‘Blended’ Diets: Mixing Mushrooms With Meat
There is widespread agreement across industry, government, and academia that increasing the proportion of plant-based foods in consumers’ diets has a positive impact on environmental sustainability, public health, and animal welfare. This is demonstrated in consumers’ real-life purchasing habits; the trade association for the U.S. meat industry has reported that two thirds of meat-eaters are now seeking out ‘healthier’ foods.
There has also been a relatively recent shift in how we tend to classify plant-based consumers, behaviors, and products. In the past, there was an ‘all or nothing’ view about meat consumption behavior, while nowadays people are more comfortable with a kind of meat-eating continuum, which includes regular meat consumers, meat reducers, and meat avoiders. Reducing meat consumption, rather than fully substituting meat in a consumer’s diet, could have the greatest appeal to the mainstream population.
Blending plant-based ingredients with meat has proven particularly successful in reducing meat consumption. Mushrooms are a particularly effective and widely accepted plant-based choice for meat blending, because of their umami flavor, texture, and general compatibility and familiarity with meat. However, while discussion and research in industry, press, and academia often center on the benefits of shifting toward a plant-based diet, there is relatively little said about why consumers would actually want to make this change. The researchers of this study wanted to develop this line of thought by exploring the reasons behind consumer acceptance of blending mushrooms into traditional meat-based foods.
This study was supported by funding from the Mushroom Council, USA. Data from 602 meat-eating respondents was collected via an online survey. Attention and quality-check questions were incorporated into each survey, and results were randomized to reduce common method biases.
Seven themes were measured in the study; acceptance of blending, assessment of blending, food knowledge, food involvement, cooking habits, food innovativeness, and healthy eating. To test acceptance, respondents were asked to rate how much they believed that blending mushrooms into ground meat would taste better, be healthier, be more environmentally sustainable, cost less, and be new and interesting. To test consumer acceptance, researchers asked respondents if they liked a particular blended product, were interested in learning more about it, and whether they intended to have it in the near future. To measure respondents’ food knowledge, food innovativeness, and healthy eating, they were presented with a series of statements about themselves and asked to state how much they agreed or disagreed.
Respondents were interested in the concept of blending and rated blended products highly. However, they expressed a slightly lower intention to try such products in the near future. Respondents had a high belief that blended products are environmentally sustainable, new and interesting, and healthier; they also had a moderate belief that they would cost less and taste better.
Reasons for consuming blended products fell into four separate groups (in order of importance); health benefits, price and taste benefits, the ability to try a new and interesting food product, and culinary and sustainability benefits. While industry research and press have touted the environment as one of the primary reasons why consumers seek meat alternatives, in this study environmental sustainability was ranked in the last two of eleven benefits.
As might be expected from existing industry focus, the blended burger was overwhelmingly the preferred blended product. When respondents indicated that they intended to serve blended products in the future, it was in the form of a blended burger in 40% of cases.
Acceptance of blending did not vary by age, gender, or education. Assessment of blending — whether the respondent personally liked the product, was interested in finding out more, or planned to have it in the future — did vary by gender, with females assessing blending more favorably than men. In addition, customers whose red meat consumption was declining or who were considering reducing their red meat consumption were more accepting of blended products and more likely to assess them favorably than those whose red meat consumption was consistent or growing.
Healthy eating, food innovativeness, and food involvement all had a significant and material influence on how respondents were likely to assess blending. By contrast, cooking habits and food knowledge did not have any such influence.
A consumer’s attitude toward meat was also found to influence the relationship between their personal values/lifestyle and blending assessment and acceptance. Assessment of blending was found to have a substantial influence on blending acceptance but this was even stronger for transitional meat consumers — i.e., those reducing their red meat consumption or ‘flexitarians’. Healthy eating is also much more likely to be influential for transitional meat consumers. By contrast, innovativeness is much more influential for regular meat consumers than for transitional meat consumers..
By confirming an underexplored gap for mainstream consumers that lies somewhere between meat-eater and strict vegan, this research has significant implications for the food marketing industry. Since regular meat-eaters are more interested in trying new ideas, plant-based blends could be marketed towards these consumers as innovative and novel. The relative lack of importance of environmental sustainability as a motivating factor, which runs contrary to common belief about the transitional meat consumer, can also influence the way blended products are positioned within the marketplace. In general, understanding the specific motivations behind consumer acceptance and assessment of blended products will enable food manufacturers to more effectively promote and position them to target markets, ultimately reducing overall meat consumption.