Minnesota Soybean Business

Alternative protein: friend or foe?

Consumers want to feel in control. The more choices they have to choose from, the better they feel about the decisions they make. After a recent launch of a soy-based Whopper – the Impossible Whopper – from Burger King, it is important to take a step back and understand the effect, if any, it may have on the agricultural industry.

“The Impossible Whopper was well-received and one of the most successful product launches of that product type,” says Kim Nill, director of market development for the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC). “The future of something like this is going to be near and dear to our hearts: increased choice. Consumers are now given the choice to buy products in the form they want.”

While this is increasing consumer choice, it is raising the eyebrows of professionals in the agricultural industry. Are soy-based burgers capable of influencing the traditional protein market?

“We have heard from our producers at an increased rate over the last couple months due to the fact that these alternative proteins are getting a lot of media attention,” says Karin Schafer, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. “I remind our producers that alternative proteins are not new and have been around for some time, but, to their credit, their product is getting more effective at trying to mimic meat than they had in the past.”

Dating back to the 1970s, plant-based proteins have always been a choice. It was not until recently that these alternative proteins were promoted in the media and are available to consumers around every corner.

“It is an exciting time to be in the plant protein business. There is more demand than there is supply and investors are looking to invest,” says Kermit Nash, partner with Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr. “We’ve seen the numbers and the population is growing. The plant-based proteins are going to be a vital way we are going to feed the growing world.”

Supply and demand

It is human nature to be interested in a new product, especially when the latest trend hits close to home and could have a sizable impact on agriculture. Being informed about the current trends is crucial to measuring its potential impact.

“We are tracking the market research and consumer trends. What we are seeing is that, as of now, meat substitutes represent less than one percent of sales in 2019,” Schafer says. “I have a feeling this might increase, but ultimately we still have a vast majority of the market share and consumers are feeling good about our products. Future market research will ultimately tell us if these alternative proteins are a trend or a fad.”

While advocates are touting the positive impact plant-based proteins have on the environment and the additional option it provides consumers with special dietary needs, many critics fear the potential impact it may have on the traditional protein market.

“I think these products are overwhelmingly being sold to people who would eat both traditional and alternative protein, based on the day. There is evidence to support that these products can have a positive impact on sales of traditional proteins,” Nill says. “A recent report stated that, in the first months of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper release, sales of both the Impossible Whopper and the traditional Whopper increased in direct correlation.”

The economy, of course, is driven by supply and demand. In this case, there was some demand for alternative proteins and many organizations are now trying to supply it, generating an increase in U.S. retail sales by 11.3 percent in 2019, according to the Plants Based Foods Association.

“Consumers like choice, consumers like options and we, as a consumer, appreciate variety. The Minnesota Beef Council is showing beef in the most positive image and light possible.” Schafer says. “Two concerns consumers may have with beef that could drive them to make a certain choice is the nutritional difference and sustainability concerns they seem to have. We are trying to tackle those two consumer issues and demonstrate that we raise a good product.”

A pound of soybeans sold into the alternative protein market is a pound of soybeans, but, depending on the breed, two pounds of soybean are utilized to produce each pound of retail beef from a feedlot-raised steer.

“Is the alternative protein market something that is going to be huge and take over the traditional meat market? No, but it doesn’t need to be huge to be successful,” Nill says. “Alternative proteins have a place in the market and traditional proteins have their place, too. It is all about being an informed consumer. Forming personal opinions and making decisions need to be based on your personal wants and needs.”


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