Expanding Our Definition of Meat:  Changing perceptions of alternative protein sources for potential benefits

Expanding Our Definition of Meat: Changing perceptions of alternative protein sources for potential benefits


I’m vegetarian. I’m vegan. These are two statements that can mean very different things to different people.  For some, being a vegetarian or vegan means giving up animal products in order to save the lives of other living creatures. For others, it means eating a healthier or “cleaner” diet in order to obtain a certain weight-loss goal or body image. And in some cases, these statements can be heard with resentment or negativity, incorporating another meaning to vegetarianism and veganism that’s tied with an undesirable social context.

However, it is agreed that choosing to follow a vegetarian and vegan diet is so much more than simply giving up meat or only eating vegetables. A vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of animal meat (including any livestock, seafood, and wild animals), but can include the consumption of some animal byproducts, such as milk and cheese. A vegan diet, meanwhile, excludes the consumption of all animal meats and by products, including gelatin and honey. Vegan diets have also been referred to as “total vegetarian.”

Recently vegetarian eating behavior rose in popularity, almost as much as participation in the vegan lifestyle; between 2014 and 2017, there occured a 600% increase of the number of people in the United States who identified as being vegan. The reasons that more and more people have chosen to consume a meatless and/or no-animal-product diet are numerous, complex, and many are justifiably sound. It’s common to associate vegetarianism, veganism, and meat-selective diets with the ethical desire to avoid killing animals unnecessarily or with religion. But the rise in choosing an exclusively or almost exclusively plant-based diet over a diet that includes meat and animal products is linked to environmental, health, and economic benefits. These benefits have been thoroughly researched and examined for legitimacy with an abundance of scientific data as support.

Yet there is still a strong negative social response to veganism and vegetarianism. While most people in contemporary culture avoid “open expressions of prejudice towards racial outgroups,” many people feel that they can be openly prejudice towards vegetarians/vegans. Most of this prejudice is voiced in the form of social media, especially online memes, to represent non-vegetarians’ exasperation over vegetarian and vegan lifestyle choices. Stereotyping, exaggeration, and misunderstanding have all contributed to anti- vegetarian and vegan discourse, discrediting and diminishing many of the positive benefits these diets can provide. One of the main criticisms of meatless diets is the assumption that one cannot get sufficient protein from non-animal sources, or alternative protein sources. This assumption illustrates the fundamental lack of understanding and nutritional education of many people, especially in the United States. However, the negative perception of vegetarianism and veganism has been, and can continue to be, changed as new health related research, plant-based products, environmental concerns, and economic justifications provide a more holistic understanding of these diets. Changing consumers’ perceptions about alternative protein sources that are essential parts of vegetarian and vegan diets may lead to better public and individual health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and more economically affordable food options.

Today’s Meat Consumption Culture and Perceptions of Vegetarianism

Although vegetarianism and veganism is on the rise, it is sound to say that the consumption of meat will continue to grow as well. In 2004 the average American consumed 203.2 pounds of meat per year, which translates to over half a pound of meat per day. The meat industry continued to grow and strengthen its production capabilities throughout the decade until the economic shock of the Great Recession reduced Americans’ consumption of meat to 186.6 pounds a year in 201. Now, the average consumption of meat per person in the U.S. is creeping back up to 200 pounds per year and is expected to reach 219 pounds a year by 2025, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

Indeed, even with the rise in meat-less and meat-restricted diets, Americans in general are demanding and eating more meat. There are several speculations for why this is, such as the idea that meat consumption has been a fundamental part of the “American” diet since the early settlement period. Increase in meat consumption can also be correlated with the steady increase in United States’ GPD over the past 50 years, offering the idea that as Americans generate more wealth they can afford to eat more meat. However, an increase in meat consumption is strongly correlated to other, more harmful, trends related to Americans’ health and environmental destruction. As Americans are eating more meat, they’re also increasing rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes among other weight related health problems.. Meanwhile, the food industry has contributed to a quarter of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions with 80% of that are linked to animal meat and livestock production. These massive livestock production farms are housed on huge areas of land that are depleted of their original and natural vegetation and create 3 times more animal waste than the amount of human waste the entire U.S population creates per year.

Yet with all of this data that emphasizes the disadvantages, an understatement for sure, of Americans’ current meat consumption habits, there are still strong negative perceptions of vegetarian and vegan diets. Unsurprisingly, an experimental survey to explore prejudices against vegetarians, found that individuals who enjoy beef tend to have to “anti-vegetarian prejudices”. This result emphasizes the sociological need that people have to distance themselves from groups who they disagree with. Simply put, people who eat meat really enjoy eating meat and it bothers some people that vegetarians and vegans don’t eat meat. And that is one of the fundamental reasons why there is resistance to vegetarianism and veganism: people enjoy and take great pleasure out of purchasing, cooking, and eating meat. Animal meat is delicious and high in protein so it leaves people feeling full and satisfied, so of course it would be difficult for a lot people to give up.

But what if we could change the perception and concept of “meat” to more than strictly animal products? There is an emerging market in the food industry that has been developing plant-based food products meant to resemble, taste like, and ultimately be able to replace meat as alternative protein sources. Beyond Meat, one of the leading companies, has already created and is now actively selling plant-based “meat” products that are changing how people view being vegetarian and vegan.  

Changing Perceptions of Alternative Protein Sources and the Potential Benefits

Beyond Meat is a company based in El Segundo, California that was founded in 2009 with the mission to “create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein”. The company’s desire to use plant-based proteins to replace meat-based proteins is aimed to improve global and environmental health, decrease the demand for mass livestock production farms, and conserve natural resources. The company recognizes that to achieve this goal it must appeal to more consumers than just vegans and vegetarians. Alexandra Sexton thoroughly analyzes and the way in which the Beyond Meat company creates, markets, and justifies its products in pursuit of its mission.

One of the main concepts that Sexton focuses in her study is how the Beyond Meat company curates the experience of purchasing, preparing, and consuming its product to reflect almost identically the experience one has with the meat equivalent. Sexton argues that the experience, or the “non-stuff”, plays a strong role in the perception, categorization, and enjoyment of what we eat. This is particularly true with how we perceive meat and meat consumption. Culturally, socially, nutritionally, and psychologically speaking, foods that are labeled as “meat” have a very different process of being prepared than those that we would traditionally label as “non-meat” or plant-based. However, through her research and experience with Beyond Meat, Sexton shows that this distinct perception between meat and non-meat can be challenged by utilizing the experience and “non-stuff” of the food itself.

Sexton performed field work analysis of the actual Beyond Meat product and carefully describes the entire experience. She first describes her trip to the local Whole Foods where she walked to the refrigerated meat section of the store and picked up a package Beyond Meat “chicken strips” that are shelved just a few feet away from real, raw chicken breasts. When she opened the package back in her kitchen to prepare a meal with the Beyond Chicken Strips, she carefully describes the texture, consistency, and smell of the strips prior to cooking. Although they did not have a distinct smell, Sexton was surprised to find that when she “broke” a strip in half, it shredded like real cooked chicken meat would. At this point she emphasized her visceral reaction of preparing the Beyond Chicken; up until this point she had had the same experience she would have had with real chicken strips. The only significant difference was that she saved time from not having to worry about the health risks with actual raw chicken. While cooking her Beyond Chicken strips in a sauté pan with onions, spices, and coconut milk to make a “chicken” coconut curry, she reported that the “sounds and smells of the dish” were almost identical the what she had experienced while cooking the same dish but with real chicken. When she ate her meal she reported that although the chicken strips did not contribute largely or combat with the overall flavor of the dish, she said that “[if] I had not known they were plant-based I would have quite likely passed them off as pre-cooked conventional chicken pieces from the supermarket”.

It is at that crucial moment, the culmination of the entire process of preparation and consumption, where Beyond Meat can change one’s perception of what is meat. Based on Sexton’s, and many others’ experience with this alternative-protein product, there is reason to reconsider what we think of as “meat.” If this product looks like meat, is sold in the same grocery store location as meat, cooks like meat, smells like meat, tastes like meat, and even has the same texture as meat can it be considered meat? A follow up question would then be: Why not? Just because the Beyond Chicken strips do not come from an actual chicken and are in fact made of mostly soy protein isolate and pea protein isolate , can they not be considered meat? Ultimately, it is up to each individual consumer to decide that. Nevertheless, the Beyond Meat company has been able to capture the experience one has with meat and mimic it with a product that contains only plant-based protein. In the same way that we accepted the endless types of cakes, pizzas, soups, and many other foods with large varieties, perhaps we can include plant-based protein products in our “meat” category.

The potential benefits for substantially changing Americans’, if not other high meat-consuming countries’, perceptions of meat to include alternative protein sources from plant-based products are profound on both the individual and global level. First, increasing people’s intake of nutrient-dense vegetables from plant-based protein products while decreasing the amount of fatty meats will lead to more nutritious diets and curb the obesity epidemic. With the country’s current eating habit, Americans on average consume daily 2 to 5 ounces of meat more than the American Heart Association recommends to avoid heart disease from high saturated fat and cholesterol intakes. Meanwhile, the average American eats less than 60% of their daily recommended amount of nutritious vegetables.

Secondly, eating a more plant-based diet will also save people economic costs both at the grocery store and in weight-related medical bills. Plant-based protein is more cost efficient to produce as it only requires the farming of plants instead of clearing land, raising, feeding, maintaining, slaughtering, and packaging the meat of livestock. If Americans were to shift towards a predominantly vegetarian diet, the country could save up to $735 billion per year on groceries, medical bills, and other costs related to meat production and consumption. The greater affordability of mass-produced plant-based products would also help people with low-income obtain more nutritious forms of protein.

Thirdly, reducing the consumption of animal meat due to an increase consumption of plant-based protein sources would dramatically reduce the negative effects the livestock industry has on the environment. A vegetarian diet produces 76% less greenhouse gas than a diet that regularly consumes red meat and requires a fraction of the water waste used to produce red meat products. Additionally, reducing the size and quantity of livestock farms and replacing them with a healthy rotation of plant crops would help preserve the land. The land that is used for mass livestock farms becomes depleted and destroyed by animal waste that traps large quantities of carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Using more land for alternative protein crop production instead of livestock could also create a more efficient and sustainable method of food production to feed the world’s growing population. Research from National Geographic reveals that only 55% of the world’s crop production goes to feeding people while the rest goes to feeding livestock or is turned into biofuels and industrial products. The world population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, but the world’s harvestable land mass cannot expand to sustain our current meat production rates. Whether or not we voluntarily switch to more plant-based diets, we may not have a choice in the very near future.

Potential Challenges and Concluding Remarks

Even with clear, tangible benefits, there are many challenges that can hinder the process of changing perceptions of meat to include alternative-protein sources to reduce animal meat consumption. One of the most substantial challenges is that current plant-based protein sources meant to mimic and replace animal meat products are not perfect. Even with the many positive reviews of Beyond Meat’s products, there are still strong critiques and criticism that highlight the products flaws. The main ones comes from scrutinizing the ingredients list of any of the Beyond Meat products. Although the Beyond Chicken strips were made mostly of water, soy protein isolate, and pea protein isolate, it also contains “natural flavoring”, maltodextrin, and “0.5% less of dipotassium phosphate”. Chemicals like these in processed foods draw skepticism and concern from consumers who would call this not a ‘natural’ product. However, since this is a new and emerging industry, there is great potential for future innovation from other alternative protein companies with similar missions to that of Beyond Meat.

Another substantial challenge is the fact that it’s hard to give up animal meat products. It is culturally ingrained for many Americans that meat is not only a necessity in daily diets, but is hailed as a proponent of the ‘American Dream.’ People may resent Beyond Meat products because it’s not the “real thing” and of course cannot compare them to a thick-cut, perfectly grilled, medium-rare steak that’s chard ever so slightly on the outside and satisfyingly chewy on the inside. But the point of Beyond Meat is not to attempt to make plant-based “meat” take on every aspect of beef meat; the point is to provide another option for meat products. Plant-based meat is different from beef meat as chicken meat is different from pork meat as lamb meat is different from fish meat, etc.

The growing shift towards eating more plant-based diets can be interpreted as a positive sign. People are becoming more informed and aware of how their consumption habits affect both their individual health as well as the health of the planet. One of the best parts about being human is our love for cooking, eating, and sharing food. Shifting towards our eating habits and changing our perception of meat should not be considered as “giving up” an aspect of our diets, but a celebration of even more diverse protein sources to come.

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