• The Reimagine Team

How Plant-Based Meats Are Putting An Unexpected Spin on Printing Menus

Life has certainly thrown us more than our share of curved balls at us over the last two years. But from peace time curfews and home schooling to the rise of the Zoom economy, it seems that human beings have an extraordinary capacity to normalize the abnormal.

You could be forgiven for thinking that eating plant-based steaks made by a 3D printer might prove a step too far for most people. Apparently not. Even when tech meets meat, it seems that nothing is off the table.

As this video clip explains, using a 3D printer to produce plant-based meat is relatively straightforward. Surprisingly so, perhaps. Briefly, the process involves using food-grade syringes to hold the plant-based printing material, which is then deposited layer by layer through a food-grade nozzle to mimic the taste and texture of real meat. The most advanced 3D food printers have pre-loaded recipes and even allow users to design their food remotely on their computers, phones or other digital devices.

A Booming Alternative

This isn’t science fiction: it’s fast becoming mainstream as plant-based meats – printed or not – begin to regain traction in the market following a slight fall in demand during the early part of the pandemic. One explanation for this slowdown is that familiar animal-based meats were a source of comfort food among consumers adjusting to the uncertainties of life under lockdown. But the bounce-back was quick and by the end of the year, Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research agency, was estimating that the plant-based meat market would be worth US$35 billion by 2027 versus US$13.6 billion in 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.4% between the two years. Barclays, meanwhile, forecasts that its value could reach $140 billion by 2029 – about 10% of the world’s meat market.

These figures are certainly impressive, but it’s way too early to write off the animal-based meat industry. The fact is that even the biggest plant-based meat brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are not yet equipped to meet the world’s voracious demand for meat products, plant-based or otherwise. The alternative meat industry acknowledges its own capacity limitations. Although a number of the world’s leading QSR brands have trialled plant-based meat products through their restaurants, the scale of these trials has been relatively small and they are likely to stay that way until the alternative meat industry can scale up its output.

As Vox puts it: "For all the exciting product launches and customer interest in plant-based foods, the dreamed-of transformation of our food system won't happen until we get a lot better at making them at the extraordinary volumes that global consumers of meat demand."

A Revolution Delayed?

We spoke to a number of industry experts for their views on how the unfolding contest between old-school and alternative meats is likely to play out. There was a general consensus that these are still early days and patterns are still hard to detect. Attracted by their novelty value, more consumers are happy to experiment with alternative meats. But it will probably take a while for demand to stabilize. As one expert said: "It will be difficult to set a baseline for this type of product because I do not believe that we currently have a reliable sense of what 'typical' looks like."

Overall, the people we spoke to were confident that the traditional meat business is unlikely to be cannibalized by its new competitor. In the immediate future, at least. "I sense that demand for product like printed steaks is likely to come from more educated and affluent diners," said one expert. "We're unlikely to see a critical mass of QSR customers suddenly ordering non-animal meat, although they may gradually develop a taste for it over time."

That said, many foodservice professionals agree that the pandemic will likely work in favour of plant-based meats, particularly when it comes to consumer perceptions. "In general," said one, "I think the perception will be that plant-based meat is safer than real meat, particularly with Covid-19 and the phenomenon of zoonotic diseases." And then, there is the rise of veganism with a major push underway from animal welfare and environmental groups to encourage people to cut animal-linked food from their diets altogether.

Another factor driving demand for alternative meats are the growing consumer concerns over the high environmental costs of conventional meat farming. Taking cattle out of the production equation is a sure-fire way to reduce a meat farmer’s carbon footprint without compromising the culinary attractions that meat-eaters love. In response to consumer sensitivities, a number of major food retailers and QSR brands are joining forces with the farmers who supply them to collectively improve sustainability practices across all parts of the agricultural sector, including meat production.

Meat The Future

Despite these challenges, the plant-based meat sector continues to innovate its way further into the mainstream, attracting major investments along the way. In November 2021, the Financial Times reported that Israel-based alternative meat pioneer, Define Meat, “had launched a 3D printed plant-based meat, making whole ‘cuts’ of the vegan product available for the first time in restaurants in Europe and Israel.” Significantly, the same report noted that the launch came after Redefine Meats had raised $29 million in early-stage funding in February.

As the Financial Times noted, the company, which has a partnership with food flavouring company Givaudan, claims to have cracked the secret of juiciness in meat. As a result, its products have met the approval of high-profile restaurants such as Marco Pierre White’s steak houses and Indian restaurant Brigadiers in the UK, and Michelin-starred restaurants Ron Gastrobar in the Netherlands and Facil in Germany.

The foodservice industry will be tracking the progress of such developments with interest. Ultimately, of course, it is the consumer who will decide whether the alternative meat market has a future. For now, let’s remember that there was a time when holding your wedding on Zoom would have felt abnormal. But today, we’re living in the next normal.
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