What Beyond Meat's New Cryptic Ads Say About The Meat Industry

Beyond Meat may have endured a tough few years of criticism from the meat industry, but now the company is fighting back with a series of ads that make a none-too-subtle statement about its opponents. After a promising launch a few years ago, Beyond Meat and other plant-based meats have struggled. Early optimism led to strong growth through 2020, but the products flatlined in 2021 and declined in sales in 2022, even as overall meat sales increased. While some of these troubles likely represent the natural slowing of a new product that saw initial growth and hype, plant-based meat has also been the subject of a tough lobbying campaign by the meat industry, which has sowed doubts about alternative meat's health and environmental impacts. Those attacks are just what Beyond Meat's new campaign seeks to address.

The first new ad, titled "There's Goodness Here," centers around a faba bean farmer in Munich, North Dakota. It features shots of wide-open, green fields, while detailing how Beyond uses natural cooking processes to transform the legumes that form the basis of its plant-based meats. The theme is clear from the very outset, as the video says: "Our story begins with sun, soil, water, and a seed." A second video features the farmer, Steven, talking about how farming faba beans for Beyond has made his farm more environmentally-friendly, emphasizing that the beans are all-natural and not genetically modified, and that the plants' nitrogen-enriching properties allow them to cut back on fertilizer.

Beyond Meat's new ads push back on criticism that plant-based meat is ultra-processed

While Beyond Meat's new ads don't come out and say it, the company is clearly working to counter the idea that plant-based meat is unnatural, or made with unhealthy chemical additives. In a press release, Beyond says it's focused on "demystifying the process" behind its products, and helping consumers "navigate between fact and fiction." Specifically, in both the ads and Beyond Meat's statements, there is an emphasis on the natural ingredients that go into the products. One of the biggest sources of criticism of plant-based meat has been the long list of ingredients, which many consumers interpret as a sign that the product is artificial and unhealthy. By putting the focus on "clean" ingredients like rice and peas, Beyond is highlighting what goes into their food, instead of running away from it.

There is also a strong message of the nutritious attributes of plant-based meats. The ads specifically mention that the new Beyond Steak has been certified as heart healthy by the American Heart Association. Beyond also points to a Stanford study that found replacing meat with a plant-based alternative led to lower cholesterol, weight loss, and overall improved health. It's a wide-ranging campaign, and Beyond promises that it's just the beginning. The size and comprehensiveness of the messaging is understandable, as there really are a lot of competing narratives out there about plant-based meat, many of which originated with the meat industry lobby.

The meat lobby has run ads attacking plant-based meat for years

The attacks against plant-based meat began almost as soon as it debuted. Starting in 2019, interest groups tied to the meat industry began running ads and launching websites that sought to cast plant-based meat as processed, unnatural, and unhealthy. The biggest player has been the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), run by the Washington lobbyist who served as the inspiration for the film "Thank You For Smoking," and who has also fought against the Humane Society and raising the minimum wage. The group's ads, including one run during the Super Bowl in 2022, have titles like "Fake Meat Has WHAT in It?!" and point to obscure-sounding ingredients like methylcellulose. They've also run multiple ads comparing plant-based meat to dog food.

The meat industry at large has also pushed legislation to ban companies like Beyond and Impossible from using the word "meat" for their products, similar to failed efforts from dairy farmers to stop nut milks from being called milk. The attacks have borne some fruit as prominent names like Mark Bittman and former Whole Food CEO John Mackey echoed the claims. However, the impact the meat industry campaign has had on consumers at large is less clear, as surveys show they continue to perceive plant-based meats as healthier than actual meat, with flavor and texture of meat alternatives being the bigger concerns.

Plant-based meat does appear to be healthier in some ways

As for these dueling claims about health and the environment, what's the reality? Well, the nutritiousness of plant-based meat is a complicated topic, with only a few long-term studies so far, but in many ways it does appear to be healthier than the meat it's trying to replace. Plant-based meat has lower saturated fat and no cholesterol, while containing just as much protein as its counterpart, and even some nutrients real meat doesn't have, like fiber. Yet it's higher in sodium, so there are tradeoffs. The reality seems to be that it's pretty close to meat nutritionally, for better or worse, and should be treated as a meat substitute with some potential health benefits, and not a true health food.

The environmental implications of plant-based meat do seem significantly better, but are equally unclear at this point. The alternative uses less land, less water, and does seem to have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than beef or chicken. This is slightly undercut by the fact that Beyond and Impossible have not yet disclosed all their greenhouse gas emissions. Given that so much of meat's impact comes from the animals themselves and land use, plant-based meat seems like a clear improvement, even with the missing data. It will be interesting to see what further information we get from Beyond as this new campaign continues; it could answer some of the lingering questions about how plant-based meat is made.