The Future of Plant-Based Meats

Font Size:

Scholar recommends that regulators change food label laws to increase consumers’ access to plant-based meats.

Font Size:

Two in three Americans have tasted plant-based meat substitutes. But how much do consumers rely on labels to tell them that their “meats” are actually plant-based?

Not much, according to one scholar.

In a recent article, Samuel Becher, a professor at Victoria University of Wellington, stresses that federal lawmakers must consider the risks animal meat consumption poses to consumers from “cradle-to-grave,” as high levels of animal meat consumption are associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. He recommends that regulators increase the accessibility of plant-based alternatives by reducing barriers for these alternative “meat” products to enter the meat industry through changes to federal food label laws.

Currently, no federal law regulates how manufacturers of plant-based foods label their products.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act—a federal law prohibiting food product manufacturers from misleading consumers about a product’s contents—regulates animal meat products. Under the Act, a food label is considered misleading if the labeled product does not meet U.S. Food Drug Administration standards for the food it claims to contain.

Animal meat producers claim that the use of words such as “meat,” “burger,” and “hotdog” on labels for plant-based alternatives deceives consumers. To reduce consumer confusion, 15 states have implemented Truth-in-Labeling laws, which restrict the use of such words on labels of plant-based products.

But Becher points out that omitting words associated with animal meat products from plant-based alternative labels is instead what confuses consumers. Even without prior experience purchasing plant-based meats, the average consumer can distinguish plant-based foods from animal meats. In fact, consumers rely on meat-sounding labels to understand the use, taste, and health benefits of plant-based alternatives.

In addition, Becher explains that food labeling requirements negatively impact plant-based meat alternatives because meat-sounding names encourage consumers to try these products and affect perceptions of the products’ healthfulness.

To increase the availability of plant-based foods and promote consumer health, federal lawmakers should allow producers of alternative meats to label their products as plant-based versions of the meats they mimic, proposes Becher.

Becher uses the European Union’s Novel Food law, which sets standards for the branding of foods developed from new technologies, as an example that reflects consumers’ ability to differentiate between animal products and plant-based alternatives.

The EU law presumes that a “reasonably well-informed, observant, and circumspect” consumer should be able to identify that a product is a plant-based meat alternative from the overall presentation of the product. Even if the label portrays the product as meat, if the packaging contains words such as “vegan” or “plant-based” that aid consumers in identifying it as an alternative, the product satisfies the EU regulatory standard.

Unlike existing state food labeling laws in the U.S., which rely on the assumption that animal-associated labels for plant-based products confuse consumers, the EU’s Novel Food law promotes consumers’ autonomy over their diet, argues Becher.

A comparable U.S. federal standard on plant-based labeling would allow manufacturers to use “meat-esque” words and images on product labels as long as the packaging contained other attributes to help consumers recognize the product as a plant-based alternative, proposes Becher. According to Becher, his proposal reflects consumers’ experiences with plant-based products, promotes autonomy over health outcomes, and encourages people to incorporate plant-based meats into their diets.

Becher recognizes that researchers must better understand the health effects of adopting a plant-based diet. Plant-based meats are not whole foods, but processed products that incorporate purified plant protein and chemical additives. Food processing could result in the loss of nutrients and high caloric intake, leading to malnutrition and obesity. Furthermore, over 50 percent of consumers struggle to know how certain foods will impact their health. Even though consumers are willing to try plant-based products, they are unsure about the potential health benefits and risks associated with a plant-based diet, notes Becher.

To improve consumers’ access to reliable information about their food, Becher recommends that regulators sponsor scientific research about the healthfulness of plant-based meat alternatives as compared to animal products. The results of these experiments could assist consumers in evaluating whether plant-based alternatives meet their health goals, suggests Becher.

Becher acknowledges that modifying food-labeling laws is just one means of making plant-based alternatives more accessible to consumers and to promote their autonomy over health decisions. He urges regulators to eliminate the subsidies afforded to animal meat producers, which create artificially low prices for meat products. These subsidies make it harder for plant-based meats to compete with the comparatively more affordable animal products, claims Becher.

Animal meat producers, however, present a challenge for increasing the availability of plant-based products. The animal meat market is valued at over $2 trillion and provides for the livelihood of people across the globe.

Becher argues that his proposal is consistent with consumers’ desires to consume more plant-based products and improve their overall health. He emphasizes that a federal law that reduces barriers of entry to the meat market for plant-based companies would still allow consumers to buy meat products while also promoting transparency and consumer choice.