Eco-conscious and ethically-mindful consumers are starting to take over the plant-based "meat" alternative market. According to Forbes Magazine, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the sales of alternative meat brands like Impossible, BEYOND, and AlphaFoods. In the last week in March 2020, alternative meat sales were up nearly 255%. Even before the pandemic, alternative meat products were trending at a 158% increase from the previous year.

The increasing sales of alternative meat products has raised a whole host of consumer questions. Here are some of the top questions we need to ask before we consider if the alternative meat market will squash meat altogether. 

Who's buying alternative meat and why does it matter? 

Millennials are currently one of the top purchasers of alternative meats with GenZ coming at a close second. These individuals not only have immense buying power to purchase goods that align with their values, but they also have the power to influence others to follow similar values- mostly through social media. 

The audience to whom alternative meats are marketed is also worthy of consideration. Is it the third-generation cattle rancher from Northwestern Kansas or is it the 20-year-old museum hopper in NYC who only likes overpriced avocado toast because Gwyneth Paltrow does? Millennials and GenZ aren't as stuck in cycles of repetition and frugality; they're willing to spend more for novelty than their parents. And companies like McDonalds, In-and-Out, and Shake Shack are willing to step in to provide those products to a hungry audience. 

In short, it's much more advantageous for a budding alternative meat company to go for a younger crowd than to try to change the buying habits of old, rural, and (often) white men. 

Will plant-based meat products become cost-comparable to meat in the coming decade? 

One of the primary barriers towards increased consumer participation in the alternative meat market is the cost per unit of alternative meat products. According to market research, hyper-processed alternative meats are significantly more expensive than traditional meat options- right now. 

Why are meat alternatives more expensive? Simply put, the supply chains that support the alternative meat production market are still in their infancy. As this article explains, much of the ingredients that go into alternative meats are byproducts of other industries- such as soybean protein coming from the production of the soy oil industry. As a result, the production capacity of many meat alternative brands is comparatively low to the meat industry. But, if demand for ingredients increase, it is likely that economies of scale will slowly begin to emerge in the alternative meat sector. 

Other potential production costs of meat alternatives stem from research & development. Companies like Impossible and Beyond want to be strategic about the products they put out on the market so they can capitalize on consumer interest. 

However, what we often don't factor into the "cost" of a plant-based diet is the time needed to prepare a meal. Vegans and vegetarians who don't have the time, knowledge, space, or skills to prepare minimally-process options might rely more on bagged meatless-meatballs from Trader Joe's than a jar of vital wheat gluten from their local co-op. 

Are people willing to put aside their concerns over the ingredient list on an alternative meat product? 

The meat industry has strategically deployed an argument among health-conscious individuals: our products contain one ingredient (meat)- plant-meat is full of fillers and chemicals you can't even pronounce. 

But let's look at some of the statistics of what's really in meat: cholesterol, saturated fat, and virtually no fiber. The majority of Americans eat a diet that is much too high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar. So while some might argue that eating gums, preservatives, and soy protein is somewhat ambiguous, I'd challenge you to consider the pertinent health concerns associated with meat consumption. 

Is the range of alternative meat products wide enough to satiate even the most carnivorous individual? 

Burgers, mince, nuggets, "deli meat"- if you can dream it, you can probably find it in a plant-based food aisle. But there's something many of these meats have in common: they're almost all "junk foods." It's simpler for companies to replicate the blandness of standard American junk fare than it is to create a rib-eye out of pea protein.

The alternative meat market has done a great job of coming up with hyper-processed options, but has not really broached the topic of what a "refined," "whole" meat alternative might look like. And here's the truth: it looks a lot like tempeh, tofu, and seitan- the same proteins plant-based cultures have relied on for centuries. Surely, these staples of a whole food vegan diet have immensely different textures than a plant-based nugget from a bag, so they might be a little more off-putting than a hyper-palatable option. 

Do we even want to remove meat from the market all together? 

The jury is still out on this question, as a lot of it comes down to personal ethics and judgement about the social and environmental cost of meat. As an ethical vegan myself, I would love nothing more than to see the demise of the meat industry in favor of something more environmentally sustainable and equitable. However, I'd also like to see a just transition for individuals with their livelihoods embedded deeply into animal agriculture. We can't just wake up tomorrow and shut down all meat processing across the country and expect every restaurant to veg-ify everything on its menu. What we can, however, expect to see is more sustainable alternatives entering the market and a gradual movement away from the meat on our plates.