Protein Evolved: Meat Substitutes & Their Future in Restaurants

Sixty-five million years after the death of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the public perception of its carnivorous diet has finally shown cracks in its previously impenetrable armor. Whether due to concerns over climate change, personal health, or the inhumane nature of meat processing, the general public is increasingly reducing or eliminating animal products from their diet.

A United Nations projection foresees that by 2040, only 40% of the $1.8 trillion global meat market will be sourced by conventional methods. The report anticipates that 25% of the market will come from vegan meat replacements with the remaining 35% coming from cultured meat (lab-grown meat).       

Traditional Meat Replacements

Traditional meat replacements in restaurants.

For years, vegans have relied on products completely devoid of animal byproducts such as tofu, seitan, mushrooms, and more to replace the nutrients found in the diets of meat eaters. For those not as hardcore about their stance towards animal products, the use of eggs and dairy products can offer a more moderate approach. Insect-based replacements, such as those that utilize mealworms and crickets represent a third option that -- while seemingly niche -- has grown in popularity.

The underlying problem that all three of these options share is the simple fact that they’re not meat. While their nutritional values may be comparable, they lack the other, frankly, more appealing characteristics of meat. Yes, there are guests who will gladly order a grilled portobello sandwich, a tofu meatball sub, or even a cricket patty, but that market is already clearly established; it is unlikely to have crossover appeal for someone in the mood for a greasy bacon cheeseburger.

New Developments in Meat “Technology”

The texture, the smell, the grill marks. These are all elements that classic vegan meat substitutes simply cannot replicate. But these are complications that modern vegan replacements and cultured meat try to work around. The brand names we’ve grown accustomed to hearing of late include Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Just.

The bulk of these companies’ products still fall under the vegan replacement umbrella. The Impossible Burger, for instance, combines soy and potato proteins with coconut and sunflower oils, cellulose, and heme (an iron-containing molecule) to try to mirror the meat experience. The heme, though derived from soy, is what gives the burger its “bleeding” and meaty aroma. In theory, it’s what triggers the carnal reaction to a traditional burger that conventional veggie burgers just can’t match.

The market has exploded over the last year with several major chains adding the Impossible Burger to their menus. Burger King, Red Robin, and White Castle are just a few of the big restaurant industry players moving into the meatless game.

The mere offering of a vegan substitution for an iconic burger like the Whopper or the White Castle slider instantly lends legitimacy to a product that may ordinarily be ignored. For Burger King, at least, the move has been a huge success. The chain saw a noticeable uptick in markets where they test-ran the Impossible Whopper before its national rollout.

Is the Future of Meat from a Science Lab?

Is lab-grown meat the future of restaurant menus?

Cultured meats, on the other hand, represent a wonderful fusion between science and nature, using bioengineering to give you beef without sacrificing the cow. Scientists have developed a method of extracting stem cells from adult animals, then nurturing and manipulating those cells to form muscle fibers, fat, and connective tissue to create a cut of meat genetically identical to a farm-raised source. In short – cultured meats are lab-grown meat.

The environmental impact of shifting towards cultured meat cannot be overstated. Industrial farming is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, releasing millions of tons of methane into our atmosphere every year. A complete replacement of farmed beef with cultured beef could reduce greenhouse gases by 78-98%, water use by 82-96%, energy by 45%, and land requirements by 99%, according to a study by Oxford University.

Will people really eat beef grown in a lab, though?

Per a Nielsen 2019 study, only 12% of respondents stated that they would be willing to eat cultured meat in order to reduce their impact on climate change. In that same study, 61% of those surveyed responded that they would be amenable to simply reducing their meat consumption, 43% would shift towards plant-based proteins, 22% would consider vegetarianism or veganism, and 8% would use insect alternatives.

Those numbers aren’t all that promising for proponents of cultured meat but analyzing milk sales in the United States may provide insight into their growth potential. While sales of dairy milk have dropped by an astounding 12% since 2005, plant-based alternatives have turned upwards. In 2018, almond milk sales alone grew by 10.3%.

As more households become aware of other alternatives like the booming oat milk, their consumption changes. Their success market penetration is the way forward for both cultured meat startups and established vegan substitute brands. The greater their popularity grows the more you’ll be seeing them on supermarket shelves and menus alike.

What Does this All Mean for the Restaurant Industry?

What does cultured meat mean for restaurant menus?

Though cultured meat is still a work in progress — its use has not yet been approved for commercial purposes — it will undoubtedly disrupt the meat packaging industry once it hits the market. Obviously, the product itself will introduce challenges to your kitchen. Will it cook the same? What health regulations will you need to adapt to?

There are also indirect outcomes you’ll also need to consider, chief among, food cost. In theory, the proliferation of more sustainable meat sources should bring costs down, but that is a giant unknown for now. For all we know it could cause the price of farm-raised meat to skyrocket.

And what about your guests? Will that 12% really follow through? Will more? Though these discussions may seem years away, you should be having them now. Introducing the aforementioned plant-based alternatives on to your menu can be a way of gauging your diners’ interest. A guest eating an Impossible Burger now is likely to at least have an interest in a lab-grown burger in the future.

With many restaurant trends, early adopters can often earn diner loyalty more easily than late-comers. By the time something becomes a part of the zeitgeist, many consumers can usually tell the true believers from those dishonestly riding a wave of popularity. Putting yourself ahead of the curve now can pave the path forward for your restaurant in these evolving times.