Plant-based meat alternatives are trying to exit the culture wars – an impossible task?

A person holds an Impossible brand meatless burger in California in 2021. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

by S. Marek Muller, Texas State University and David Rooney, The University of Texas at Austin

Increasingly, vegans, vegetarians and others looking for meat alternatives are seeing a new option on the menu: patties that look, taste and even appear to bleed like beef hamburgers, but are actually made of soy, pea protein and other ingredients.

Now, a leading plant-based meat company called Impossible Foods plans to rebrand, in order to reach a wider audience.

From now on, Impossible Foods says that all of its green cardboard packaging will be switched to red, in a bid to “appeal to the carnivorous cravings of meat eaters,” according to a March 2024 news release.

Big-name, plant-based meat alternative brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are losing revenue at an alarming pace. Multiple brands, like the vegan chicken nugget brand Nowadays, are going out of business. And Impossible Foods’ private share value has dropped 89% since 2021.

Some of the plant-based meat substitute industry’s woes can be attributed to politics. Many consumers associate plant-based meat substitutes with veganism, animal rights activism and left-wing politics.

Impossible’s CEO, Peter McGuinness, said in 2023 that his company has an elitist reputation and that the company’s rebranding is a rejection of “wokeness.” The so-called “wokeness” of Impossible and other plant-based meat substitutes shows the symbolic power that food can have in politics.

As communication scholars, we study and teach our students about the persuasive power of symbols. Even innocuous items like the food we eat are symbols that come with attached meanings and values.

Amid the highly polarized politics in the U.S., plant-based meat substitutes and their analog, “real” meat, have become weapons in a symbol-laden political battle between some conservatives and liberals, sometimes nicknamed the “Meat Culture War.” In other words, while an Impossible burger might literally be a soy patty, it is also a symbolic threat to the right-wing ideological order, a symbolic stand-in for the left-wing “villain of the week.”

Green and white bags say the words 'Impossible' and are stacked in green boxes that also say Impossible.
Impossible burger patties in the frozen food aisle at a Costco in Florida. Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Food, politics and culture

While costs vary, products made by the plant-based meat industry can cost two to three times more than animal-based meats.

People who are higher income, younger and live in the suburbs are most likely to have tried plant-based meat substitutes, Gallup polling shows. A rural Mississippi corner store probably won’t sell Impossible sausages, but an urban California Whole Foods probably will.

In some cases, conservatives have attached even more meaning to plant-based meat substitutes. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, for example, produced a documentary in 2022 featuring the Raw Egg Nationalist, a prominent far-right influencer, who said that Impossible, Beyond and other plant-based companies are part of a “soy globalist” conspiracy to criminalize meat consumption and weaken citizens through poisoned food. The Raw Egg Nationalist also wrote in 2022 that plant-based meat substitutes and eggs are “perverted” products pushed by elites to bring civilization to “the brink of madness.”

Food’s political symbolism is not new. Depicting East Asian men as “effeminate rice eaters” was used as a justification for European colonial rule in Asia in the 1800s and for later stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. And during the Iraq War in the mid-2000s, some U.S. restaurants renamed french fries as “freedom fries” to protest France’s refusal to join the war.

More recently, some people have derisively called men who consume soy-based proteins “soy boys.” In response to calls for meat reduction, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has proposed banning the trend of Meatless Mondays to combat “the Left’s War on Meat.”

Impossible’s appeal to the political right likely won’t be solved with a quick repackage. That’s because their issue is related to a deep-seated conspiratorial ideology embraced by some people in far-right political circles.

Sure, some studies in consumer psychology suggest that brand color impacts consumer preferences. For plant-based meats in particular, consumers’ perceptions of the product’s eco-friendliness and tastiness is somewhat affected by packaging color – in this case, typically green. A color shift may “nudge” a wayward carnivore to take a taste of an Impossible brat, but that’s a bandage, not a solution.

You are what you eat

The symbolic connection between consuming the “right” foods and U.S. political identity is strong.

During the 2012 election, political analyst Dave Wasserman argued that who controls the Senate would come down to Cracker Barrel diners, who tend to favor options like chicken and dumplings, country fried steak and meatloaf, versus Whole Foods shoppers.

He correctly noted that electoral districts that are also home to a Whole Foods were more likely to vote “blue,” while districts with Cracker Barrels were more likely to vote “red.” Ten years later, in the summer of 2022, social media went wild when Cracker Barrel offered an Impossible sausage patty on its menu.

Some people then posted on Cracker Barrel’s Facebook page, lambasting the restaurant chain. As one person wrote, “We don’t eat in an old country store for woke burgers.”

Plant-based meat substitutes are often used by conservative commentators as a symbolic stand-in for “Big Government” and are seen as a threat to individual liberty.

At the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz declared his wish “to see PETA supporting the Republican Party now that the Democrats want to kill all the cows.” At a 2020 rally in Des Moines, Iowa, then-President Donald Trump cast the anti-meat conspiracy in even more nefarious and illogical terms, saying that “they want to kill our cows! You know why, right? … That means you’re next.”

In 2021, a survey found that 44% of Republicans actively believe that there is a “movement in the U.S. to ban red meat.”

An ad says 'Impossible Whopper' and has a photo of a burger on a bun with lettuce, tomato and onion.
Burger King is among the chain restaurants that sell the vegan Impossible burger. Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A larger conspiracy

These fears overlap with the populist right-wing conspiracy theory of “The Great Reset,” meaning the belief that wealthy “elites” are weakening citizens – particularly white men – to subject them to tyrannical control and subjugation.

A 2023 article in The American Conservative argued that Impossible was at the forefront of a “collective vegan madness that has seized our media and political classes … not to convince people but to compel them.” In the online backlash to Cracker Barrel’s new Impossible sausage item, some commentators similarly suggested that Cracker Barrel’s “5G sausages” were controlled by Bill Gates.

Psychology and gender scholarship has found that “traditional” forms of masculinity associated with right-wing ideologies correlate with high meat consumption. Right-wing males consume red meats at higher volumes and with greater frequency than other demographics.

As communication scholars, we’re confident that what Impossible can’t do is repackage in a way that will attract right-wing carnivores. The Meat Culture Wars won’t end because of red wrappers or meaty descriptors. They’ll only end when, collectively, other items become perceived as an identity threat and globalist conspiracy and people forget about fake meat.The Conversation

S. Marek Muller, Assistant Professor: Communication Studies, Texas State University and David Rooney, Doctoral candidate, The University of Texas at Austin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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