Over the past several years, plant-based proteins have captured the headlines when it comes to comparisons to our traditional proteins from animals and for potential competition in the meat case. Farmers, ranchers, and members of the agriculture community have railed against them and I’ve received threatening messages saying I need to be harsher on criticizing the alternatives.

Researchers from Kansas State and Purdue Universities recently released the results of a survey measuring consumer perceptions of plant-based proteins compared to traditional beef and animal proteins. The findings provide great insight that can be applied to advocacy efforts when addressing the topics.

person holding a burger plant-based protein beef
Photo by Szabó Viktor

Consumers Choose Beef Over Plant-Based Proteins

Research shows consumers are choosing beef about three times more often than plant-based protein alternatives. When it comes to recalling prior day meals, 16% of people reported eating a plant-based protein, while roughly half of the people had beef. For those who had plant-based proteins as a burger or ground, beef or chicken would have been their preferred animal protein.

Advocates for animal agriculture often express concern that plant-based proteins are taking over the marketplace. That’s easy to believe if we glance at media headlines, but it’s not the case and it’s important to add context to big numbers.

In a food service setting, about 5% of regular meat consumers would select a plant-based burger meal. In a retail grocery setting, about 2% of regular meat consumers would select a plant-based option.

Plant-based alternatives for beef comprise 0.5% of the overall market share (14 billion pounds of beef compared with 700,000 pounds of alternatives in 2018). While a 25% increase in sales for plant-based alternatives sounds huge in comparison to a 5% increase for beef, in real numbers, that is a $54 million increase for alternatives compared to a $1.2 billion increase for beef. IRI Sales Data

And as a reminder, just because someone eats a plant-based protein, doesn’t mean they’re giving up beef. I’ve shared before how plant-based proteins have made me a stronger ultrarunner and it continues to be true. Plant-based proteins exist on a plate and in a diet alongside beef. They’re not always taking away or replacing beef.

plant-based proteins beef
Image via Rabobank

Why Choose Plant-Based Proteins Over Beef?

Research shows consumers’ perceptions of taste, appearance, price, and naturalness of beef greatly exceed that of plant-based proteins. Beef compares most favorably on perceptions of protein and iron. And consumers perceive beef to be overall better for farmers, consumers, rural communities, and food prices than plant-based alternatives. Beef has good marks here.

Why would people choose plant-based proteins? Plant-based proteins score high on animal welfare, health, environmental concerns, though these are still slightly lower scores than beef for the same attributes.

Plant-based alternatives rank higher than beef on average for cholesterol, fat, and dietary fiber.

33% of consumers view plant-based as superior to beef when it comes to concerns about environmental impact. Animal welfare concerns rank highly in reasons for selecting a plant-based alternative. These are the areas in which plant-based proteins appeal most to consumers and these are areas where we can have the greatest impact through advocacy efforts.

woman typing on laptop
Photo by Startup Stock Photos

How Can Advocates Support Beef?

These are just a few of the highlights from the recent research and more results are continuously released. But there are lessons we can apply to be stronger advocates addressing misperceptions about beef.

Instead of comparing plant-based proteins to dog food in order to instill fear of ingredients (which is despicable and we know it doesn’t work), we should focus on what beef does well and is continuously working to improve.

Knowing the reasons why consumers might choose plant-based alternatives, we can address those topics to clarify any misperceptions about beef.

Environmental Concerns

As an advocate for beef, can you address how beef farmers and ranchers are addressing environmental and climate issues? Discuss how cattle make contributions to sustaining and improving our environment. The stories of environmental stewardship award winners are great examples to learn from.

Animal Welfare

Can you address consumer concerns about animal welfare by giving examples of how animal care is a priority for farmers and ranchers? Acknowledging that this is a priority and describing how we’re ensuring proper care through quality assurance training can be helpful. But be careful. There are ways you can lose the argument on animal welfare.

Health and Nutrition

Be careful assuming or imposing your ideas on someone else’s health or nutrition decisions. This is an extremely personal topic and it’s easy to shut down a conversation when you make the wrong assumption. As advocates, what we can do is focus on the attributes beef brings to the table. Knowing there are misperceptions on the fat and cholesterol content of beef, we can share recent research on beef related to heart health and show how we can find lean beef options if that is a concern for someone.

And remember, beef is only part of the plate in a healthy, well-balanced diet. Being a carnivore is no less extreme of a diet choice than being a vegan.

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