Improving How Vegan Food Tastes, Smells, And Looks
Mass adoption of plant-based food alternatives would significantly reduce farmed animal suffering. Research consistently shows that human senses, especially taste, are the primary driver for accepting these foods. However, a gap exists between what consumers want animal product alternatives to taste, smell, and look like, and what’s actually available. This research studies this gap and identifies European consumers’ opinions on plant-based alternatives’ sensory aspects.
One challenge to studying this topic is the need for language to describe the qualities of plant-based alternatives. In the first part of the study, the authors enlisted a panel of experts trained in describing the sensory qualities of food. The panel was asked to taste one animal product and three plant-based products across six common categories: chicken, beef, semi-hard cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, and milk. The panel then developed a vocabulary of 22-35 descriptive terms for each food category.
In part two of the study, the authors surveyed European consumers of plant-based products. Most respondents were vegan (40%-60%) or vegetarian (25%). The sample also included flexitarians (10-20%) and omnivores (3%). For each food category, participants were asked to give their opinion on the sensory characteristics of currently available vs. their ideal product, using the sensory vocabulary terms developed by the expert panel. The number of respondents differed for each category ranging from 416 to 1,829 consumers.
Across all categories, the plant-based alternatives were rated as at least neutral on a likeability scale. Even for foods with a high likeability rating, consumers felt that improvements could be made on most sense-based traits.
Milk alternatives were rated the highest on likeability. Consumers suggested that plant-based milk should be fresher, more sour, and not as sweet, beany, or grain-like to improve the taste. Yogurt alternatives were rated the second highest on likeability. Similar to milk, consumers wanted a stronger fresh sour taste for plant-based yogurt, but they also wanted a thicker texture.
According to the survey results, plant-based chicken alternatives can be improved by increasing the tenderness and chicken-like structure and flavor. Consumers also requested increased juiciness and a chicken-like odor. Opinions on beef alternatives were similar. Consumers wanted a distinct beef-like aroma and taste, savory flavor, and juicy texture.
Semi-hard cheese alternatives rated the lowest on likeability, with consumers feeling primarily neutral about them. Participants requested a stronger cheesy odor and taste, savory flavor, and creamy texture for these products. Visually, making the cheese less shiny was preferred.
For plant-based cream cheese, consumers wanted a stronger spreadable appearance, creamy texture, and creamy taste as well as a more balanced flavor and cheesy odor. They also felt the white color of vegan cream cheese was too intense. Overall, consumers wanted to see the most changes to plant-based cheese alternatives compared to other products.
The sample was limited to people in Western, Northern, and Central Europe, as well as consumers who were primarily veg*n. This group might have shown different preferences than meat-eaters who haven’t tried plant-based alternatives. Similarly, the survey relied on descriptors that the panel suggested, and it’s unclear whether everyday consumers have other suggestions for improvement. These limitations aside, the data offer more specific ways to align plant-based alternatives with their animal-based counterparts.
Animal advocates can use this research to promote plant-based milk and yogurt alternatives. These foods had the highest likability scores from consumers, indicating that they are nearly equal to the animal-based milk and yogurt they replace and may be more acceptable to consumers.
Advocates can also use these results to inform plant-based companies about ways to improve their milk, yogurt, cheese, beef, and chicken products. While progress has been made, the gap between consumer preference and current product offerings is still wide for some of these products. This research gives specific criteria that can be improved rather than vague general terms.