowl and newspaper ads criticizing plant-based meat, saying it contains “chemicals and ultra-processed ingredients.”
Plant-based foods have some benefits over meat; they have no cholesterol, for example, and may have less fat and more fiber. But plant-based foods can also be higher in sodium.
Beyond Meat, another pioneer in the market, is focused on improving the health of its products. But Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO Ethan Brown says that in places like Germany — unlike in the U.S. — concerns about health are outweighed by concerns about the environment.
That’s not the case for Adrienne Stevson. A graphic designer from Johnson, Vermont, Stevson was a heavy meat-eater for most of her life. So when her partner became a vegan, she was skeptical. But the more she learned about the benefits to the climate, the more she warmed to plant-based meat.
“I think in an ideal world we could live with eating dairy products and meat products,” Stevson says. “But there’s way too many people on the earth and we haven’t solved the problem of animal agriculture for that many people in a sustainable way.”