It was the smell that hit me first: the stale yet also sterile aroma of factory processing. The puce-coloured patties looked deeply unappetising – and as I fried one, it exuded a salty-sweet pool of oil, probably because it contained more fat than protein.
On the palate, the texture felt weird; a chewy substance that didn’t break down as real meat does. Instead it became watery in my mouth and left a horrible taste, as if I’d licked a barbecue rack that had over-wintered in the garden – or burnt some dog food. I couldn’t wait to get all traces of it out my kitchen.
How anyone expected the Beyond Burger to replace real meat when it launched just over a decade ago, is anyone’s guess. Sure enough, it appears people increasingly don’t want to sample this strange and unappealing product.
This week, its makers, Beyond Meat, reported that overall sales have slumped by almost a third. Valued at $10billion as recently as 2019, the company is worth a fraction of that, at less than $1billion.
Sales of fake meat more generally slid in the UK by 6 per cent last year, and, according to market research firm Mintel, that trend is expected to continue.
Clearly consumers are starting to wrinkle their noses at these products. The question is, why?
The two Beyond Burger patties cost £4 at local Tesco, where a packet of four own-brand beef burgers is £2.59. Per kilo, the real meat is £5.70 while Beyond Meat is £17.70, an astonishing 310 per cent more expensive
While some shoppers seemed happy to put up with their bland colours and taste, what they now seemingly can’t stomach is the price.
The two Beyond Burger patties cost me £4 at my local Tesco, where a packet of four own-brand beef burgers is £2.59. Per kilo, the real meat is £5.70 while Beyond Meat is £17.70, an astonishing 310 per cent more expensive.
This is absurd when you consider the costs involved in rearing and feeding a cow compared to the synthetic alternative – a conglomeration of pea protein, colouring, thickeners, potato starch and the stabiliser methylcellulose.
People were once willing to pay higher prices for this processed gunk, but if the current squeeze on our household budgets does us one service, it will be to rid us of these crimes against meat.
Beyond Meat, one of the market’s biggest operators, is finding conditions tough. It said this week that sales had been affected by ‘softer demand in the plant-based meat category, high inflation, rising interest rates and ongoing concerns about the likelihood of recession’.
Vegetarians and vegans will be pleased that no animal had to die in making these products, but that has not stopped shoppers abandoning them in droves.
And good for them. This failed experiment will serve up a cautionary tale to investors for decades to come. This is what happens when Silicon Valley gets involved in a business it doesn’t understand.
Beyond Meat, reported that overall sales have slumped by almost a third. Valued at $10billion as recently as 2019, the company is worth a fraction of that, at less than $1billion
Beyond Meat, founded in the U.S. in 2009, launched its products three years later buoyed by stellar celebrity backers. Kim Kardashian endorsed it on Instagram, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates invested large sums. The Microsoft founder is reported to have bankrolled $50million into its rival, Impossible Foods, too.
Venture capitalists from the tech sector also invested heavily. But food is a different proposition from computers. Changing the way people eat is extremely hard.
Consumers were not expected to give up bacon and cheeseburgers overnight, but instead drift away from meat more gradually in what the tech enthusiasts bizarrely coined ‘protein transition’.
That didn’t happen, partly for the most obvious reason: the taste is awful. Even Bill Gates acknowledged that consumers would need to ‘get used’ to it. The lie that fake meat tastes just like the real thing was one among three peddled by the industry.
The second was the claim that the manufacturing processes are eco-friendly and help to save the world, which I’ll come to later.
Thirdly, we were told these dollops of processed slop were ‘healthy’. That is an odd word to describe foodstuffs typically containing a minimum of 20 ingredients – many artificial – and some up to 30. Many of those ‘green’ burgers are a griddled melange of protein powders, additives and E-numbers.
The resulting product is highly synthetic, completely at odds with the consumer demand of the past 20 years for natural foods.
Artificial plant-based proteins tend to be loaded with ‘anti-nutrients’ – compounds that make it harder for our guts to absorb beneficial macro and micronutrients. Essentially, it’s less digestible than real meat, and certainly less nutritious.
The fake‑meat revolution was sold to investors as a sort of ‘nicotine patch’ for red-meat consumers, something that would wean them off a habit that some scientific trials have suggested can lead to cancers in later life. The target market was never just vegans, who make up only about 1 per cent of the UK population.
Instead, fake meat was aimed squarely at flexitarians – those who are mostly vegetarian but like the odd steak – on the premise that these people either had a vague sense that plant-based products would be healthier or because they were concerned about the impact of livestock farming on climate change.
But consumers are not stupid, and they are beginning to realise that this ‘green revolution’ is not half as sustainable as it’s meant to be. In fact, some plant-based products might use even more energy to produce than meat.
When Tesco was challenged in 2022 to prove to the Advertising Standards Authority that its vegan Plant Chef range was the eco-friendly marvel it proclaimed, the supermarket was unable to come up with convincing evidence.
Beyond Meat, founded in the U.S. in 2009, launched its products three years later buoyed by stellar celebrity backers. Kim Kardashian endorsed it on Instagram
Plant-based products will struggle as consumers become disillusioned by their flawed environmental and nutritional claims and eyewatering cost
Tesco is far from alone. In 2021, Sustainalytics, a firm that rates the environmental sustainability of companies, concluded that it was impossible to gauge whether there was any justification for calling these products ‘sustainable’ or ‘world-changing’, because the manufacturers were ‘not transparent about their emissions’.
Plants need large amounts of fertiliser, heat and water, after all. And that requires a lot of energy.
The uncomfortable truth is that meat is a part of our way of life. Busy parents in the UK will always turn to spaghetti bolognese or chicken tikka for a quick, filling, tasty dinner. The tradition of a Sunday roast is as strong as ever.
The anti-meat evangelists have tried to make us believe that new generations would regard animal products as outdated and as irrelevant as carrier pigeons.
Indeed, Bill Gates and his fellow eco-investors expected to see global consumption of meat fall sharply by 2030 and cease by 2050.
Clearly, that is not going to happen. In fact, industry forecasters expect worldwide growth of up to 7 per cent annually.
Meanwhile, plant-based products will struggle as consumers become disillusioned by their flawed environmental and nutritional claims and eyewatering cost.
Supermarkets have used these products to present themselves as environmentally responsible. But ruthless efficiency also means what doesn’t sell is withdrawn.
For those who care about the environment, animal welfare and human health, the progressive choice is to avoid factory-farmed industrial foods, be they from a plant or animal source.
Instead, buy from farmers and growers who produce good food on a smaller scale, using methods that put the environment and the welfare of people and animals at their core.
Yesterday, I dropped the half-eaten Beyond Meat burger in the bin. It’s not a patch on the real thing – and thank goodness people are beginning to realise that.
Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative food writer and author.