'Plant-based', 'vegan', or 'vegetarian'? Consumers reveal attitudes to diet descriptions

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The meat substitutes market in Europe accounts for approximately 40% of the global market. How should we best communicate these products? ©GettyImages/ablokhin
The meat substitutes market in Europe accounts for approximately 40% of the global market. How should we best communicate these products? ©GettyImages/ablokhin

Related tags plant-based vegan vegetarian

European consumer attitudes towards, and knowledge of, plant-based diets have been analysed by researchers in Denmark, who found that awareness of diet descriptions differ in Belgium, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

The plant-based industry is growing fast. In Europe, the meat substitutes market – which accounts for approximately 40% of the global market – is predicted to increase from €1.5bn in 2018 to €2.4bn by 2025.

Concerns surrounding health, sustainability, and animal welfare are all helping to fuel the plant-based boom, which has seen the market ‘flooded’ with new vegan and vegetarian products, said F.J. Armando Perez-Cueto, associate professor of food design and consumer behaviour at the University of Copenhagen.

While observing this trend, Perez-Cueto wondered how consumers in Europe – and in particular, millennial consumers in Europe – are responding to the language used in ‘plant-based’.

Especially given than certain terminology can be used by consumers to describe a diet, a matter of political concern, an identity, or a statement made through food choices. “How should [industry] properly address these kinds of products in social media, in [traditional] media, and in communications?” ​the researcher asked.

“We wanted to evaluate whether ‘plant-based’ is a more neutral term than, for example, ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan, or ‘omnivore’ – which may have more emotional connotations for consumers.”

Assessing knowledge and attitudes across Europe

To explore consumer awareness and attitudes towards a PBD among millennials in Europe, Perez-Cueto’s team focused on four countries: Belgium, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands.

“We wanted to have a bit of the north, a bit of central, and a little bit of southern [Europe],” ​the researcher told FoodNavigator.

The team also assessed knowledge and attitudinal determinants of whether consumers consider the term PBD more appealing than vegetarian or vegan.

Overall, 438 young adults aged 18-30 years responded to the researchers’ online survey. To analyse consumer knowledge, participants were asked to respond either ‘true or false’ to a number of statements. For estimate attitudes, they were asked their level of agreement or disagreement to specific statements related to plant-based foods.

Survey participants were aged 18-30 years ©GettyImages/julief514

‘Plant-based’ more appealing in Belgium and the Netherlands

The findings revealed that awareness of the term PBD differed significantly among the countries, with the lowest awareness found in Spain.

“Belgian and Dutch respondents perceived PBD – the whole concept – as more appealing than ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’,” ​Perez-Cueto elaborated.

In Denmark and Spain, however, consumers were indifferent to the term ‘plant-based’. “This already shows that in some places, the term PBD is much more widespread and accepted, whereas in other places there still needs some work in promoting diets that are predominantly vegetarian or plant-based,” ​he continued.

The researchers also found that nearly all responses reported awareness of the terms vegetarian and vegan. However, respondents had overall limited knowledge of a PBD composition, and many respondents considered the term PBD equivalent to vegetarian.

Overall, the results suggested a neutral to positive attitude towards a PBD, and specifically positive attitudes regarding health, the environment, and animal welfare.

While the researchers’ objective was not to determine why certain terms were better understood or received in certain geographies, Perez-Cueto did offer the suggestion that Belgium’s good knowledge and perception of PBD could be linked to industry in the region.

“A lot of innovation in plant-based has happened in Belgium,” ​he told us, adding that Ghent’s Thursday Veggie Day campaign – which has been running since 2009 – may well have contributed a ‘social nudge’ in the sector.

What can industry take from this?

“I think that industry can learn that there is a high awareness about vegetarian and vegan diets, and that people have different evaluations for both,” ​Perez-Cueto told this publication.

PBD as a term, however, is something that is ‘emerging’ in some of the countries. “In certain cases, given this societal discourse, using the term ‘plant-based’ could be a good strategy for companies.”

Above all, the study provides strategic information on how industry can go forward with innovation, he continued. “And it hints to industry that consumers are interested in product that are sustainable healthy and animal friendly.”

Smart Protein

F.J. Armando Perez-Cueto will be working with the University of Copenhagen and alongside 32 other partners from industry, research and academia, in an upcoming project in plant-based: Smart Protein​.

The project aims to develop new plant-based foods from locally produced raw materials, but also upcycle pasta residues, bread crusts, spent yeast, and malting rootlets into protein-rich foods for human consumption.

The European Union is providing €8.2m of the total €9.6m budget under the Horizon 2020 scheme. Smart Protein will run for four years from January 2020. First products are expected to reach market around 2025.

Source: Appetite
‘Attitudes and knowledge towards plant-based diets of young adults across four European countries. Exploratory survey’
Published online 24 October 2019
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2019.104498​ 
Authors: Faber I., Castellanos Feijoó N.A., Van de Sompel L., Davydova A. & Perez-Cueto F.J.A.

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