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How Plant-Based Meats Are Putting A New Spin On Printing The Menu

Life in 2020 has certainly thrown more than its share of curved balls at us. But from elbow bumps to family quiz nights on Zoom, from dolphins in the Venice canals to peacetime curfews, it seems that human beings have an extraordinary capacity to normalise the unusual.

You could be forgiven for thinking that eating plant-based steaks made by a 3D printer might prove the exception to this rule for most people. Apparently not. Even when tech meets meat, it seems that nothing is off the table.

As this video clip explains, using a 3D printer to produce plant-based meat is relatively straightforward. Surprisingly so, perhaps. Briefly, the process involves using food-grade syringes to hold the plant-based printing material, which is then deposited through a food-grade nozzle layer by layer to mimic the taste and texture of real meat. The most advanced 3D food printers have pre-loaded recipes and even allow users to design their food remotely on their computers, phones or other digital devices.

A Booming Alternative

This isn’t science fiction: it’s fast becoming mainstream as plant-based meats – printed or not – begin to gain traction in the market. According to a report by Research and Markets, the global plant-based meat market accounted for $8.96 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $34.61 billion by 2026. According to Barclays, that figure could reach $140 billion by 2029 – about 10% of the world’s meat market.

Inevitably, the pandemic – by far the most profound disruptor in our lifetimes – has had a transformative impact on the world’s alternative meat market. And that’s good news for the industry’s heavyweight players. In Asia, for example, Beyond Meat’s revenues more than doubled in the first quarter of 2020 while sales in the U.S. grew by 157% versus the same period last year. According to a report in Vox, demand for meat alternatives in the U.S. surged by 264% as the pandemic first took hold.

These figures may look impressive, but it’s way too early to write off the animal-based meat industry. The fact is that even the biggest plant-based meat brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are not yet equipped to meet the world’s voracious demand for meat products, plant-based or otherwise. The alternative meat industry acknowledges its own capacity limitations. Although a number of the world’s leading QSR brands have trialled plant-based meat products through their restaurants, the scale of these trials has been relatively small and they are likely to stay that way until the alternative meat industry can scale up its output.

A Revolution Delayed

As Vox puts it: "For all the exciting product launches and customer interest in plant-based foods, the dreamed-of transformation of our food system won't happen until we get a lot better at making them at the extraordinary volumes that global consumers of meat demand."

And while we’re talking about transforming the food system, it’s important to note that some of the world’s biggest QSR brands are taking active steps at the highest strategic level to address the environmental and ethical issues that are helping to turn more consumers onto plant based foods. Credit where it’s due: these brands are responding to consumer concerns with a raft of sustainability initiatives designed, among other measures, to cut the sector’s extensive carbon footprint.

We spoke to a number of industry experts for their views on how the unfolding contest between old-school and alternative meats is likely to play out. There was a general consensus that these are still early days and patterns are still hard to detect. Attracted by their novelty value, more consumers are happy to experiment with alternative meats. But it will probably take a while for demand to stabilize. As one contact said: "It will be difficult to set a baseline for this type of product because I do not believe that we currently have a reliable sense of what 'typical' looks like."

Plant-Based vs. Animal Meat

Despite uncertainties over long-term demand, the people we spoke to were confident that the traditional meat business is unlikely to be cannibalized by its new competitor. In the immediate future, at least. "I sense that demand for product like printed steaks is likely to come from more educated and affluent diners," said one expert. "We're unlikely to see a critical mass of QSR customers suddenly ordering non-animal meat, although they may gradually develop a taste for it over time."

Many foodservice professionals agree that the 2020 pandemic will likely work in favour of plant-based meats, particularly when it comes to consumer perceptions. "In general," said one, "I think the perception will be that plant-based meat is safer than real meat, particularly with Covid-19 and the phenomenon of zoonotic diseases." And then, there is the rise of veganism with a major push underway from animal welfare and environmental groups to encourage people to become vegan. At the same time, a number of major food retailers and QSR brands are joining forces with the farmers who supply them to collectively improve sustainability practices across all parts of the agricultural sector, including meat production.

Meat The Future

Against this backdrop, the plant-based meat sector continues to innovate its way further into the mainstream. In June 2020, Israel-based Redefine Meat announced the launch of its trademarked Alt-Steak, which it describes as a significant upgrade to many of the alternative meat products already on the market. Produced by Redefine Meat’s industrial-scale 3D printers, Alt-Steaks incorporate the company’s plant-based alt fat, alt muscle and alt blood formulations to match the texture, juiciness and taste of premium beef cuts. After initial trials in high-end restaurants, Redefine Meat plans to target Alt-Steak at the mass market during 2021.

The foodservice industry will be tracking the progress of such innovations with interest. Ultimately, of course, it is the consumer who will decide whether the alternative meat market has a future. For now, let’s remember that there was a time when greeting your friends by bumping elbows while wearing a mask would have felt abnormal. But today, we’re living in the next normal.

Contributing Authors: Gwendy Krijger, Jeanette Shutay


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