By enticing consumers who are sensitive to animal welfare or concerned about their health, “meat imitations” have taken supermarkets by storm all over the world. Powerful lever to reduce the impact of livestock farming, some experts qualify its nutritional and environmental benefits.
“Imitation meat”, that is?
First, there are vegetable substitutes, “steaks” made from soy or tofu. Their recipes have been perfected over time and some look like ground beef or chicken strips. Manufacturers are trying to replicate the texture and taste of meat as faithfully as possible by developing new synthetic ingredients, such as heme, a derivative of hemoglobin, which aims to create a “blood” taste.
In addition to the visual, the borrowing of the name “steak” for these 100% plant-based products has angered the industrial meat sector in France, lobbies and unions who have been banned from the name, in violation of European authorization.
More recently, another category has sparked the interest of agri-food giants: these are so-called “laboratory” meats, obtained by culturing animal cells, but also microbial or fungal proteins.
Leverage in light of the climate emergency
At the crossroads of societal trend and dietary recommendations, these substitutions make it possible to reduce meat consumption, which is known to be excessive for health and the planet, especially in the northern countries.
In early April, UN climate experts (IPCC) recalled that: “the greatest potential per transition would come from switching to a plant-based protein diet”which would reduce the colossal impact of livestock farming.
Replacing 20% of global beef and lamb consumption with microbial protein could halve deforestation and agriculture-related CO2 emissions by 2050, estimates a recent study published in the journal Nature.
This is not lost on manufacturers in the sector, who emphasize the ‘green’ and healthy image of these vegetable products – sometimes bordering on ‘greenwashing’.
Industrial and hyper-processed
Indeed, “vegetable” does not necessarily mean “natural”, and the panel of independent experts IPES-Food recently pointed out the industrial and ultra-processed nature of these imitation meat substitutes.
Some are high in sugar and fat, with added additives, dyes, and texturizing agents to give a meat-like appearance. The potential of the imitation meat market is also whetting the appetite of meat giants such as JBS, Cargill, Tyson and Unilever.
By including start-ups in the sector, these multinationals strengthen their “dominance of food systems”the experts of IPES-Food point out, perpetuate “standardized diets based on processed foods and industrial supply chains that are harmful to people and the planet”.
A juicy market
Barclays Bank estimates that plant-based substitutes will account for 10% of the global meat market by 2030, compared to 1% today, or $140 billion. More generally, the imitation meat market is growing rapidly in Asia and the United States (+42.1% by 2030, according to the company Grand View Research), as well as in France, where it is showing double-digit growth.
He promises to accelerate further when the lab meat, which is already sold in Israel or Singapore, gets the green light from the authorities.
Its potential has also led to a new battle for influence, with the meat sectors on the one hand defending consumption according to the “eat less, but better” formula and on the other the defenders of cell farming. leading a campaign against livestock farming in Europe called “End the Slaughter Age”.