Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting to the University of Waterloo's Alt-Protein Project as a part of their summer speaker series.
Most of the speakers in their lineup focused on how alternative protein tech has been changing and what the future has in store. I decided to go a different route and talk about alternative protein of the past.
When I was starting to research how to convince skeptical meat eaters to add a little variety to the type of protein in their diets, I came across a fascinating history lesson.
It was on the critical role that alternative protein played in helping the Allies defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
If you're wondering, no, I didn't pick this topic for my presentation and this blog post because I had just seen Oppenheimer and was try to shoehorn my presentation into a pop culture moment. If that were the case, I would have talked about how it wasn't until 1960 that the Barbie Dreamhouse added a grill.
No, I picked this topic because I really love history, especially looking at the lessons we can learn about solving big, complicated problems.
This particular history lesson starts with a guy named Franklin.
American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be specific.
In November of 1940, FDR, had several major food marketing problems.
As you might know there were a lot of problems to go around in 1940. Nazi Germany's march across Europe had landed at the eastern shores of the English channel and the Battle for Britain was raging on.
The United States wasn't officially a participant in the Second World War at the time, with Pearl Harbour Attacks still being a year away, but there was little to no doubt that the US was going to be dragged into the conflict.
FDR had been elected to his third term in office and the most significant action he took was to sign the first ever US peacetime draft on September 16.
The Selective Service and Training Act took care of raising FDR's army, but making that army strong was a problem that couldn't be solved with the stroke of a pen.
You see the United States had been supporting the allied war effort for years and food rationing policies were already in place. Those policies had left many Americans with a protein deficit in their diet. Especially amongst the portion of the population that was most likely to be called into service.
Not enough protein means not enough muscle, and it was looking like the world needed every ounce of strength to defeat the Nazis.
As big a challenge as that was to keep American's bodies in fighting shape, it was as important if not more so to keep the public's spirits high.
In 1940 the American public still endorsed a policy of isolation and didn't want to enter the war. Leadership knew that it was inevitable, but also recognized the political cost domestically if grocery stores and dinner tables were light.
So what did FDR do? Like any good politician does when facing a problem, he struck a committee.
Actually since FDR was not just a good politician but a great one, he struck two.
The first was the US Committee on Food and Nutrition.
The best minds in the field of human biology were brought together and tasked with the responsibility of developing the ideal American diet with the food resources that were available at the time.
Protein was obviously a key focus and the consensus among the experts was that to meet the nations protein intake goals in this era of meat rationing, people would have to start eating more alternative protein.
See, I promised you that alternative protein would be in this story. But it's not the kind we use today and probably not the kind you're thinking of.
They weren't recommending plant-based burgers. In the 1940s the most abundant, high quality protein that wasn't already a common part of the American diet was organ meat, or offal. Hearts, lungs, liver, kidney, brains, common cuisine in many other countries, but not the United States. This was the alternative protein that was going to fill the gaps at dinner tables and keep the American public's body and spirit nourished as roasts and steaks became more and more scarce.
A perfectly elegant solution to an immense problem. I'm sure all of the doctors on the committee patted themselves on the back extensively and toasted to their own genius.
But, I probably don't have to tell you that this plan had one teeny, tiny flaw.
"You want me to serve my family brains in order to help win a war on the other side of the ocean? No thanks!” - Every American
FDR and his senior staff of course had seen this problem in advance, which was why they formed the second committee mentioned above.
The Committee on Food Habits was responsible to figure out how to actually get the public to eat that optimal diet. They needed to find a way to convince Americans who had grown accustomed to steaks, roasts, and pork chops every day of the week to put some heart, liver, and tongues on the dinner table.
The committee members did something smart as their first move and hired famed cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead to act as executive secretary and do the actual research work that was needed to accomplish their goals.
Mead’s research was framed in a theory on incentives and barriers to behavioural change. Mead recognized that the bulk of the work done to date was focused on creating incentives to eating differently.
Appealing to a person’s sense of patriotism was common.
“Eat nutritious food because Uncle Sam needs us strong!”
Unfortunately these messages were ineffective because they did nothing to address why people weren’t eating well in the first place.
That ineffectiveness led Mead to focus recommendations on removing barriers rather than creating incentives to changing food habits.
In her work, Mead discovered many different barriers to consuming organ meat at the time, however, three really stood out.
- Lack of knowledge.
- Fear of change.
On the issue of availability:
Most butcher shops didn't carry or display organ meat because consumers didn't demand it. Of course that led to the catch 22 where consumers don't demand products that aren't available to them. So the committee members went straight to the meat processors, butchers, and their associations and simply asked them to start stocking and displaying organ meat. Simple as that.
The second problem was a little tricker to solve. People didn't know how to prepare organ meat.
Two very familiar strategies were employed to solve this problem.
The first was content marketing. In partnership with the meat industry, "Victory Meat Extenders" booklets were produced and distributed. They included cooking instructions and recipes for stretching out meat rations and incorporating organ meat into meals. Some examples include baked liver, braised heart with stuffing, liver spoon cakes, and creamed brains on toast.
The second familiar strategy was influencer marketing.
It was the 1940s and women dominated household food purchasing and preparation decisions. Mead specifically focused her attention on influencing women’s decision making for nearly all cultural groups. And while there were no Pinterest boards or TikTok chefs to draw inspiration from, there were ladies' clubs.
Mead understood the influence these clubs had and set out to have home economists attend meetings and lead discussions on strategies to diversify the proteins they served to their families.
The home economists were very explicitly trained to not dictate to the members what they should or shouldn't do. Instead they were to present the challenge, open the floor to discussion, and provide the members with information to help them create their own strategies. "Teach don't preach."
In her research, Mead found that when following this method, members were 10 times more likely to attempt an organ meat recipe. That's compared to when the home economists presented themselves as an authority and dictated and lectured to club members.
The final problem was the most challenging they faced, fear of change.
Tell me if this question is easy to answer.
Q: When the world is in crisis, your life is completely upended, and there's no certainty about when things will return to normal, what do you feel like eating?
A: Something familiar and comforting!
Restaurants we work with tell us that comfort food like entree sized mac and cheese went from the least to the most popular dishes on their menus during the pandemic.
The Committee on Food Habits reported the same thing in 1940. People were afraid that the world around them was changing and the quality of life they enjoyed was going to be lost forever. It was the least opportune time in history to introduce a new unknown protein.
So how did Mead solve this problem?
With a rebrand.
Mead needed to make it clear to people that they weren't being asked to give up something that they loved entirely, but rather just add some variety to the type of protein they were serving.
And so "offal" was rebranded to "variety meat," a term that we still use today.
This history of alternative protein has fascinated me since I first read about it. While this story doesn't involve any explosions, paratroopers, or battleships, it still teaches us lessons on how we win a war.
So what lessons can we learn about winning the war against climate change and protecting and preserving our natural resources?
For me, the most important takeaway is the theory that was core to Mead's research and guided her strategy. When consumers already have a good reason to make a change, focus on removing barriers to adoption.
Right now, the alternative protein industry spends most of its time and resources marketing the environmental sustainability of plant-based meat. That’s an attempt to create an incentive to behaviour change.
Survey data shows that the message has been received; consumers know and understand that alternative protein is more sustainable and often that they want to make a change as a result.
Unfortunately the majority aren’t yet making that change, and we should be asking the question why? What barriers exist that are preventing consumers from making a change that they want to do?
There is some academic research coming out about the barriers to consumer adoption of plant-based meat, and it shows something really interesting. The barriers identified, availability, taste, smell, price, nutrition, convenience, ability to prepare, are shockingly similar to the barriers Mead identified to consumption of variety meats back in 1940.
A new barrier that I hear at nearly every event we hold is that plant-based meat is perceived to be 'unmasculine." As a result, people are hesitant to incorporate it into their household meals because they simply don’t want to hear their male family members complain.
Another is people’s lack of understanding how alternative protein is made. People have a natural hesitation towards and fear of things that they don’t understand. So much of the work in alternative protein looks and sounds like science fiction to the average consumer.
That's why we work hard to be transparent with how our products are made and the ingredients we use.
I could write tomes about my frustration with the approach many sustainability minded people, companies, and organizations take. Everyone seems to think that finding the right villain, smoking gun, or infographic will be the thing that convinces people to make more sustainable choices. It won't.
In 1940 FDR had the villain , a monster that people hated so much that they were willing to risk their lives an ocean away to defeat.
It still didn't make it easy to ask people at home to sacrifice their family's favourite meatloaf. This just isn't how behavioural change works.
Making the sacrifice easy is what ended up making a difference in 1940.
Today, we take things one step further and strive to provide you a choice that's sustainable without sacrifice.
Our approach to combining ordinary meat with alternative protein is a bit mundane and probably won't be turned into a biopic or make the front page of the New York Times. I'm ok with that. I know it is what will lead to lasting consumer changes and a better, healthier planet.