What Drives Meat Substitute Hesitancy?
Meat substitutes have enormous potential to improve the world. In addition to their benefits to animal welfare, meat substitutes also have environmental and potential cost advantages over farmed meat.
But will consumers buy them?
To explore this question, researchers conducted an online survey of over a thousand Swedish consumers who eat meat on a regular basis. Each respondent was given descriptions of three types of hamburger substitutes: a “veggie burger,” a “meat-like” substitute, and a “lab-created” substitute. They were then asked whether they would prefer the meat burger or the substitute, and, if they preferred the meat burger, how much cheaper the substitute would have to be for them to prefer it. This concept is often called “willingness to pay” (WTP) in market research. By analyzing this data along with demographic and attitudinal information, researchers were able to determine the traits and beliefs that were most important in Swedish consumers’ willingness to choose meat substitutes.
When the price of the meat burger and substitutes were the same, about 90% of respondents preferred the meat burger. Price was an important factor for most consumers: about one-third of meat-preferring respondents would switch to the substitute if it was one-third cheaper, and some additional consumers would switch if the substitute was even cheaper. Many respondents, however, wouldn’t select the substitute even if it was free: about 30% said they wouldn’t if the substitute was a veggie or “meat-like” burger, and almost half said they wouldn’t switch if the substitute was a “lab-created” burger.
This willingness to pay differed significantly between demographic and socioeconomic groups. Those who were younger, more educated, and lived in urban areas expressed a higher willingness to switch to a meat substitute, and were more likely to have tried one before. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to replace a meat burger with a veggie burger, but less likely than men to replace a meat burger with a “lab-made” burger.
Several attitudinal factors were identified as being relevant to willingness to pay. Those who had eaten meat substitutes before (or who reported higher familiarity with them) were more likely to switch to a substitute, while those who described themselves as “regular meat burger consumers” were less likely to switch. And those who believed that meat is bad for the environment or that animals suffer at slaughter were more willing to accept a meat substitute, while those who believed that “a mixed diet is healthy” were less likely to switch.
Skepticism about the taste of substitute products was highly predictive of preference, and beliefs about texture, appearance, and smell were also predictive. Many respondents — 30% to 40% — reported not knowing much about these qualities of meat substitutes, suggesting that informational campaigns could potentially be effective.
This survey was conducted in Sweden, where meat is a large part of food culture. But the results of this survey closely reflect recent studies in other parts of the world, and Faunalytics’ own research. A recent U.S. survey, for example, found that farmed meat would still have a large market share even if substitutes were substantially cheaper. And the demographic factors identified in this survey as being highly predictive of willingness to choose meat substitutes — gender, age, and ideology — are also predictive of opinion on a variety of other topics.
Meat substitutes have enormous potential to reduce animal suffering and improve the sustainability of our food system. One takeaway from this study is that price clearly matters: consumers are more willing to choose meat substitutes when they are cheaper than farmed meat, suggesting that climate-friendly policies like subsidizing meat substitutes would indeed reduce the demand for meat.
But the large portion of consumers who would not be willing to consume a meat substitute at any price points indicates that much work remains for animal advocates, environmentalists, and meat substitute companies in convincing the public that substitutes are safe and appealing. The divides in opinion on meat substitutes across lines of age, gender, and geographic region also suggest that this communication must be done carefully and with cultural and ideological sensitivity. However, while it is difficult to draw causal conclusions from the correlations present in this survey data, the fact that knowledge and familiarity may be barriers to the adoption suggests that consumers may be increasingly willing to consume them as they become more informed.