How Can You Have Any Protein If You Don’t Eat Your Meat?
Humanity’s reliance on meat and other animal products plays a major role in climate degradation. In order to slow our sprint toward climate crisis, researchers are working to discover ways to shift consumption habits away from meat, replacing it with more sustainable alternative proteins. Before we can change consumers’ behavior, however, we must understand what forces influence their current behavior, and what types of interventions have the best chance of motivating them to change.
In this meta-analysis, the authors collected 91 studies related to consumer acceptance of alternative protein sources. They found that this field of research is rapidly expanding, with 37 relevant studies published in 2019, up from just three in 2013. Here, the authors divided alternative proteins into five categories: pulses (seeds in the legume family such as beans and peas), insects, algae (seaweed), plant-based meat alternatives (plant products that mimic meat), and cultured meat (lab-grown from animal cells). Studies on consumer acceptance of alternative proteins have tended to focus on information-based motives and interventions. The authors of this paper hope to enrich this field of study by shedding light on consumers’ emotional motivations. Among these they include familiarity, disgust, food neophobia (fear of new food), trust, and peer acceptance.
The meta-analysis ran into the typical difficulties of compiling information from diverse sources. Most of the studies examined only one or two alternative proteins, making comparisons between categories difficult. What’s more, some alternatives have been studied far more than others — 58 studies on insects compared to 9 studies each on pulses, algae, and plant-based alternatives. On top of that, studies used different outcome measures from one another, like willingness to pay versus intention to consume, and none of these measures are perfect predictors of actual future behavior in the real world.
Current State of Consumer Acceptance
In spite of these challenges, it is clear that most consumers prefer meat to any alternative. One study found that in a lineup of identical-tasting hypothetical burgers, 65% of subjects would choose a meat burger, 21% a plant-based burger, and only 11% a cultured meat burger. Among alternative proteins, pulses and plant-based alternatives are currently the most readily accepted by consumers, followed by algae, cultured meat, and insects, in that order.
Drivers of Consumer Acceptance
The factors that determine consumers’ acceptance of various alternative proteins can be divided into three types: informational, psychological, and demographic.
Relevant informational drivers include healthiness, taste, environmental benefits, and price. Information about healthiness and taste is influential in the acceptance of all alternative proteins. The environmental benefits of switching to alternative proteins are highly motivating factors for those aware of them, but most consumers are not aware. Higher prices actually increase consumers’ acceptance of alternative proteins, likely because the higher price implies a higher-quality product. Finally, the framing of information is important — a little more detail about the end product can increase acceptance, but too much technical detail about its production can backfire and deter consumers. It turns out no one wants to know how the sausage gets made, field sausage included.
Psychological drivers of consumption include familiarity, food neophobia, disgust, trust, and peer acceptance. Those who have become familiar with insect-based foods by sampling them are more likely to consume insects in the future. This may prove true of other alternative proteins as well. Food neophobia and disgust are barriers to acceptance of all alternative proteins, though the novelty of some of these alternatives may actually attract some adventurous consumers. The more novel a protein source is, the more it is impacted by emotional processes. The role of trust in acceptance of alternative proteins was only addressed by three studies, but they found that a general distrust of science correlates with a low acceptance of cultured meat, and that information from trusted organizations can increase the acceptance of alternative proteins. Peer acceptance increases acceptance of alternatives.
Demographic factors are at best only modestly explanatory of consumer acceptance of alternative proteins. Even so, a few patterns are worth noting. The people most open to alternative proteins tend to be young, highly educated, not politically conservative, urban, and veg*n. Insects are more acceptable to males, while plant-based alternatives are more acceptable to females. Those who currently consume a lot of meat prefer cultured meat and products resembling meat to other alternatives. Those who currently consume little or no meat prefer plant-based alternatives. No group prefers insects. It would seem insects are too much like animals for veg*ns and not enough like animals for meat eaters.
We hope future research in this field will include more studies integrating multiple alternative proteins for cross-comparisons, as well as more granularity within categories. We’d also like to see more studies focused on interventions and emotional drivers of consumer behavior. We’d welcome studies that examine consumer behavior in more real-world scenarios, and studies that examine regional differences in alternative protein acceptance.
Future interventions aimed at shifting consumption from meat to alternative proteins should stop relying so heavily on information claims and begin leveraging our understanding of emotional factors. For instance, an intervention could increase familiarity and thus acceptance by incorporating a novel protein into a familiar dish. Intervention efforts should center on pulses and plant-based alternatives, because these are the two most readily accepted alternatives and the two most sustainable alternatives.
With carefully crafted interventions, we can guide society down that pathway paved with pulses and plant-based patties and into a more sustainable future.