Consumer preference towards conventional vs. alternative meats
Note: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.
In this project, our group took on the role of a meat disruptor to grocery stores who are discussing the advantages and disadvantages of adding alternative meat products to the stores we provide based upon consumer preferences. We will discuss the environmental, economic, and social implications of adding alternative meats could have on the stores. We will provide advice for our stores based upon literature reviews and a survey we personally conducted.
Food is an essential part of our life. We simply can not survive without it. However, much of the world lack secure access to food and this issue is only going to get worse as the global population continues to grow. To combat this, there have been many proposed solutions. However, one solution, in particular, is to reduce the consumption of conventional meat. This solution focuses on altering consumer diets to include more plant-based and other alternatives over conventional meats such as plant-based, cultured, and even insect alternatives. For this to become a realistic alternative we need to gain an understanding of the current consumer preferences towards these alternative meats and how to best combat the limitations that may exist.
To look at this we asked a couple of questions. How do consumers currently feel about alternative meats? What is currently limiting consumers from purchasing alternative meats? What is the environmental and economic impact of alternative versus conventional meat? How can we increase consumer positivity and increase purchases of alternative meats?
We found that overall, acceptance of alternative meats is not high but plant-based alternatives have the highest acceptance. Additionally, there are a lot of small changes that could be implemented, such as enhancing menu descriptions, that could help promote the alternative meat options. Overall, alternative meats would be better for the environment and could have a vast array of impacts on the economy. Based on all of the literature reviewed, we would recommend our grocery stores add a few alternative meat products to their shelves but not replace any current products.
Changes to the Western diet are essential for the future of sustainability within our food systems for food security and environmental reasons (Rust et al. 2020). The current Western diet is not sustainable for the environment or a growing population due to large overconsumption specifically the excessive consumption of livestock products, like meat. One solution to this problem focuses on altering consumer diets to include more alternatives meats versus conventional meats. Consumers would be transitioned towards
more foods such as plant-based foods and away from animal-sourced proteins as this could help reduce the impact of the food system on the environment (Possidónio et al., 2021). Through this solution, consumers decrease their consumption of livestock, conventional meat products while also increasing their consumption of alternative meat products such as plant-based, cultured meat, and tofu. This solution offers numerous benefits, for individual human health, environmental health, as well as economic benefits (Santo et al., 2020). However, there are a lot of limitations to this opinion, from low opinions of alternative meats (Profeta et al., 2021) to the lack of social norms surrounding meat (Boer and Aiking, 2021). Yet, there is hope for a transition toward this. Changing social structure, microenvironments, and public opinion is a daunting task but is achievable and can greatly help us reduce conventional meat consumption to help improve food security and the environment for the better (Rose, 2018 & Bianchi, et al., 2018).
Our research questions are the following: Source: Food Business News
- How do consumers currently feel about alternative meats?
- What is currently limiting consumers from purchasing alternative meats?
- What is the environmental and economic impact of alternative versus conventional meat?
- How can we increase consumer positivity and increase purchases of alternative meats?
Definitions and Assumptions: Conventional meat, in our review, is defined as beef, poultry, and other livestock meat products. Alternative meat will be all non-livestock protein sources such as tofu, legumes, plant-based, lab-grown, insects, and more. Cultured meat, a meat alternative, is “lab-based” or synthetic meat that is produced outside of a living animal by culturing animal cells. GDP stands for gross domestic product and is a monetary measure of the market value of all final goods and services within a time period. Meathydribs are plant and animal-based hybrid products sold in Germany. Micro-environments such as workplaces, schools, stores, restaurants, and cafeterias are a great target for this new topic. In this paper, we are assuming that consumer preference and acceptance are linked with consumers’ purchasing habits. We are also assuming that with more knowledge, change in microenvironments, and reasonable prices that consumers will purchase alternative meat products. However, these assumptions may be false for a variety of reasons including but not limited to consumer preferences and availability of alternative meats. We are also assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that all of the stores we would be provided to have the same economic status and demographic of their customers. We are also assuming that each store will be able to sell the alternative meats at around the same rate. We are making the same assumption for conventional meat products.
A literature search was performed on Web of Science, Science Direct, and Google Scholar databases to accumulate published studies that are relevant to our project. On these sites, we searched terms that were relevant to our topic, such as, "conventional meat", "alternative meat", and added in "economics", "consumer preference", "opinion", "health", and "environmental". We focused our attention on research that occurred in the United States or Europe and on articles that were published within the last 20 years. We analyzed our articles thoroughly and critically to support our statement both in qualitative and quantitative ways.
Results and Discussion
As discussions about alternative meat options have become more and more common, there have been many recent studies performed to investigate the relationship of alternative meat options within the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainability. The main focus of our research falls within the social pillar of sustainability. Although it seems as though there would be many benefits for the environment if alternative meats were more commonly produced and consumed, without social acceptance of these alternatives, it would be hard to see the impact of these effects.
As this is an up-and-coming topic, it is first extremely important to address consumer preferences on alternative meat options. These data are relatively easy to obtain, as there is a fair amount of literature. There is a ton that contributes to whether or not a person will choose to shift to a diet in which less conventional meat is consumed. Three extremely important factors are the consumer, the product, and the encounter (Possidónio et al., 2021). When it comes to the consumer, each consumer has different preferences and motivations. The product includes sensory attributes, and the encounter includes the framing of the meat alternative. Possidónio and his colleagues found three consumer profiles, “(1) hedonically motivated meat-eaters uninterested in meat substitutes; (2) health-oriented meat-eaters open to some meat substitutes; and (3) ethically conscious meat avoiders positively oriented to most meat alternatives” (Possidónio et al., 2021). These profiles are a great representation of the complexity of the issue. There is a vast range of profiles from those completely unwilling to consider any alternatives, to those who consciously choose to avoid meat. This same study seemed to show that when consumers were choosing to buy alternative meat products, it was mostly for reasons concerned with their own health. Additionally, with so many choices, it is important to determine which alternatives might sell the most. In a review of articles focused on meat alternatives, it was found that although the general consumer acceptance of alternative meat products is generally low, plant-based alternatives have the highest acceptance levels (Onwezen et al., 2021). Understanding which alternative could have the highest potential for eventual consumer acceptance on a wide scale is critical moving forward to help ensure product sales.
Much of the research discusses that one of the biggest challenges with a diet shift such as one towards a more plant-based diet is that it has to be socially acceptable to use plant-based alternatives while becoming less socially acceptable to consume meat products (Boer et al. 2021). The timeline for a change like this is unknown, which adds complexity to this issue. One thought is that discussions of a shift towards a plant-based diet are relatively new, and there is some current research on it, but much more needs to be done and presented to the public. The research done today is often run and paid for by the companies that produce meat alternatives (Santo et al., 2020). Much of the current research and advertising of these products focus on some health benefits and environmental benefits. While that is great, we wondered whether consumers could be nervous as there is not enough research right now to say that plant alternatives offer comparable nutrition or chronic disease reduction benefits (Santo et al., 2020). There are many gaps in the research available currently, so we are hopeful that consumer interest will grow as the data grows, especially surrounding nutrition.
In a German study of 500 participants, questions about meat consumption, meat alternatives, and meathydribs (a hybrid of plant-based and animal-based products) were asked. It was found that 50% of respondents said that they would consider substituting meat occasionally (Aidriano et al, 2021). This is a relatively high number actually. So what can be done to push consumers to purchase these meat alternatives and actually begin shifting their diets to one that contains fewer meat products? In this same German study, the authors found that it seemed as though the consumers were more likely to buy products that were portrayed as “healthier” alternatives (Aidriano et al, 2021). They found that the way the alternatives are framed plays a large role in consumer preferences and how likely the consumer is to buy these alternatives. When advertising these alternatives, they can either be framed as an individual product or part of a meal. However, it was found that for the most part, meal framing seemed to lead to a higher consumer acceptance of alternative meat products. However, legumes benefited more from individual framing while insect alternatives were viewed negatively with or without meal framing (Possidónio et al., 2021). Possidónio et al. go on to explain how this issue is so complex and there is no one way to present these alternatives to consumers. The authors continued to explain that each alternative is different and can be viewed differently by the consumer. That being said, it is important to understand these differences to help promote alternative meats in the best possible light. For example, plant-based alternatives should be framed as part of a meal in the store and legumes should be framed individually. These small changes could lead to a higher consumer acceptance level and ultimately purchases.
Micro-environments such as workplaces, schools, stores, restaurants, and cafeterias are a great target for this new topic. Micro-environments drastically affect how we behave, and small changes to these environments could help to alter behaviors (Rose, 2018). Interventions to restructure these environments could help change habitual behavior such as meat consumption. There are a few examples of this, and often they involve physical descriptions of the meat alternatives seen in stores. Rose suggests adding “an enticing verbal description of a meat-free menu item” (Rose, 2018) to help promote the alternative meats. In another study, it was found that changing the description of meat or meat alternatives when they were purchased was associated with lower demand for meat (Bianchi et al., 2018). Although these changes may seem overly simplistic and almost “too good to be true,” it is often the very small changes that can drastically affect consumer preferences. Additionally, there are other simplistic changes such as putting meat options further back in cafeteria lines, so that people are more likely to choose other options in larger quantities that are towards the front of the cafeteria line. These micro-environments truly play a huge role in shaping our behaviors and our habits, these places are a good place to start to truly promote alternative meats.
Environmental impact is another important aspect to consider when considering the choice between alternative versus conventional meats. Switching to a more alternative meat-based diet can have many benefits for the environment. For example, switching all beef production in the United States to beans would have a 334 MMT reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and would open 42% of US cropland (Rust et al., 2020). Obviously, this would be a drastic shift that is not realistic. However, it provides us a baseline on the impact a reduction in conventional meat production could have. Globally, animal products account for 18% of our calories but use 83% of our farmland and produce 56% of the greenhouse gas, agricultural emissions (Poor and Nemececk, 2018). That is a drastic amount of land and GHG emissions for such a small percentage of caloric intake. And yet, it is only expected to rise as the global population and global incomes rise (Tilman et al., 2011). However, alternative meats can help reduce this environmental impact. Insects can be produced with less water and less GHG emissions while also having a larger efficiency of covert feed to edible food, up to 100% compared to 40% in cattle (van Huis, 2013). However, not all alternatives are better for the environment. Currently, cultured meat is not a more efficient process than conventional meat. But we believe this process has a great potential to improve as time goes on (Alexander et al., 2017). On the other hand, plant-based alternatives could have a large impact with up to a 77% and 98% reduction in land use compared to poultry and beef production, respectively (Santo et al., 2020). Just replacing a fraction of conventional meat land with plant-based substitutes would have a profound impact on our environment. This switch could free up cropland that could be used to provide food to people or even be used for carbon sequestration, another great environmental benefit. The environmental impacts don’t stop there, alternative meats have the potential to impact water use, pesticide use, biodiversity, and much more. Overall, a switch to higher production of alternative meats and a reduction of conventional meat consumption and production could have profound effects on the environment.
As we discussed earlier, in recent years there has been a strong increase in interest in alternative meats, primarily for individual health. This shift from individuals could have a profound impact on the economy as well as the global market in positive and negative ways. As the market expands, predictions are made that the plant-based substitute market could reach $85 billion by 2030 (Gordon et al., 2019). While other predictions estimate that with the development of cell-based meat products that the beef and dairy products of the United States could shrink by up to 90% by 2035 (Tuba and Seba, 2019). Although this estimate seems extreme and unrealistic it shows the impact that plant-based alternatives can have on our economy and the livestock sector. In the other direction, a reduction in conventional meat could actually hurt the economy. As one study predicted, even a 50% reduction in meat consumption could result in a 4% drop in the GDP (Pias et al., 2020). Again, this may be unrealistic but it shows how such a decrease could greatly hurt dairy and other livestock farmers while also hurting the economy if not properly counteracted by alternative meats. Additionally, the animal agriculture industry employs 1.6 million Americans alone, as of 2014 (White and Hall, 2017). This shows that a reduction in conventional meat consumption and production could truly have a strong impact on a large number of people’s livelihoods. Thus, as changes are made and new diets are introduced all factors must be considered including the economic implications of such shifts and how to ensure individuals are protected as changes occur.
Below are some survey results of our personal family and friends on their meat consumption, familiarity with alternative meats, and their limitations to eating more alternative meats. It should be noted that primarily college students filled out our survey, thus the results may not be representative of the greater population, specifically for health and money concerns.
Figure 1 & 2: Graph on how much conventional meat and alternative meat consumption.
As seen in the graphs above, most individuals consume 100-200 grams of meat per day, at 57.6%. 201-300 grams is second at 21.2%. Additionally, a large majority, 69.7%, of the participants had consumed meat alternatives in the past.
Most individuals would consider eating alternative meats, at 60.6%, while 30.3% said they would maybe consume alternatives, and 9.1% they would consider consuming alternative meats which are similar in results to the German study mentioned above (Aidriano et al, 2021).
Figure 3: Graph of consideration of conventional meat consumption.
Figure 3 & 4: Graph of drivers to consume alternative meat and limitations to consumption.
When asked for what reason, 82.1% of individuals stated that they would consume alternative meats, over conventional, for environmental reasons, followed by 50% for personal health. In another survey question, lack of access to affordable options was listed as the biggest limitation to individuals consuming more alternative meats, with 48.5% followed by lack of appetizing options at 45.5%.
From the literature, we learned that right now, alternative meats are not widely accepted. People are hesitant to make the shift towards alternative meats. If consumers do decide to purchase meat alternatives, it is normally for reasons related to their health if they believe that these options are healthier or environmental, as seen in our survey results. However, individuals may be hesitant to purchase alternatives for a variety of reasons such as taste and health, familiarity, attitudes, food neophobia, disgust, and social norms (Onwezen et al., 2021). We think that a lot of the hesitation stems from a lack of comfort with these alternatives. They are new and unfamiliar. Not much is known about their effects on human health in the long term. We believe that above all, social acceptability is a huge limiter of alternative meats. However, in our survey, the lack of accessibility to affordable options was the most common limitation. When it comes to the economy, there are some definite positive and negative effects we have discovered. There are estimates that foresee the plant-based market booming and bringing in billions of dollars. However, the livestock sector would suffer in a detrimental way which could cause the GDP to lower by up to 4%. There are also many jobs that would be lost as a result of a reduction in meat production. In terms of the environmental impact, there are several benefits of alternative meats with a vast range of impacts depending on the alternative. Overall, it seems as though plant-based alternatives could help dramatically reduce GHG emissions, land use, water use, and much more. Lastly, to improve consumer acceptance we believe that the way alternative meat options are framed plays a huge role in consumer acceptance. Through our research, it seems as though meal framing, especially for plant-based alternatives, is the way to go. On top of that, enticing descriptions should be added to these products. We believe that many people are hesitant, as there is very little real data as this is a new topic. If non-biased research is conducted, especially when it comes to meat alternatives and human health, consumers might become less reluctant to this idea. Lastly, education is also crucial, as many people are not aware of this issue currently, or its severity.
To our stores, we would like to discuss our recommendations and the implications that adding alternative meats could have on your stores. First, we would like to recommend adding a few alternative-based meat products to the shelves. We specifically recommended plant-based alternatives but we do not recommend adding insect-based alternatives. Plant-based alternatives have the highest consumer acceptance while the view of insects remains negative (Possidónio et al., 2020). This may change as time goes forward but this is what we recommend based on the current research. Additionally, we understand this will impact the economics of the store, and maybe even the profit margins. However, we believe that alternative meats are on the rise and we want to get ahead of the curve and be one of the first to offer alternative meats. We anticipate in the near future alternatives meats will greatly increase and that conventional meat will decrease in sales, as discussed earlier. However, to combat some of the initial negative impacts we recommend not removing any conventional meat brands or products, rather just a slight decrease in the quantity on the shelves to make room for the new alternatives. This should help lessen the impact while also keeping the array of consumers happy. In the coming weeks, we will send out marketing techniques to promote the new alternative meat products including product placement recommendations, advertising techniques, and valid claims the stores can make on environmental sustainability. More so, we might suggest microenvironment changes, like discussed earlier in this paper, to help promote the new products. Again, we anticipate there will be a delay in sales of the alternative meats but from our research, we anticipate that many of our consumers will appreciate the new products and that they will increase in sales as time goes on. We hope you consider our recommendations as this is the future of the meat industry and we want you to be a part of it.
This study was limited in fact switching to alternative meats is rather a new concept. Thus, a lot of data is not applicable long term as it currently might be seen as "popular". The data on economics is largely estimations as they have not shown their impact on the market yet. The prices are also likely to decrease as alternatives become more mainstream. The environmental data is limited, as this is a new topic. This study is also limited in the fact we associated consumer acceptance or opinion with product sales. That is not 100% accurate for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to, consumer preference. Lastly, a lot of the current research is done by those selling these alternative products, thus it is hard to know the true health and environmental benefits and implications.
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About the Author
Sarah Malmberg is a senior majoring in microbiology. After graduation, she will be moving to Indianapolis, IN to work for Eli Lilly and Company. For the last four years, Sarah has been a member of the UW Marching band as a trombone player. Her favorite memory was performing half-time at the Rose Bowl, last year. She chose this project because of her strong personal interest in alternative meat options.