What Does The Ag Industry Think Of Plant-Based Meat?
If you mostly pay attention to veg*n media, you may get the idea that plant-based diets and products are sweeping the nation in an unstoppable wave. While it may be true that plant-based foods are enjoying a spike in momentum, it’s important to step out of our bubble and understand how the general public feels, and what opposition is doing in response. The National Cattleman’s Beef Association commissioned a survey to examine consumer mindsets towards plant-based beef substitutes like Impossible, Beyond, and Lightlife products. The survey was given to over 1,800 Americans over the internet, and asked basic demographic information as well as questions about their attitudes, awareness, and beliefs surrounding plant-based meat.
First, it may be surprising to learn that only 45% of respondents understood that “plant-based” refers to items with no animal products, while 31% understood it to mean that it contains no meat, but may contain animal byproducts like whey powder or egg. Around a quarter of respondents believed that it could refer to products with meat, with 7% believing that anything can be labeled plant-based, regardless of the amount of meat content. More people believed animal meat to be superior to plant-based substitutes in terms of cost, protein content, and having fewer ingredients.
Plant-based meat was believed to be healthier and more environmentally-friendly than animal meat by a majority of respondents. However, the majority of people surveyed believed plant-based meat to be either superior or equivalent to animal meat in every category: 54% for price, 57% for protein content, and 58% for having fewer ingredients. This is important: the majority of people already believe plant-based meats to be at least equivalent to animal meat. One important quality that was left off, however: taste. This may simply be due to the difficulty of evaluating taste in the abstract, without actually having the foods available. However, not even the perception of taste/texture was gauged, which seems like a rather large oversight. A major factor in our food choices is simply what we enjoy eating.
Participants were then divided into groups to evaluate an ad for Beyond Meat, as well as packaging for Beyond Meat, Impossible, and LightLife. A majority of respondents in all groups did not believe that the products were fully vegan, and many were confused by packaging and advertising that, to them, suggested that the products contained animal ingredients. Between 40 and 50 percent of respondents believed that the products were healthier and had a lower environmental impact than beef, but fewer believed them to be cheaper or less-processed. Phrases like “even meatier” were singled out as being confusing, as was the cow on Beyond’s packaging. LightLife’s packaging has the word “beef” on it, which presumably refers to the flavor and consistency, but this led some respondents to believe that it was, in fact, beef.
Another point of confusion is more difficult to solve: some people did not believe that it actually tasted like beef, or were confused as to how this was achieved. While solving such a question is difficult on product packaging, it could be useful for these companies to explore ads that go into more detail about the production process and how they mimic meat so well. However, they have to be careful to not scare off the consumers who are wary of processed foods or additives, since the ingredient list for a Beyond Burger is definitely longer and more complicated than a 100% beef burger.
Plant-based meat has come a long way in the last decade; the challenge is to convince people to switch. A long history of bland, mealy veggie burgers has created a stigma that is difficult to overcome. Participants in this study seemed to widely believe plant-based foods are healthier and more environmentally-friendly than beef, but were confused by the vague term “plant-based,” and were less sure that the products would be affordable, contain as much protein, or be less processed. No data was gathered on perceived taste, though I would wager most U.S. adults believe beef to be superior on that front. Cultural perception of plant-based meats has yet to catch up to the technology, and the mainstreaming of these products would be a huge boon for the animal rights movement. As large chains like Dunkin and Burger King invest in these products, more consumers will hopefully have their minds changed and view them as perfectly acceptable replacements for animal meat. In the meantime, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association has data that shows that there is a good deal of confusion in the marketplace, something that they can capitalize on if animal advocates don’t pay attention.