Comparing beef with plant-based alternative proteins: What are the facts?

In mid-November, I traveled from my farming and beef cattle operation to Kansas City for an ag media event called “Trade Talk.” Hosted by the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, this annual event offers ag industry broadcast personalities the opportunity to interview representatives from various organizations and companies, all of whom serve this country’s farmers and ranchers in some capacity. As the vice chair of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board this year, I did several interviews, and was quite frankly surprised by how many broadcasters wanted to hear what this guy from Martinsville, Indiana, had to say.

They asked me all kinds of questions about the national Beef Checkoff, including many I’ve been asked before—how it works, what kinds of programs it funds, what impact are those programs having on beef demand and so on. However, one new question came up again and again:

What’s the Checkoff doing to address the threat that plant-based alternative proteins pose to the beef industry?

Honestly, this question wasn’t surprising. Like everyone else, I’ve observed news anchors and market watchers bring up plant-based alternative proteins consistently over the past few years. Some even referred to these products and others as “revolutionary” and “game-changing.” However, that’s not how some beef industry stakeholders view these protein alternatives. I’ve been involved in discussions that took me back a few decades when consumer concerns about beef’s role in a healthy diet weren’t considered all that important.

The fact is, we could have done more back in the 1970s and 80s, because we’re still working to share the real facts about beef’s nutritional profile. That’s why we need to take protein alternatives more seriously today—and we are. In 2020, the Beef Checkoff commissioned a research study to understand plant-based alternative proteins and their potential impact on beef demand to determine exactly what we’re up against. Now, we’re using this information to determine the best way to encourage consumers to choose beef.

The study, “Impacts of New Plant-Based Protein Alternatives on U.S. Beef Demand,” authored by Glynn T. Tonsor, Jayson L. Lusk and Ted C. Schroeder, reflects the attitudes and opinions of more than 3,000 U.S. residents surveyed in September 2020. One of the biggest takeaways from the study was that, while plant-based alternative proteins may be getting a lot of media exposure, consumers still love and choose beef. Here are significant findings from that study:

1. Beef has a good image. Consumers by and large say that beef’s taste, appearance, price, and natural goodness greatly exceeds that of plant-based proteins.

2. Regular meat consumers (68% of the study’s full sample) are much more likely to select beef even when a plant-based item is available.

3. Changes in beef prices have a much larger impact on consumer decisions to buy beef than the impact of changes in the prices of plant-based offerings. This means plant-based burgers are relatively weak substitutes for beef.

There’s also new research that delves into beef’s protein quality versus plant-based alternatives. A recent study from the University of Illinois and Colorado State University and funded by the Beef Checkoff and Pork Checkoff used the digestible indispensable amino acid score system to compare protein quality in beef and pork burgers and plant-based burgers. The study, “Digestible indispensable amino acid score is greater in animal-based burgers than in plant-based burgers if determined in pigs,” was authored by Natalia Fanelli, Hannah Bailey, Tyler Thompson, Robert Delmore, Mahesh Narayanan Nair and Hans Stein. As in the past, researchers found that animal proteins have greater DIAAS values than plant-based proteins.

All in all, the research shows us that plant-based protein alternatives are a relatively minor concern to the beef industry right now. However, that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax. As Beef Checkoff contractors develop new plans and promotional campaigns, they’re considering this study’s findings along with other factors that could impact beef demand, both now and in the future. Consumer preferences continue to evolve, and we need to stay on top of those changes if we’re going to effectively promote beef over competing proteins. I can assure you that my fellow CBB members will continue investing Checkoff dollars wisely to keep beef at the center of dinner plates everywhere.

—Norman Voyles Jr. is vice chair of Cattlemen’s Beef Board.