Studies may suggest plant-based proteins are less expensive than meat but the situation is not as clear-cut

Sylvain CharleboisAs we enter the year 2024, many of us will be making resolutions aimed at changing our diets and budgets. Some resolutions will carry more weight than others, of course.

One topic that frequently arises is how consumers can save on their food expenses without compromising their nutrition.

This is where a discussion about proteins becomes almost inevitable. Many people wonder if meat is genuinely more expensive than plant-based proteins. The answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Several studies conducted in recent years suggest that plant-based proteins are generally less expensive than meat, at least over the past 12 months. However, when examining prices in Canada, the situation is not as clear-cut.

Let’s start with meat. Since March 2020, which is nearly four years ago, meat prices, especially for popular components like chicken, pork, and beef, have experienced significant fluctuations.

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Even from one month to the next, variations can be quite pronounced. According to Statistics Canada, ground beef prices increased by a net 16 percent in November 2023 compared to March 2020. It’s evident that certain beef cuts are more expensive than ground meat, but the latter remains popular among consumers. As for pork and chicken, the increases have been more moderate, ranging from four percent to seven percent since March 2020. These percentages remain below the overall average for food expenditures during the same period.

When it comes to plant-based proteins, let’s examine four relatively popular products: lentils, dry beans, tofu, and hummus. Since March 2020, their prices have increased by 25 percent, 23 percent, 16 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. While these increases are more substantial, they have been more gradual, without the violent fluctuations seen in the case of meat. Since these prices are less volatile, the hikes often go unnoticed. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the data doesn’t lie.

Meat counter prices tend to fluctuate more due to the greater influence of variables such as energy and transportation costs. Plant-based proteins are less exposed to biosecurity and high food safety risks, resulting in fewer losses, and their production is generally less intensive. However, once prices have risen, consumer perception is durably affected, leading them to believe the product is still too expensive. This is what’s known as meat counter psychology, which influences our perceptions.

People feel like meat counter prices have increased more in recent years, but that’s not entirely the case, at least according to Statistics Canada data. In terms of volume, of course, animal protein is generally more expensive, but it’s also not the same protein.

There are certainly exceptions, and some meat cuts have genuinely risen in price in recent years. Similarly, the prices of certain plant-based products, not just ingredients, have also increased since March 2020.

The affordability of proteins is just one element to consider. The choice to reduce meat consumption goes beyond price. Environmental concerns, animal welfare, and health are significant decision factors for consumers.

However, if your resolution for 2024 is to eat less meat, saving money is unlikely to be your primary motivation. You can still save by buying meat at the right time. It’s just that purchasing meat requires a more elaborate strategy, whereas plant-based protein prices seem more predictable.

That’s all there is to it.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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