Veganity Dubai
Dubai's Veganity specialises in offering meat-free versions of traditional Arabian favourites Image Credit: Supplied

The year 2020 could well serve as a regional watershed for the alternative meat revolution, judging by the number of plant-based alternatives headed to UAE supermarkets over the next few months. From pea and quinoa burgers to faux-meat satay sticks, many of them are being showcased in Dubai at the 25th annual edition of Gulfood, the world’s largest food and beverage trade exhibition.

Gulfood will see the global launch of ALTN, a range of meat-free Asian and Western finger foods and ready meals from Singaporean spring roll manufacturer Tee Yih Jia. Its offerings include dim sum snacks such as meat-free shumai and satay skewers, a selection of meat-free nuggets, meatballs and sausage rolls, and meat-free versions of classic meals such as Hainanese chicken rice. Collin Sim, Assistant Market Development Manager — Africa & Europe at Tee Yih Jia, hopes rising regional interest in alternatives to plant-based foods will help him strike deals with mainstream and food service players in the UAE and across the Middle East and North Africa, he tells GN Focus.

The Beyond Burger
The Beyond Burger: A patty that changes colour as it cooks, emulating the meat prep experience Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah-based Healthy Farm is bringing its new range of meat-free and reduced-meat burgers, kebabs, meatballs and wraps to the event. Its products, aimed at end consumers and the restaurant trade alike, are designed to taste like chicken or beef and are labelled chicken-free or beef-free respectively. “In the UAE already 40 per cent of consumers are willing to introduce plant-based [products] into their diet, if given the same, meat-like taste option, according to Global Data insights,” says CEO Jacel Plewa. “We expect 15-20 per cent of our portfolio would be plant-based by 2025.”

How big is the market?

Globally, the market for meat analogues or alternatives is valued at $18.6 billion (Dh68.3 billion), says Monique Naval, Food and Nutrition Senior Analyst at Euromonitor. The Middle East and Africa account for $176.5 million at retail selling prices. “Meat substitutes are expected to grow at 4 per cent and 5 per cent CAGR from 2019-2024 at constant 2019 terms, globally and in the Middle East and Africa respectively. Meat substitutes are largely affecting the meat and dairy industries so far; going forward consumer interest will start to shift. We expect fish and seafood to undergo a similar transition.”

By the numbers:
$18.6 billion: Global market for meat analogues or alternatives (Euromonitor)
4-5%: Expected CAGR for meat substitutes in the Middle East and Africa, 2019-2024 (Euromonitor)
$2 billion: Valuation of Impossible Foods
$7.6 billion: Valuation of Beyond Meat

This growing interest in meat-free options comes on the back of a number of factors. The health benefits of plant-based diets and greater concern about the quality of animal protein are among them, but perhaps most important is the need to mitigate the significant environmental impact of meat production and animal welfare as the planet hurtles towards a population of 9.7 billion people within the next 30 years.

But as the world gets richer, will people eschew meat? Historical trends demonstrate the aspirational value of meat: as societies develop and get richer, they eat more of it. And can meat analogues supplant deep cultural and identity affiliations while overriding cost concerns?

Meat-free kibbeh
Meat-free kibbeh Image Credit: Supplied

Certainly, there is a range of different choices available to customers willing to experiment. Last year, Beyond Burger, a patty that changes colour as it cooks and “bleeds” when cut or bitten into, showed up at a range of restaurants in the country, including Bareburger, Pickl, Nolu’s and Sheikh and Shake. Since January, the Impossible burger patty has been on the menu at Black Tap outlets across the country. And later this year, Sky Sommers, the chef behind the Dubai restaurant Veganity will launch Replika, a plant-based line of Arabian foods for sale in supermarkets.

Internationally, alternatives to meat are already much more widely available, whether in European supermarkets or in the US, in high-street casual dining restaurants such as Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Subway. Last month, Impossible Foods was valued at $2 billion, and Beyond Meat at $7.6 billion.

“The market outlook for alternative protein is limitless,” says Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, an ambassador for the vegan lifestyle and one of the earliest investors in alternative meats, with a venture into Beyond Meats. His KBW Ventures has invested in alternative proteins and plant-based food tech. Recent deals include California-based Memphis Meats, which uses biotechnology to grow cultured meat; TurtleTree Labs, a Singapore start-up that has announced the first human breast milk using cellular technology, and Bond Pet Foods, which addresses the lab-grown meat segment for pet food.

The market outlook for alternative protein is limitless. We have another cellular agriculture investment coming up that falls on the meat alternative side.

- Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, early alternative meats investor

“We have another cellular agriculture investment coming up that falls on the meat alternative side, and that should be communicated in the next few weeks,” he tells GN Focus. “The future of food and food security demands attention and that’s why KBW Ventures is committed to sourcing these deals and joining rounds when the value proposition and team and a few other factors are right.”

Significant challenges

However, the widespread adoption of alternative plant-based and lab-grown meats faces a number of significant challenges, not least taste and price.

So far, meat alternatives haven’t fared well in blind tastings: the burger with the highest score in an October 2019 Choice Australia study still ranked below average as compared to meat. The same study found that an alternative burger costs A$6 (about Dh14.8) in supermarkets as compared to $1.30 for a real-meat patty.

Naval, in fact, believes the market could be due a significant correction. “The media attention on meat and fish analogues is not in proportion to the market size. In other words, it is a hyped category,” she says. “Judging from the events taking place in the market now, notably company failures in high per capita markets, it seems consumer expectations are about to be significantly deflated.”

While there’s been a lot of growth in the plant-based meat sector in many regions of the world, the industry is still in a nascent stage — and only represents 1 per cent of all meat sales in retail.

- Alison Rabschnuk, Director of Corporate Engagement at The Good Food Institute

Alison Rabschnuk, Director of Corporate Engagement at The Good Food Institute, which advises food companies on business opportunities in the fields of plant-based and cultivated meat, eggs, and dairy, will address the issue during a panel at the Gulfood Innovation Summit. “While there’s been a lot of growth in the plant-based meat sector in many regions of the world, the industry is still in a nascent stage — and only represents 1 per cent of all meat sales in retail,” she says.

Although greater visibility in supermarkets is driving the growth of alternative proteins, in order for them to truly go mainstream, they must fulfil two main expectations. “First, they need to taste great and second they need to be in familiar forms,” she adds. “Although consumers may choose alternative proteins for reasons of health, environmental sustainability, or animal welfare, if the products don’t taste as good as the animal meat they are replacing then they won’t be repeat purchasers.

“In regard to familiarity, there’s a reason that plant-based burgers have been so popular in the west — consumers know what to do with them and they can still participate in cultural events that prominently feature that product type.

The media attention on meat and fish analogues is not in proportion to the market size. In other words, it is a hyped category. Judging from the events taking place in the market now, notably company failures in high per capita markets, it seems consumer expectations are about to be significantly deflated.

- Monique Naval, Food and Nutrition Senior Analyst, Euromonitor

“In the GCC, a plant-based shawarma or kepsa would be the right place to start rather than to introduce a completely novel food with which consumers have no prior association.”

As for cost, Prince Khaled believes the premium for alternative proteins will even out as the market expands and economies of scale are achieved.

“It’s true that healthier foods are more expensive and eating plant-based products is higher priced for now. The more people who try these products out and vote with their wallets, the more scale is achievable. The dollar difference between the more famous plant-based burgers and traditional meat burgers will change as the companies continue to grow and have stronger and stronger distribution.”

All of which reckons without a response from the traditional meat industry, which depends on continued meat consumption to stay in business while providing a livelihood for millions of livestock farmers around the world. Scientists at New Zealand’s farming science research institute AgResearch are testing a vaccine that helps cattle reduce methane emissions, while Scottish researchers are developing breeds that produce less methane than normal. A combination of these efforts could see Australia’s cattle and sheep industries, which are responsible for close to 70 per cent of the nation’s agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, become carbon-neutral by 2030, according to research and marketing group Meat and Livestock Australia. A decade from now, then, perhaps we’ll be eating more meat — and more meat-free meat.

Why plant-based dairy is expanding

From oat milk to vegan cheese, non-dairy milks and food products are now relatively commonplace in supermarkets and at cafés in the UAE. Although the category accounts for only a small share of the market, an annual growth rate of 13.6 per cent will see the sector to $35.8 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

There are a number of drivers for this growth, says Reinier Weerman, General Manager - North Africa & Middle East at Upfield, a leading producer of plant-based alternatives to dairy foods, such as Flora and Blue Band. “Performance is in many cases now better than dairy alternatives, key influencers are driving the behaviour of millions of people and innovative companies in food, like hotel chains and restaurants, are catering to this increased demand – so it becomes a self-fulfilling process. People and companies want to be part of a solution, rather than the cause of a major problem.” Upfield is showcasing new plant-based oils, creams and butter products at Gulfood 2020.

Plant-based dairy alternatives come with other sustainability issues – such as almonds’ high use of water during cultivation (reportedly 1.1 gallon of water per single almond). That’s still better than cow’s milk, though: researchers at the University of Oxford found in a 2018 study that producing a glass of conventional milk generates nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk.