Why plant-based meat alternative prices remain so high

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Warner recently published the report 'Plant-based Meats – The Battle For Price Parity’. Credit: Anthony Warner and Getty / Hinterhaus Productions
Warner recently published the report 'Plant-based Meats – The Battle For Price Parity’. Credit: Anthony Warner and Getty / Hinterhaus Productions

Related tags plant-based

Food scientist, chef and author Anthony Warner has published a new report highlighting the need to reduce the costs of plant-based meat alternatives.

Titled, ‘Plant-based Meats – The Battle For Price Parity’, the report explains that price remains a major obstacle in the bid to get more consumers to eat plant-based products, with this trend only exacerbated by the cost of living crisis.

The report then sets out a series of recommendations for reducing the price of plant-based foods, such as improving flavour technologies, researching new methods of developing meat-like protein structures, making more efficient use of by-products and developing a wider range of plant-based products.

Speaking to Food Manufacture following the publication of the report, Warner explained that there are several factors currently at play which lead to plant-based products being “generally a lot more expensive than meat equivalents​”.

Firstly, the category is still very brand led, and all those brands want to be premium ones, with high margin expectations and huge marketing costs,” ​he continued.

Secondly, even though the proteins and fats used in plant-based burgers or sausages are generally pretty cheap when compared to meat, in order to make something delicious, you have to add expensive things like flavours, gelling agents and emulsifiers, which are not required in most meat recipes.”

Warner added that other factors at play include the more complicated manufacturing processes involved in the production of meat alternatives and the lower volumes which reduce the access to economies of scale.

When you do the sums to compare protein prices, the economics of plant-based looks pretty good, but various practical realities mean that it rarely offers good value for consumers​,” he noted.

Reducing prices 'hugely important for consumers'

Given the pressures facing households in light of rapid food inflation and the wider cost of living crisis, Warner said that reducing the price of plant-based foods is “hugely important​” when courting a wider customer base.

There’ll be a group of consumers who will always buy plant-based foods, but if we want to attract more of the flexitarian market, which is a far greater prize, we at least need to achieve price parity with meat​,” he explained.

“It’s important to remember however, that although achieving price parity is vital, it is definitely not sufficient. But if plant based can get to a point where it is cheaper, better quality and healthier than meat, then it could easily become the default consumer option for things like burgers, sausages and nuggets. Right now it can be argued that plant-based is not better on any of those metrics, but for these sorts of highly processed products, it definitely can be​.”

Looking at possible solutions to the issue of price, Warner admitted that much of the progress that needs to be made should be focused on “boring​” cost reduction work that takes place on an incremental basis and warned that manufacturers should not expect and anticipate any “dramatic breakthroughs​”. However, based on his own experience working with brands in the plant-based space, he asserted that cutting costs is “100% possible​”.

Flavour is often a key driver of cost, and there are usually savings to be made, especially by consolidating flavours to a single supplier, or working to optimise masking flavours​,” Warner said.

Switching from highly processed protein isolates to less processed protein concentrates can have huge sustainability and cost benefits. There’s a lot of interesting work going on to improve chilled shelf life, which can hugely impact on cost. And some of the most important work to reduce costs and clean up ingredients’ lists is simply coming from a better understanding of the properties of plant protein ingredients​.

By some thoughtful study and analysis of commonly used proteins and fats to understand their intrinsic gelling, foaming and emulsification properties, companies can create better, cheaper products. A lot of our work is simply connecting the companies and organisations doing this analysis with the manufacturers making the products​.”

Another area that Warner believes further study is stream utilisation, which relates to the significant waste streams that result from the protein concentration process.

He continued: “Side stream utilisation in the meat and dairy is well established (for instance whey protein as a side stream of cheese production) and reduces on shelf prices considerably. But for plant-based, especially with new crops such as fava, we really need to find value in the side streams. Effective use of these side streams can completely transform the cost model for protein production, which will offer consumers much better value on shelf.​”

Change will be 'boring and incremental'

Looking to the future, Warner is confident that progress can be made and that prices can be brought down, provided manufacturers take the right approach.

A lot of the near future is going to be about slow, incremental improvements to help create cheaper, better-quality products,” ​he said.

“Whereas all the investment cash will probably go towards precision fermentation and lab grown meat, I strongly believe that boring product optimisation work will be what genuinely transforms the sector in the medium term.”

Warner also predicted that lower levels of ingredient processing will become more commonplace, but would likely involve firms and consumers “rethinking slightly what we are looking for in terms of nutrition”.

“Concentrates are lower in protein, but have more intrinsic fibre and cell structure, which potentially has health benefits,” ​Warner concluded.

“We may have to look less towards matching meat in terms of protein, and more towards making healthier products closer to plants, which will require a slight consumer shift.”

In other news, the former owners of a bakery company in Knowsley have been fined and banned from managing food businesses after pleading guilty to four charges of breaching food hygiene regulations​.

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