More and more people are choosing to eat less meat. Concerns about the environment, personal health and animal welfare are driving the change. The number of people committing to a strictly plant-based, or vegan, diet has risen in rich countries, as have the ranks of “flexitarians” -- only occasional meat eaters. The trend is spawning an expanding array of meat substitutes, both plant-based and a new high-tech generation of products grown from animal cells in laboratories. Investors including Bill Gates are betting that the appetite for meat alternatives will mushroom.

1. Are people really eating less meat?

Actually, no. Overall meat consumption is increasing globally, buoyed by rising affluence in developing countries including China and Brazil. At the same time, wealthy nations such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden are cutting back on meat as attitudes shift in wealthy nations. In the U.S., the biggest beef eater, per capita consumption is actually growing. But people are saying they want to cut back: Two-thirds of consumers said they had reduced their meat intake in a 2015 survey, while a Gallup poll estimated there were 3 million more vegans in 2018 than in 2012. One third of Britons have scaled down or stopped meat purchases altogether. Germans began lowering their meat consumption in 2011.

2. Why are people wary of meat?

Various studies point to health benefits of a flexitarian or vegan diet, while some research has linked red meat to heart disease and cancer. Avoiding meat and dairy products is the most effective way to reduce one’s environmental impact, according to a study in Science magazine. That’s because livestock produces a significant proportion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions that stoke global warming; the United Nations estimates 14.5 percent. A paper in the journal Nature concluded that meat consumption in western nations must fall by 90 percent to keep global temperatures under control. And while factory farming has made chicken, pork and beef more affordable, critics say that it fosters unacceptable conditions for animals and that its use of antibiotics and hormones can be harmful to human health. In a survey of U.K. consumers, animal welfare was the No. 1 reason for reducing meat intake.

3. What are the alternatives?

Using protein-rich substitutes (beans, peas, etc.) is nothing new, but a whole class of meat imitations has emerged. Some are made from plants, such as soy-based sausages or bacon and the more modern incarnations such as the Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger (made from soy protein, coconut oil and soy leghemoglobin, or “heme,” which is produced using genetically modified yeast). Then there are cultured meats, which use animal cells to cultivate products that manufacturers claim are virtually identical to meat from slaughtered animals. These have yet to reach the market (chicken nuggets may be first this year), partly because production costs remain too high. There are also food regulations to consider.

4. What are the objections to meat alternatives?

The environmental group Friends of the Earth has warned that genetically engineered ingredients -- such as the heme that makes Impossible Burgers taste meaty -- and lab-made meat require more rigorous research and safety assessments. Unanswered questions include the specifics of how cultured meat will be regulated (the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration are planning joint oversight) and whether the energy demands during manufacturing are excessive. As for their health credentials, some meat alternatives are heavily processed and contain high amounts of salt and refined ingredients.

5. Who’s making the imitations?

Most of the innovation comes from startups. In the U.S., Beyond Meat Inc. raised $241 million in an initial public offering in May; Impossible Foods Inc. has raised $450 million from investors including Microsoft Corp. co-founder Gates. In Britain, Quorn Foods Ltd. has been in the business for decades, while Netherlands-based Mosa Meat -- started by cultured meat pioneer Dr. Mark Post -- aims to bring products to market by 2021. Israel’s Aleph Farms Ltd. showcased the first lab-grown steaks, which take three weeks from cell sampling to finished product.

6. Why the buzz among investors?

They’ve been seduced by the startups’ goal to disrupt the meat industry. As of September 2018, sales of substitutes for all types of animal products comprised a $3.7 billion market, according to Nielsen. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and billionaires Sergey Brin and Li Ka-shing have invested in lab-grown alternatives. Traditional food companies are joining in. Conagra Brands Inc. bought meatless meat producer Gardein and Nestle SA is lining up a plant-based Incredible Burger, while Germany’s biggest poultry processor, PHW Group, is now selling Beyond Burgers. Even meat processors are taking stakes: Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. producer, had been an investor in Beyond Meat, too, but recently sold its 6.5 percent stake and said it plans to launch its own alternative protein product soon.

7. Will people eat meat alternatives?

They already are. Grocery sales of meat alternatives jumped 19.2 percent to $878 million for the year ended Jan. 5, 2019, according to data from Nielsen. Taste and cost will help determine whether meat alternatives are a fad or a thing. While the original Impossible Burger received a mixed reception -- a BBC food writer called it “amazing but just a tad too soft and mushy” -- the company’s latest incarnation is earning rave reviews, and Burger King is planning a nationwide rollout of its Impossible Whopper by the end of this year. Most cultured meats are several years from reaching a plate near you, at a price you’d be willing to pay. Consumer caution and taste could make them a hard sell, according to one study. Advocates see lab-grown meat as potentially revolutionizing protein production in a way that’s kinder to the environment and animals.

To contact the reporters on this story: Deena Shanker in New York at dshanker@bloomberg.net;Lydia Mulvany in Chicago at lmulvany2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anne Riley Moffat at ariley17@bloomberg.net, Grant Clark, Lisa Wolfson

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.