According to a handful of major news outlets, the plant-based market is cooling off. The Washington Post, BBC, and CNN have all warned that the public’s appetite for vegan alternatives is dying out, with price, lack of restaurant participation, and an overcrowded market allegedly to blame.
So, on further debate about whether or not “plant-based is dead” or dying… First of all, we have to overcome our myopic analysis of markets by looking at one point in time. History evolves and will ebb and flow during its evolution. But we can also learn from what has worked and what hasn’t.
The rise of vegan alternatives
The one category that has had the most success is the plant milk sector, with 15 percent marketshare and 50 percent household penetration. The industry is projected to be worth $42.86 billion by 2029.
So why are almond, oat, and soy milks ubiquitous and fully accepted into the fabric of our society? Is it simply because they’ve been around longer? (That argument is specious, because veggie burgers have been around a long time, too.)
Could it perhaps be because they aren’t trying to be cow’s milk? Could it be because some people actually prefer the taste of almond milk to cow’s milk? Maybe people just want “milky” things, the experience of cookies and milk, without some of the taste qualities of cow’s milk.
When I first emigrated to the United States and had to start drinking cow’s milk in school, I found it to be disgusting. I grew up eating tofu and natto, and simply preferred the flavor that some would call “beany.” I had to mask my milk with Nestle Quick to make it palatable.
Demand for ‘meaty’ vegan food
Some people may argue that it’s their higher price, rather than lack of appeal, that makes plant-based alternatives less attractive. It is true that they do tend to be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, but this hasn’t stopped the growth of alternative milks.
Perhaps then, we are thinking about it the wrong way.
The more I talk to non-vegans who are interested in the idea of reducing their meat intake (the “plant forward” or flexitarian folks), the more I hear the same thing: they like the idea of plant-based, but would prefer a cauliflower steak to an exact replica of meat.
Maybe we need to get over the notion that animal meat and dairy are the ultimate paradigms, that if we can’t replicate that, we won’t succeed. Sure, people may want something “meaty” or “milky,” but maybe they just want something that tastes good. And, another thought: maybe they just want something new.
At one time, a standard steak-and-potato was considered the ultimate meal in America. Then came Chinese, Thai, Indian, sushi, molecular gastronomy, and so many new world, worldly, and other-worldly cuisine and food ideas. Remember when no one knew how to pronounce quinoa 20 years ago? Now, it’s in a wrap in the United lounge at airports.
Maybe we just need to create alternatives that can take the place of meat and milk that just taste great, instead of trying to replicate them exactly. We don’t need to be a “better alternative” – we can be a “new alternative.” Better may be better, but “new” might be best, and actually capable of setting a new paradigm.
In other words, maybe we can just be ourselves, and not try to be someone else.