It's estimated that the majority of the expected 73% increase in the global demand for meat by 2050 will come from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Since human and environmental health concerns are likely to become more prominent with this increased consumption, plant-based meat alternatives have been touted as a possible alternative. But it may take some time before consumers in the region substitute their juicy steak of chicken wings for a vegan burger.
A review on plant-based meat alternatives in SSA published recently in Scientific African shows that before there can be any large-scale adoption of plant-based meat products in the region, we will first have to determine the social implications of eating less meat, the barriers to eating plant-based meat analogues, consumers' acceptance of these products, and strategies that could get people to supplement their meat intake with plant-based alternatives. Plant-based meat analogues are foods designed to mimic the appearance, flavour, and texture of meat products. These can include, among others, burgers, sausages, nuggets, mince and meatballs.
The review was conducted by Omamuyovwi Gbejewoh and Dr Jeannine Marais from the Department of Food Science at Stellenbosch University and Dr Sara Erasmus from the Food Quality & Design Group at Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. They examined the available literature on the production and consumption of plant-based meat alternatives by searching the Web of Science and Scopus databases for academic papers and Google for news or popular articles.
Ahead of World Food Day on 16 October, the researchers say their review has shown that there are certain barriers to consumers' acceptance of plant-based meat analogues even though worldwide, plant-based meat product sales accounted for $12.1 billion in 2019 and are likely to increase by 15% to reach $27.9 billion by 2025 and $149 billion by 2029. They do point out, however, that different versions of plant-based meat products have been available in South Africa and the rest of SSA over the past 25 years.
“Consumers' preference for meat is the most significant barrier to eating plant-based meat products or following a plant-based diet. In addition, meat has important socio-cultural connotations such as status, power, hierarchy, and subjugation of others.
“For example, studies in Zambia revealed that eating and sharing of meat, and even the type of meat that is served connote economic prosperity, power and respect. Chicken was more popular for regular consumption and entertaining guests because it is more readily accessible and relatively cheaper. On the other hand, beef is reserved for important visitors and landmark celebrations as it usually implies wealth because it is more expensive and usually eaten by well-to-do households.
“Other studies found that different ethnic groups in South Africa have various meat cuisines made from different types of domesticated and free-roaming wild animals."
The researchers add that price is another significant barrier to the adoption of plant-based meat.
“In South Africa, for example, plant-based meat alternatives are considered expensive niche products associated with status and class."
When it comes to the environmental and health risks associated with eating meat from domesticated animals regularly, the researchers point out that while consumers will acknowledge these risks, they are still unlikely to eat less meat. This phenomenon is known as the “meat paradox".
“Our review has shown that the 'halo effect' (consumers' perception that plant products are more environmentally friendly) afforded to plant-based meat is not completely warranted because researchers are (un)knowingly discounting the processed nature of meat alternatives in any environmental or health risk assessment."
“While the reduced environmental impacts of meat alternatives are apparent, a 'cradle to grave' environmental assessment needs to be carried out to ensure that the environmental burden is not shifted to other stages of the production cycle."
The researchers say the review also found that plant-based meat products are similar in nutrient composition to meat, although differences in essential nutrients warrant caution.
“In terms of nutritional composition between traditional meat and meat alternatives, there is inconclusive evidence on which is healthier."
According to them, the available literature is replete with strategies to reduce traditional meat consumption and to try plant-based meat alternatives. These include, among others, meatless days, partially substituting traditional meat with plant-based ingredients (e.g., “hybrid burgers"), cultural and lifestyle changes, food labelling, consumer education, and taxes on traditional meat or subsidies on plant-based meat.
“However, some of these strategies are not without drawbacks. For instance, food labels on the health and environmental benefits of plant-based meat may contain too much information that could confuse the consumer.
“If consumers in SSA are to be convinced to eat less meat and/or substitute it for plant-based alternatives, the latter should not be marketed as a replacement for traditional meat products but as a complement. Marketing strategies should be tailored to different sections of consumers because such a contextual approach is bound to provide more favourable and long-term results than a 'one-size-fits-all strategy."
The researchers emphasise the need for a comprehensive environmental and health impact assessment of meat alternatives in the region.
- Source: Gbejewoh, O; Marais, J; & Erasmus, S 2022. Planetary health and the promises of plant-based meat from a sub-Saharan African perspective: A review. Scientific African 17: DOI: org/10.1016/j.sciaf.2022.e01304
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