Consumers’ Perception of Alternatives to Meat

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The business strategy firm, Boston Consultancy Group (BCG), together with Blue Horizon recently shared its vision of the evolution of the alternative proteins market. Alternative proteins have transformed in the past few years from being a niche product to becoming a mainstream phenomenon. The types of products have greatly diversified and have become available in many fast-food restaurants and supermarkets around the world.

However, what we see today is only the beginning of the protein transformation according to BCG. In 15 years-time, the consultancy company believes that 11% of all the meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy around the globe will likely be alternative. Today, it is estimated to be 2%. But that number could actually reach 22% in 2035 if the appropriate policies and regulations are put in place, such as widespread taxation of greenhouse gas emissions and reallocation of agricultural subsidies to support the transition to alternative proteins.

BCG and Blue Horizon present three scenarios for the consumption of alternative proteins in the future. Taken from the Food For Thought: The Protein Transformation infographic. You can view HERE.

Whilst the alternative protein market is growing, so is meat consumption. Meat consumption per capita is likely to explode in the next few years in low- to medium-income countries that are becoming richer. This, paired with a rise in the global population means much more meat will need to be produced. This is probably why the developments in alternatives are so key at this time and the trajectory they will take will have a profound impact on how we manage the negative effects of meat production (climate, environment, etc.)

In this category, public investment hasn’t been very impressive, but The Good Food Institute reminds us that private investment has been booming. In 2020, the alternative protein industry raised $3.1 billion, which is more than in any single year in the industry’s history. In fact, this record surge in capital investment was three times more than what was raised in 2019. According to GFI, “investors are quickly realising that climate risk is investment risk, making sustainable solutions for protein production attractive for reasons that extend far beyond the bottom line.”

Alternatives to Meat: Consumer Behaviour

Needless to say that despite these developments, the significance of alternatives is dependent on consumers’ acceptance of these products, and their purchasing intentions. Consumers have started to become aware of the negative aspects of conventional meat, including environmental issues, animal welfare, and health risks, yet they might not always be inclined to choose an alternative; even when the alternative is clearly presented as an opportunity to address the problems created by conventional meat production and consumption. So what really pushes a consumer to choose an alternative protein option over a conventional one?

In the paperFactors Affecting Consumers’ Alternative Meats Buying Intentions: Plant-Based Meat Alternative and Cultured Meat”, the researchers examined exactly this question. They describe consumers’ cognitive conflicts about alternative meats from different viewpoints: initial reaction, ethical concern, and food safety. For each of these categories, they propose that consumers can have a positive or negative outlook.

alternatives to meat
Consumers’ cognitive conflicts about alternative meats from different viewpoints.

For example, the initial reaction can be positive if the person is curious about new foods (i.e. food curiosity), or negative if the person tends to be reluctant to try something they are not familiar with (i.e. food neophobia). By measuring the factors affecting consumers’ purchasing choices through a survey of participants, the researchers were able to suggest some guidelines for effective promotional messages of cultured meat and plant-based meat (the online survey was made up of Korean participants, 513 for cultured meat and 504 for plant-based meat).

Factors Affecting Willingness to Buy

The study found that in the case of cultured meat, willingness to buy (WTB) was positively affected by those that were curious about novel foods (i.e. food curiosity) and negatively affected by those that found it unnatural, distrusted biotechnology, and were averse to trying new foods (i.e. food neophobia); in other words, those that had a high score in each of these categories were less likely to buy cultured meat. Curiously, the survey could not conclude that people that cared about sustainability were more tempted to purchase cultured meat. Conversely, the willingness to buy plant-based meat was influenced by sustainability, suggesting that people who care about sustainable farming are more likely to choose a plant-based alternative.

The only other difference between the two alternatives (cultured vs plant-based) concerned food neophobia, which affected the willingness to buy cultured meat but not plant-based meat. In other words, having a high score in food neophobia decreased the likelihood of choosing cultured meat but not plant-based meat. In the study, it is suggested that an increasing number of people have become vegetarian over the years, so respondents were probably familiar with plant-based replacements. Thus, by definition, food neophobia could not have an effect on WTB plant-based. As mentioned above, the factors affecting the purchase of both types of alternatives were food curiosity, unnaturalness and distrust of biotechnology. The results could be influenced by culture, so it’s important to keep in mind that the survey was done in Korea.

alternatives to meat
Willingness to buy was affected by the factors above for cultured meat and plant-based meat.

The research suggests that cultured meat marketers should recognise that consumers who value sustainability are not more likely to choose cultured meat, so this feature isn’t efficient in promoting this type of meat alternative. Additionally, consumers significantly respond to food curiosity. The key selling point could be that cultured meat is an interesting food compared with conventional meat. On the other hand, negative aspects, such as unnaturalness, distrust of biotechnology, and food neophobia, decrease consumers’ willingness to buy. It is important for cultured meat marketers to avoid negative phrases, such as “lab-grown” or “made with biotechnology”.

For plant-based meat marketers, the perception of sustainability and unnaturalness both affect willingness to buy. For example, words such as “sustainable livestock” and “eco-friendly meat” could emphasise positive aspects, and again “lab-grown” or “made with biotechnology” should probably be avoided.

Moreover, in another paper (Frontiers in Psychology), which specifically reviewed the perception of cultured meat by collecting information from scientific papers and press articles from 1995 to 2019, the researchers identified similar patterns. They observed that terminology was important, for example referring to cultured meat as artificial or lab-grown could put consumers off because they perceived it as unnatural or ultra-processed. On the other hand, they suggest that the rising trend of flexitarianism could encourage people to adopt new alternatives such as cultured meat to meet their goal of lowering their meat consumption. However, according to the research papers they reviewed, this goal seems to be motivated by good health and nutritional needs rather than collective values (such as environmental protection or animal welfare). This point seems to confirm that emphasising the sustainability aspect isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to promote cultured meat. Finally, acceptance is likely to increase when consumers become more familiar with the concept of cultured meat, relating back to food neophobia from the previous study.

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3 years ago

Great article!
However, I suppose that the analysis is not relevant for most countries in the world since they are in different stage of their development and have different cultures. Or do you think that all countries will follow similar paths akin to what happened to the use of other products like plastics, computers and so on ?

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x