Plant-based protein: Is it time for a new perspective?

Mario Braz de Matos

Mario Braz de Matos

LikeMeat on Unsplash

We are all familiar with Beyond Burger. It was once sold at over 20,000 retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores and across the US, and is known for its partnership with fast food chains including McDonald’s and KFC while being mentioned in major headlines as the pioneer and innovator of the food industry.

Launched in 2009, the company was established right when the dawn of the 21st century marked a surge in the exploration of alternative food sources. This new entrant was greeted with enthusiasm by consumers as the taste intrigued the omnivores and the viability of this new protein source was poised to capture vegetarian and vegan markets.

Asia, a region that has always been dominated by vegetarianism owing to its cultural and religious influences – notably Buddhism, can be found with staple dishes crafted from fermented soybeans like tempeh, wheat-meat seitan, or shredded meat like jackfruit. In 2022, Asia’s investment in the plant-based protein industry soared to hundreds of millions in capital funding, while the US experienced a boom in the sector with billions in valuations.

The outlook for this category appeared exceedingly promising.

Have the meat ‘wannabes’ succeeded?

The certainty of success for meat alternatives remains in question. As we progress through 2024, Beyond Meat faces significant challenges, with its sales plummeting by 30 per cent from its previous rapid growth. The booming demand for faux meat has hit a wall, impacted heavily by soaring global inflation and rising living costs that have shifted consumer priorities and preferences.

Despite earlier predictions valuing the industry at billions by 2028, this swift rise and subsequent decline have stirred scepticism. The pressing issue now is determining whether this downturn is merely a temporary hiccup or indicative of a deeper, more systemic issue.

Tracing back to the 1980s, plant-based protein foods were predominantly a niche market, appealing mainly to vegetarians and vegans. Notable pioneers, including Nutrition & Santé and Quorn, played a key role in broadening the appeal of these plant-based options to a wider consumer base.

The surge in popularity of plant-based proteins is in sync with changing consumer values, particularly regarding climate change and personal health. The growing awareness of global warming, with livestock emissions being a major contributor, coupled with the health-conscious shift brought on by the Covid pandemic, led to a significant change in consumer behaviour. This transformation became the focal point of marketing campaigns for plant-based protein brands, positioning them not just as healthier food options but also as vehicles for positive environmental impact.

Yet these sentiments, while supporting most consumers’ priorities when shopping, still couldn’t help the industry sustain its momentum in recent times, ultimately failing to overtake the traditional meat sector it aimed to disrupt.

It’s still an uphill battle

Plant-based proteins are on the rise, but in positioning themselves as “meat substitutes” can they satisfy consumers who crave the real taste of meat? Many plant-based alternatives struggle to deliver on their promises of nutrition, naturalness, and flavour.

Price is also a key factor in choosing meat substitutes and with the current landscape of soaring expenses, worldwide inflation, thrifty shoppers will think twice when considering plant-based proteins – which cost twice as much as real meat. For most folks, it’s a no-brainer to cross it out from their shopping list.

Measuring plant-based alternatives against the authentic essence of meat may not capture their full potential. By focusing solely on replicating meat’s taste, we risk overlooking the opportunity to innovate and present these alternatives as distinct and unique culinary choices in their own right.

Presently, the obvious battle we see in the plant-based protein sector is trying to fight against is its ability to imitate both the qualities and imperfections of traditional meat.

Because of the existing perception of the conventional category, consumers don’t seem to listen—and this suggests that the sector might need an approach shift. Perhaps, embracing its distinctive aspects rather than continuing as a mere alternative may be more worthwhile.

Can plant-based proteins shine by themselves?

Global consumer goods giant Unilever exemplifies how adherence to traditional ‘butter substitute’ labels can stifle innovation in its journey with margarine. A constrained mindset led to their eventual divestiture of the product. Contrastingly, Upfield’s strategic repositioning of the same product – after acquiring it from Unilever – as a ‘plant-based spread.’ In other words, it is a testament to the power of breaking free from conventional thinking, signifying a shift that resonated with contemporary consumer values.

In a similar vein, some meat substitute brands are eschewing old-school approaches in favour of aligning with current food movements. Wamame’s pivot towards fine dining isn’t merely about riding a trend; it’s about leveraging the unique allure of plant-based products to craft a distinct culinary narrative. By doing so, Wamame isn’t just participating in the market; it’s redefining it, attracting a new demographic and carving out a distinctive niche that challenges industry norms. 

Catering to mass consumers, UK’s plant-based brand veteran Quorn has adeptly positioned its plant-based products in the burgeoning ‘meat-free’ sector. One example shown in its creative campaign called ‘So Tasty, Why Choose The Alternative?’ promoting its deli slices as ‘meat-free’, along with other of its products. The brand distinctly leverages itself by championing the category as a growing market segment; rather than trying to fit in the traditional meat industry.

Differentiation is the key to standing out in a world overwhelmed by intense competition and excessive saturation. While the plant-based sector has not yet fully realised its potential, the opportunities for growth and innovation are ripe for the taking.

Plant-based proteins need to evolve beyond mere alternatives. They must be positioned as something different, for example, culinary adventures, offering diverse and exciting experiences that stand out in the consumer’s mind. Consumers by then can be inspired to make positive plant-based shifts – starting from their kitchens. 

By capitalising on this shift, the sector can transform itself from a niche player into a category leader, redefining what plant-based eating means in the modern culinary landscape.

About the author: Mário Braz de Matos is the co-founder and managing partner of Flying Fish Lab, a management consultancy focused on Controlled Disruption to drive breakthrough growth for businesses. For more information about Flying Fish Lab, visit

Mario Braz de Matos

Mario Braz de Matos

Mário Braz de Matos is the co-founder and managing partner of Flying Fish Lab, a management consultancy focused on Controlled Disruption to drive breakthrough growth for businesses. For more information about Flying Fish Lab, visit


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