The price of meat has been rising at an exponential pace, but plant-based meat alternatives are still more expensive than their animal counterparts, a study has found.

Dalhousie University’s Agri-Foods Analytics Lab, in partnership with BetterCart Analytics, compared the prices of popular animal products such as steak, chicken and bacon to those of their plant-based counterparts.

The study focused on plant-based products meant to mimic or replace meat, excluding other plant-based proteins such as tofu, chickpeas and lentils as pound-per-pound comparisons weren’t possible.

Melanie Morrison, president and CEO of BetterCart, said the company captures available price data online to the tune of millions of data points and stores it in a database. The data for this study covers between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2022, she said.

In every province, the study found that meat products were still more affordable overall than their plant-based counterparts, with the biggest gaps in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

On average, the price difference was 38 per cent, but it varied wildly depending on the product.

For example, plant-based bacon was 18 per cent more expensive than regular bacon, but plant-based chicken nuggets were more than twice the price of the real deal.

Plant-based burger patties were on average 71 per cent more expensive than meat burgers, while hot dogs only saw a difference of 25 per cent. Plant-based meals and entrees were twice as expensive as meat versions.

The only product whose plant-based alternative was cheaper than the real thing was turkey, with a difference of 12 per cent.

Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, said he was somewhat surprised by the results of the study, given just how much the cost of meat has been rising. The price of ground beef, for example, went up 13 per cent between February 2021 and February 2022, while the price of bacon went up almost 15 per cent.

However, I have noted that consumers often don’t realize just how much more expensive plant-based meat alternatives are because they come in smaller packages. The real difference comes when you compare products pound for pound, he said.

These results show that plant-based meat alternatives are not yet competitive with meat products, said Charlebois.

Of course, many vegans and vegetarians get protein at least in part from cheaper foods including beans, lentils and tofu, he said. Most plant-based meat alternatives are intended to target “flexitarians,” he said, acting as a bridge between the meat and plant-based worlds.

Though Statistics Canada doesn’t publish data on many common meat alternatives, even the cost of baked beans has gone up almost 12 per cent. If you turn to eggs for protein, however, those have only gone up 5.5 per cent.

The prices for plant-based products were more volatile than meat during the period studied, said Morrison.

Though many consumers are interested in trying plant-based foods, Morrison said rising inflation may make them think twice when they see them at the grocery store.

“I think it’s the price sometimes that is the tipping point,” she said.

Last year, Protein Industries Canada projected that by 2035, Canada would capture 10 per cent of the global plant-based food market, adding billions in sales annually to the industry.

However, Charlebois believes the plant-based industry has found itself at a crossroads. Thanks to the cost of producing these products, which is heightened because of the efforts to replicate meat products, plant-based alternatives are still a luxury, and not a competitive swap.

Companies will need to either reduce their manufacturing costs or accept slimmer margins to become competitive, he said. This next phase for the industry may be accelerated by the pressures of inflation, I added.

“I think we are at a critical point right now for vegetable proteins,” he said.

In November, McCain Foods, which has invested heavily in plant-based proteins, said it has seen a decline in sales for those products, leading the company to reassess the high growth rates predicted earlier by the industry.

Maple Leaf chief executive Michael McCain told analysts that across the industry, sales of packaged plant-based foods peaked mid-2020.

Now that the industry has more players and the science is improving, the next frontier will be priced, Charlebois predicted — especially since some think the market is becoming crowded.

“Competition has brought better flavors, and better texture, but not better pricing,” Charlebois said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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