To Buy Or Not To Buy: What Makes People Want To Buy Alternative Meats?
If you’ve ever stood in a shopping aisle, staring down a fatally sugary, but oh-so-tempting treat, you know how it feels to have contradicting feelings about food. With meat products and their alternatives, those feelings go beyond health and taste. You start thinking about ethics, food safety, and the novelty of it all. Some thoughts are positive. Others are negative. The war in your head is called ‘ambivalence.’
Ambivalence doesn’t mean you have no position. Some considerations win out over others, and you reach for that treat — or that alternative meat — and put it in your basket. How does this happen? What factors push you either way? And can promoters do better?
In this paper, researchers set out to look for answers. They predicted that ethical viewpoints, food-safety, and initial reactions all factor into people’s willingness to buy alternative meats. Consumers can be ambivalent about each of these categories, holding positive and negative views at the same time.
Ethically speaking, the sustainability of alternative meats is attractive, but their unnaturalness can be repulsive. People admire the cruelty-free nature of alternative meat production, where there is no risk of breeding novel diseases which might spread to humans. They appreciate how the gentler resource demands make for a smaller environmental impact. They want the kinder, greener future alternative meats promise. But the niggling doubt arises that such foods are artificial, synthetic, distancing us from nature — inherently wrong in some way.
People can have similar conflicted thoughts about food safety. They like the drug-free cleanness of alternative meats, but distrust the biotechnology involved. The amount of pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics used in the conventional meat industry bothers them. But while alternative meats avoid these threats to human health, they have an even closer relationship with biochemistry. Many people find it hard to trust what they don’t understand. Faced with the complexities of biotechnology, they can’t help but worry that there are food safety issues which haven’t yet come to light.
Finally, part of people’s willingness to buy alternative meats depends on their initial reaction to novel food products. Some are naturally curious, others naturally hesitant.
Over a thousand survey respondents shared their opinions on these factors, their relationship with meat, and other information about themselves. The researchers analyzed the data to find out which factors were most influential, and for which type of alternative meat.
As expected, people concerned about sustainability issues were more likely to buy plant-based meat. But the same trend didn’t appear with cultured meat. So why the difference?
One possible reason is commercialization. Plant-based meat is on the market, fitting into people’s everyday lives, but cultured meat is alien. Unavailable in any supermarket, it just doesn’t fall into the narrative of the ‘sustainable lifestyle.’ Even if people notice the ethical upsides, they aren’t more likely to make a purchase.
Promoters, take note. For now, the eco-friendly, cruelty-free brand is not helping cultured products, but pushing them to market faster, or just raising awareness, could help. On the flip side, marketers of plant-based products should capitalize on their clean, green image. As the data shows, it makes a difference.
Food neophobia – an aversion to new foods – also affects perceptions differently. Those wary of unfamiliar foods aren’t so keen to buy cultured meat. But the same trait doesn’t steer people away from plant-based products. Commercialization might be at play again. It’s gotten people used to the idea of plant-based meat, even if they’ve never tried it, so the neophobic response is weaker.
To reduce neophobia of cultured meat, the researchers suggest making information about it more accessible. If they’re curious, consumers can learn about its production, taste, texture, health effects, and more. As the authors later discovered, the more knowable an alternative meat becomes, the more acceptable it’ll be. By the time it hits the market, people might just welcome it with open arms.
Other factors are turn-offs regardless of the type of alternative meat in question.
If people find the alternative products unnatural, they’re less likely to buy them. But conventional meat production has unnatural elements too: the cramped, hard compounds of factory farming; the painful growth rates; the truncated lifespans. Promoters can point out how alternative meats avoid all this, making them the more natural products.
Distrust of biotechnology and attachment to conventional meat are two other factors related to disinterest in alternatives. More regulations and better public awareness of them could help with the trust issue. Attachment, however, could be harder to address. The research suggests that reasons go beyond the eating experience and habit alone. Psychology is complex, and promoters will have to approach from many angles.
Shifting people’s attitudes often means shifting their comfort zones. Thankfully, curiosity is on our side. People curious about food are more interested in buying alternative meats. Promoters can take advantage of this, creating safe environments for consumers to try alternatives and learn more. Easing their doubts can ease their way into new eating habits. Looking into consumer psychology has shown how multifaceted people’s attitudes are towards meat varieties. One thing’s for sure: alternative meat is one complicated beast.