Hen with Chicks

Kentucky Fake Chicken and Chipotle Vegan Sausage

We knew that 2022 would bring more plants into the food we eat, with plant-based diets continuing to be a hot topic. This long-term trend would also bring some faddish ultra-processed foods along the way, we wrote. Six days into the new year, KFC and Chipotle are fulfilling the promise with new offerings of fake chicken and vegan sausage.

This is the awkward phase of growing up into more plant-based patterns of eating.

Splashy Launches

Both companies cranked up their marketing and PR machines to generate hype for their launches. KFC President Kevin Hochman told us he’s all in on this:

“The mission from day one was simple – make the world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken from plants.”

Less than three years have passed since CEO Brian Niccol said that such highly processed meat substitutes just don’t fit with the Chipotle brand and its ethos of “real food made with real ingredients.” Now that’s not a problem. In fact, Chief Marketing Officer Chris Brand is excited:

“We are thrilled to introduce guests to our new, flavor-packed Plant-Based Chorizo during a season when healthier options are top of mind.”

Chipotle is positioning this as the launch of a “full-flavored vegan protein” on a national stage. But for the moment, it’s just a national trial run.

Don’t underestimate the power of food science and marketing to develop plant-based food-like substances that we can’t get enough of. Add a health halo and the package is complete.

Mixed, but Encouraging Consumer Research

Consumer research tells us that attitudes about meat substitutes are shifting quickly. Not long ago, consumers associated these products with tofu, vegans, and disgust – according to 2020 research by Fabienne Michel and colleagues. But more recently, Marleen Onwezen and colleagues found more positive emotions attached to alternative proteins. In a recent systematic review, Onwezen summarized the drivers of acceptance. They are taste and health, familiarity, attitudes, food neophobia, and social norms. These are all moving targets.

Hyperpalatable Food Products

We can expect a steady flow of plant-based, ultra-processed food products to keep coming over the next few years. They will taste progressively better. These products may even come to fit the definition of hyperpalatable foods that – in another context – some food policy advocates describe as addictive. Some of those advocates even call for health warnings akin to the warnings on tobacco products.

All in all, this drive to eat more plants, even in the form of ultra-processed foods, makes us a bit dizzy with its logical inconsistency. But then, we should remember that emotions, not facts and logic, drive many decisions and agendas regarding food.

Click here for a systematic review on consumer acceptance of alternative proteins. For more on the KFC and Chipotle launches, click here, here, and here.

Hen with Chicks, painting by Niko Pirosmani / WikiArt

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January 6, 2022