January 30, 2020
Consumer Survey on Plant Alternatives to Meat Shows That Nutrition Facts Are More Influential Than the Ingredients List
- 66% of respondents identified as omnivores.
- Nearly half (49%) have tried a plant alternative to animal meat.
- Based on comparing Nutrition Facts labels, 45% believed the plant alternative was healthier than animal meat, while 25% believed the plant alternative to be unhealthier.
- The perceived healthfulness of the plant alternative decreased slightly after the ingredients lists were included with the Nutrition Facts.
- Nearly one in four (23%) said that the Nutrition Facts label influenced their perception of healthfulness more than the ingredient list, while fewer said that the ingredients list influenced their perception more than Nutrition Facts (14%).
- Nearly half (47%) believed that plant alternatives are better for the environment than animal meat. By comparison, only 5% believed plant alternatives to be worse for the environment than animal meat.
Every so often a new food trend captures our attention, only to fade once the novelty wears off. Other times, food trends have more staying power. The original veggie burger dates back decades, but more recently a new generation of plant alternatives to animal meat has exploded on the food scene, distinguished from their predecessors by the intent to mimic animal meat’s taste and texture.
We know there is consumer interest, but we know little more about what people think of plant alternatives. The International Food Information Council’s (IFIC’s) latest consumer survey takes a closer look.
Who participated in this survey?
The survey was conducted among 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18+ in December 2019. To orient survey takers, the emerging food category was described as “meatless burgers, chicken, fish, sausages and other ground products that attempt to mimic the flavor and texture of animal protein but are made with only plant products.” Throughout the survey, these types of foods were collectively referred to as “plant alternatives to animal meat.”
Most consumers identify as omnivores.
The survey began by asking participants what type of diet they follow and provided definitions for the following options: omnivore, vegetarian, vegetarian on some days but not all days, vegan and pescatarian. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority (66%) of people in our survey identified as omnivores.
Almost 50% of people have eaten a plant alternative to animal meat.
Nearly half (49%) of survey participants reported having tried these newer meatless products. Looking closer, here are a few factors associated with the likelihood of having eaten a plant alternative to meat:
- Diet type A lower percentage of omnivores (44%) have tried a plant alternative to animal meat compared with vegetarians (72%), “sometimes” vegetarians (77%), vegans (76%) and pescatarians (75%).
- Income The likelihood of trying a plant alternative to animal meat increased as income rose. Those making over $120,000 were the most likely consumers (72%) and those making less than $40,000 were the least likely consumers (35%).
- Age Having tried a plant alternative to animal meat was more common among the younger population, with those under 45 years of age being the most likely consumers (62%).
- Gender Men (53%) were more likely consumers than women (44%).
- Education Those with a college degree (62%) were more likely consumers than those without a college degree (37%).
New food curiosity drives consumption.
While there are a variety of reasons why people have tried plant alternatives to animal meat, the top reason for doing so is liking to try new foods (41%).
Among the people in our survey who have not tried one of these products, the top reason was the anticipation that these alternatives won’t taste good (31%). Other commonly reported factors for not having tried a product included that the respondents were not trying to eat less meat (19%) and “no specific reason” (21%). A little more than one in ten (12%) reported that they plan to eat one eventually, but just haven’t yet.
Plant alternatives are perceived to be more environmentally friendly than animal meat.
While not the top factor for choosing to consume a plant alternative to animal meat, there was a strong belief that these products are better for the environment than animal meat. While nearly half of survey takers (47%) believed that plant alternatives are better for the environment than animal meat, only 5% believed plant alternatives to be worse for the environment. The other half of survey respondents believed plant alternatives have an equal impact on the environment (23%) or were unsure (24%).
Plant alternatives are viewed as healthier based on Nutrition Facts.
As the buzz around plant alternatives to animal meat has increased, so have questions about their nutritional value compared with that of animal meat. While the general sentiment is that they are better for the environment than animal meat, there is less consensus on whether they are better for health.
To objectively assess potential differences in health perception between plant alternatives to animal meat and animal meat, consumers were shown two Nutrition Facts labels (Figure 1). One was simply labeled “Product A” and displayed the nutrition information found on the package for a popular brand of ground plant meat. The other was labeled “Product B” and displayed nutrition information found on the package for a brand of 85% lean, grass-fed 100% ground beef.
Based on comparing only these two Nutrition Facts labels, 45% believed Product A to be healthier than Product B, while 25% believed Product A to be unhealthier. The other 30% rated them equally healthy (18%) or were unsure (12%). In other words, the Nutrition Facts label of the plant alternative was perceived to be healthier than its animal-meat counterpart.
There is little change in health perception after ingredients are included with Nutrition Facts.
If you’ve followed food conversations over the past decade, then you’ve likely heard disparaging references toward packaged food ingredients—statements like “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” or “Look for foods with 5 ingredients or less.” While these mantras may be well-intended, it’s unclear what people rely on most when deciding how healthful a food is.
To test this concept, survey participants were shown two more food labels (Figure 2). They were the same two Nutrition Facts labels for Product A and Product B shown previously, only this time ingredient lists were also included. Considering both pieces of information, respondents were then asked to report which product they believed was healthier.
Based on viewing the Nutrition Facts labels and their ingredient lists, 40% believed Product A to be healthier than Product B, while 29% believed Product A to be unhealthier. In other words, a slight downward shift (4 to 5%) was observed in the perceived healthfulness of the plant alternative after the ingredient lists were revealed. While this research cannot pinpoint the exact cause of this shift, it should be noted that displaying the ingredients for Product B revealed that it only contains “100% beef.”
Nutrition Facts influenceopinions of healthfulness more than ingredients.
While a variety of factors appeared to influence health perceptions of Product A (Figure 3), one aspect—the Nutrition Facts—carried the most weight. Nearly one-quarter of our survey participants (23%) said that the Nutrition Facts influenced their health perception more than the ingredient list, while fewer said that the ingredient list influenced their health perception more than Nutrition Facts (14%).