Do Consumers Trust Science Or Commercials More?
A key issue for advocates of plant-based and cell-based meat has been the issue of how to get consumers to accept these new products. A better understanding of how consumers make choices about their food is critical, and this new study from Finland aimed to explore different motivations of consumers of red meat and plant-based foods, and whether their food choices are influenced by different information sources. The key results are instructive: Consumers who eat a lot of red meat have different motivations and use different sources to get information about their food than consumers who eat mostly plant foods.
Animal agriculture has long been recognized to be destructive to the environment, and most animals raised for meat production live under horrible conditions in factory farms. For a more sustainable animal-friendly food system, production and consumption of meat and other animal products need to be reduced. Red meat – meat from cows, pigs, sheep, and processed products from those animals (like sausages) – is often singled out when people are asked to change to more sustainable diets.
Current levels of red meat consumption in many Western countries are particularly unhealthy and harm the environment. However, in most countries, red meat consumption has not drastically decreased. Meanwhile, plant-based meat products have been getting ever more sophisticated in mimicking the taste and texture of meat from animals, with a new generation of plant-based meat products being brought to the market in recent years.
Another alternative to conventionally produced meat is cell-based meat – meat grown from animal cells but without the need to raise and kill animals – which is expected to enter the market in the next few years. Plant-based and cell-based meat products have the potential to radically transform human food systems; reducing the environmental damage from animal agriculture, improving the health of many consumers, and sparing millions – if not billions – of animals the suffering endured on factory farms every year.
It’s in this context that researchers have been interested in improving our understanding of how consumers make food choices. In this study, the author tries to advance that understanding by analyzing differences in how consumers choose their food. A sample of over one thousand Finnish participants filled out a questionnaire to answer questions about eight different aspects, including their attitudes, abilities, information sources they used, and food choices. The factors measured by the questionnaire include:
- Ability to evaluate information and motivation to seek new information. The latter is often called “need for cognition” in psychological research.
- Caring for the environment and health as motivations for making food choices.
- Influence of scientific and commercial information sources on food choices. Scientific sources included official dietary guidelines, advice from health professionals, and scientific studies. Commercial sources included advertisements, food companies, and information provided in grocery stores and restaurants.
- Consumption of red meat and plant-based food products. Red meat included meat from cows, pigs, sheep, and processed meat products from those animals (like sausages). Plant-based food products included vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrain foods, peas and beans, and derived products like tofu.
The author used a structured equation model to estimate the relationship between these factors and how they affect food choices. This approach yields results about the type of relationship between two variables, for example, the use of commercial information sources being positively associated with higher consumption of red meat.
The results support the hypothesis that consumers of plant-based diets and of red meat-based diets use scientific and commercial information sources differently. Consumers who eat a lot of red meat tend to get their information about food from commercial information sources. They are not as environmentally conscious as consumers with plant-based diets. Consumers with strong health motivation attended more scientific sources. In contrast, people who base their food choices on environmental reasons were more influenced by commercial sources. The author notes that this last finding is in line with previous research that shows that environmental consumerism tends to rely on information from private advertisements.
While this study provides some interesting findings, it does have its limitations. All factors regarding consumers’ food choices were measured by asking participants about their own behavior and attitudes. Previous research has suggested that reports about eating habits do not always match individuals actual behavior. A similar limitation concerns participants’ ability and motivations for making food choices which were also measured by asking participants. In these cases, participants might over- or underestimate their abilities. With these limitations in mind, the results of this study still offer valuable insights for animal advocates, particularly for targeting messages and communication channels for different audiences. Also, the author notes that “where there is a plethora of information, providing consumers with more information about the benefits of plant-based diets is not likely to be an effective strategy”. Instead, he suggests that public campaigns to improve consumers’ ability to identify reliable information might be more promising.