How The U.K. Media Portray Plant-Based Diets
In the E.U. and the U.K., sales of plant-based protein products have grown by almost 10% a year since 2010. Nevertheless, animal products remain the norm. As such, it’s important to find ways of appealing to the public about the benefits of plant-based diets — and the media can play a major role in generating mainstream awareness of key issues.
This paper looked at how British newspapers discussed plant-based foods between 2010 and 2020. The aim of the study was to identify the topics discussed and the general tone toward plant-based foods. The researchers analyzed 574 online and print newspaper articles from three U.K. newspapers — the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Times. All the articles were either opinion pieces or traditional media reports about plant-based products or meat-free substitutes.
The study found that the media coverage kept pace with the growth of the plant-based market. The majority (78%) of articles were published between 2017 and 2020. The overall tone about plant-based products was positive in most articles (71%), while only 10% of writers used a negative tone. Some articles were generally positive about plant-based diets, but negative about processed meat and dairy substitutes.
The authors of the study identified three main themes in articles about plant-based products: health, sustainability, and innovation.
Media coverage of the health benefits of plant-based diets was divided, especially when it came to meat and dairy substitutes. On the one hand, most health-related articles highlighted the health benefits of a plant-based diet and/or the harms of eating too many animal products. On the other hand, 25% of the articles emphasized the importance of meat and dairy consumption for human health. Many articles acknowledged the health benefits of whole plant-based foods, but questioned the health benefits of processed meat and dairy substitutes.
Regarding environmental sustainability, almost all articles (93%) that focused on sustainability reported that plant-based diets are more sustainable and efficient than animal-based diets. Many of the articles (67%) noted that the alt-protein industry is trying to find innovative ways of meeting the growing global demand for protein that are more ecologically sustainable. Far fewer articles provided the perspective of the animal agriculture industry or pointed out the potential ecological harms of creating meat substitutes.
The third major theme — innovation — was discussed from many angles in the U.K. media. The majority of articles (70%) discussed how plant-based foods have become more visible and desirable in recent years. In particular, retailers, food companies, politicians, and even celebrities could speed up this shift. Yet only a quarter of the articles portrayed meat and dairy consumption as unethical. Fewer articles highlighted other issues, such as controversies surrounding plant-based labeling or how the alt-meat industry will impact farmers’ livelihoods.
Based on these results, the authors claim that most British broadsheet newspaper articles support the shift towards a plant-based diet. However, there are still some concerns, including the health impacts of processed meat and dairy substitutes as well as how animal-free food industries will affect people and the environment.
The authors make three key recommendations for the plant-based sector to respond to media concerns. First, food manufacturers should consider making products using whole plant foods rather than processed substitutes. Second, producers should use local ingredients and be transparent about their production process, which may counter arguments about the carbon footprint of growing alt-protein crops. Finally, food companies should consider ways of promoting food equity, such as collaborating with local farmers and marginalized groups who may be impacted by a shift in the food system.