1 December 2022 1005 words, 5 min. read

Replacing animal proteins: a real trend or a marketing bubble?

By Pierre-Nicolas Schwab PhD in marketing, director of IntoTheMinds
Replacing animal protein with plant-based equivalents in the diet was THE hot trend of 2022 in the food industry. We discussed plant-based meat in this article, but the dislike for animal protein was also evident elsewhere. Fish substitutes are also […]

Replacing animal protein with plant-based equivalents in the diet was THE hot trend of 2022 in the food industry. We discussed plant-based meat in this article, but the dislike for animal protein was also evident elsewhere. Fish substitutes are also more numerous, as well as cheese substitutes. However, it remains to be seen whether this trend will last or is just a bubble.

Statistics on the plant-based substitutes industry

  • 24% of the innovations presented at SIAL 2022 concerned plant-based alternatives
  • 6% of customers declare themselves vegetarian
  • 5% of customers declare to follow a Vegan diet
  • 0.8%: the turnover of plant-based substitutes is expected to decrease in 2022 (figures for sales in French supermarkets)
  • in a survey of December 2021, only 9% of European customers expected more plant-based alternatives
  • The sales performance of plant-based substitutes is uneven:
    • +2.6% for vegetarian entrees
    • -6.4% for plant-based yogurts
    • -2.1% for plant-based drinks and creams

Replacing animal proteins results

For more than a decade now, our market research firm has been observing the rise of plant-based alternatives. However, the days when animal protein substitution was synonymous with “soy steak” and “vegetable steak” are over. From now on, plant-based substitutes have made a technological leap forward, which is all the more notable given that the 2020 edition of SIAL had been canceled due to Covid.

It will therefore have escaped no one that the 2022 edition of SIAL has been marked by a groundswell: plant-based. We analyzed the plant-based meat trend, but it went beyond that. The innovations presented were also related to:

  • fish
  • cheese

We identify 5 phenomena that converge to support the industry of alternatives to animal proteins:

  1. ecological consequences of the exploitation of natural resources (especially marine resources)
  2. CO2 emissions in connection with livestock farming
  3. land use for growing food for livestock and competition with human food
  4. impact on health due to the consumption of animal products
  5. pollution and contamination of animal resources

However, the 2022 statistics show a market with contrasting performances.

The plant-based alternatives need to manage to extract themselves from the comparison with the product they try to substitute.

prédiction futur image d'illustration

Animal protein substitutes: perennial trend or bubble?

In the first half of 2022, the performance of plant-based alternatives could have been more impressive. For example, France’s plant-based alternatives industry has lost 0.8% in value. However, performances remain contrasted according to the categories in supermarkets:

  • Vegetarian entrees up 2.6%.
  • plant-based yogurts fell by 6.4
  • plant-based drinks and creams down 2.1

The current context makes many food industry players wonder about these products’ future. Will the plant-based surge we are witnessing be permanent, or is it just an episodic phenomenon?

To answer this question, one must consider the context:

  • plant-based substitutes tend to be more expensive than the “original” versions, which, in times of crisis, is not necessarily an advantage
  • the current period of inflation is conducive to a return to basic consumption, especially private labels (distributor brands)
  • distributors and producers are engaged in a race to streamline, which could leave plant-based substitutes on the sidelines

We have seen that the organic sector has suffered the full force of the industry reversal. After the boom in 2020 during the confinements, the backlash was very brutal in 2021. This situation is quite similar in several European countries.

Our firm believes that the current situation is an epiphenomenon. A strong consolidation phase will follow, fueled by:

  • the price differential
  • the tendency to simplify the offer on the shelves
  • the qualitative taste of plant-based products

This last factor is essential because it conditions the adoption of products without animal proteins. However, as we will see in the next paragraph, plant-based alternatives cannot escape the comparison with the product they are trying to replace.

Replacing animal proteins iceberg banner

Marketing, the Achilles heel of plant-based alternatives

The seal of ultra-processing marks the market for animal protein substitutes.

Paradoxically, the food industry is mobilizing plant-based substitutes to create products as similar as possible to their original counterparts. Look, for example, at “Fish Peas,” a fish substitute that competed for the SIAL innovation award (photos below). To not confuse the customer, the company went so far as to reuse the format and color of the tuna cans and to imitate its consistency.

fish peas

Fish Peas is a fish substitute with packaging that looks just like a can of tuna.

fish peas

Plant-based substitutes are sold primarily by their visual attributes. The product’s name maintains the “confusion” with the original since the word “fillet” is used. The product’s appearance, visible through the packaging, is also there to reassure the customer.

The plant-based substitute is, therefore, currently only an “Ersatz.” It does not manage to impose itself as such, which is the problem’s crux. By maintaining a reference in the customer’s mind, producers are in a weak position.

Everything in the marketing of these products leads to the confusion of genres. Even a brand like Huera, very advanced from a marketing point of view, makes this mistake. The visual chosen is that of the reference, that is to say, the cow.

viande végétale Heura

The Heura brand proposes plant-based meat and uses the cow in its visuals

However, the award goes to Flexiterráneo, a product that did not know how to choose its side because it proposes 50% meat and 50% vegetables (see photo below).


A strong trend has developed in recent years to promote the replacement of animal proteins in the human diet. Many companies have launched products to capitalize on this trend. However, few will survive. On the one hand, the financial crisis has created a context unfavorable to these more expensive alternatives. On the other hand, these products cannot survive without being compared to their “references” (meat, fish, milk).

The years 2023 and 2024 should therefore see a strong consolidation of this industry with the disappearance of the players with the lowest value propositions.

el pozo flexiterraneo

Special mention for this product which has everything wrong from a marketing point of view since it does not choose its side: neither vegan nor 100% meat, it adopts a very poor differentiation.

Posted in Innovation.

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