To scale the environmental benefits of plant-based meat, we need to make it as comforting and satisfying as its animal-derived counterparts

Food isn’t just taste and nutrition. It also appeals to us on an emotional, cultural, and biological level. People connect meals with family and traditions. While many of these traditions have been disrupted in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it did bring people back into their kitchens, where they were theoretically able to make more conscious, healthy decisions about their meals. But in times of stress, people tend to gravitate to comfort foods that are familiar and meet emotional needs — and since last spring, the pandemic has created plenty of unexpected stress and emotions for all of us. 

For many homes, this means meals built around meat. It’s a historic part of people’s diets, and it supplies calories and proteins important for building muscle. These benefits are certainly part of the reason so many people gravitate towards meat-centric diets, but there’s another important factor at play here: Meat just tastes good. Meat is satisfying on both a physical and emotional level.

However, during the early stage of the pandemic, consumers had trouble buying meat as food processing facilities shut temporarily to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, consumers turned to plant-based alternatives for protein in home-cooked meals. Many were first-time buyers. For a two-week period in March, plant-based meat sales grew 148%. Nielsen also reported that sales of all alternative meat products rose 264% in the nine weeks ending May 2. And year-over-year, plant-based meat grew 25% compared to 9% for animal meat in 2020.

This growth is great news for the plant-based meat industry, which was already finding new customers among people who are interested in the health and sustainability benefits of plant-based food. But we won’t sustain that growth unless more meat eaters become repeat customers at a faster pace. It’s going to take more than appeals to health and conscience — it needs to become part of people’s everyday routines.

The simple truth is that today’s alternatives lack the pleasure associated with eating the real thing. For meat eaters to make plant-based protein options a routine part of their diet, the food has to be as satisfying as meat in every sense. The taste, texture, and smell have to all be right. Most people love eating a burger; there’s almost a romance to it. The smoky aroma, the moist, juicy flavor that fills the mouth, and the feeling of biting through a solid patty. A plant-based burger has to meet these expectations. When I worked at PepsiCo, I saw the diet soda trend come and go and iced coffee and tea steal market share away from soda as new generations of consumers wanted less-artificial and better-tasting alternatives. The message is clear: Taste and health are king, and always win when it comes to choice and loyalty.

At Motif, we’re developing ingredients to create new plant-based foods that not only provide sources of protein and essential nutrients, but also deliver on the taste and experiential aspects consumers crave. For example, we’re working on animal-free ingredients for meat alternatives that not only provide rich satisfying flavors and aromas, but also provide that satisfying chewy texture and mouthfeel you expect when you bite into your favorite burger or sausage. 

We’re confident these foods will stand on their own. And they’ll follow a similar trajectory as other foods that are relative newcomers to the U.S. market, like yogurt and hummus, both of which took time for Americans to get comfortable with. 

I care deeply about my health and the environment. I’m eating more plant-based meals because of that. It’s great to see other people doing so, too. But for the plant-based food to fulfill its promise of shifting the balance towards a more sustainable food industry, we need to address consumer preferences for better taste and nutrition instead of focusing on the environmental benefits alone. The pandemic created a tipping point for plant-based meat. Now it’s up to us as an industry to step up.