Promoting plant-based: What motivates people to eat less meat?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Think beyond the burger to drive plant-based sales, data suggests / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini
Think beyond the burger to drive plant-based sales, data suggests / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini

Related tags plant-based Environment Health Taste

Environmental concerns don’t motivate consumers to replace meat products with plant-based alternatives, new research suggests. So, what does prompt people to make the swap? And how can the food industry tap into this to support growth in the plant-based aisle?

Plant-based meat substitutes are still in growth in Europe. Retail sales in western Europe rose 19% to a record €2.4 billion in 2021, according to food sustainability NGO the Good Food Institute. Meat alternatives have moved from a niche category in specialist retail to the supermarket shelf. And forecasters at Mordor Intelligence expect this upward trajectory to continue through to 2025, predicting a compound annual growth rate of 8.87% for the forecast period.

But there is some sign of category slowdown and the onset of plant-based fatigue. In North America, for instance, sales stayed flat last year in value terms at $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion). And in markets like the UK, plant-based sales are struggling to break 2% of the protein market share.

In this context, researchers at the University of Bonn set out to understand what is motivating shoppers to go plant based. "We wanted to know why consumers choose these alternatives,"​ explained Jeanette Klink-Lehmann, who is doing her doctorate at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Bonn in the department of Professor Dr Monika Hartmann.

Klink-Lehmann and Professor Hartmann, together with their colleague Nick Marcus, surveyed 441 men and women from all over Germany to find out. The participants were asked, for example, to state how much they care about their health, whether they think humanity is heading for an ecological crisis and whether animal husbandry in agriculture should be ethically questioned. They also indicated their attitude toward meat substitutes and their intention to consume them regularly in the future.

Animal welfare and health trump environment

"We have now examined the statistical relationships between these responses based on an extension of a recognized behavioural model,"​ Marcus revealed.

The researchers uncovered what they describe as a ‘surprising’ result: greater concern for the environment was not associated with a better rating of meat substitutes, nor with a greater intention to buy them. "We had expected that ecological aspects would also play a role in the intention to consume meat alternatives,"​ Marcus explained. "That has not been confirmed."

Why isn’t there a correlation between concern over the environment and choosing plant-based options? The researchers can only speculate. However, they do note that they survey data is from 2017 – a time before movements like ‘Fridays for Future’. "Since then, the issue of the environment has been much more prominent on the agenda,"​ Klink-Lehmann noted. "As a result, more people are probably aware of the potentially negative environmental effects of meat consumption today than they were five years ago."

Animal welfare concerns played a ‘major role’ in the respondents' consumption decisions: those who view factory farming critically have a more positive attitude toward plant-based sausages and veggie burgers on average. This attitude, in turn, has a beneficial effect on the intention to use these alternatives in the future.

A pronounced health consciousness is also associated with a greater willingness to buy meat substitutes. Furthermore, the attitudes of friends and close relatives toward meat substitutes has a ‘significant influence’ on this decision.

Formulating for the future: What do people want from plant-based products?

Marcus, Klink-Lehmann and Hartmann suggest their research points to opportunities for the plant-based sector to target marketing and communications more effectively. They recommend better communication of the ecological advantages of meat alternatives as an opportunity to promote consumption.

Innovation and product formulations also need to be developed in response to what people want: healthy food that respects animal welfare. The Bonn researchers suggest industry should pay attention to a ‘healthy and balanced composition’ in the manufacture of its products. And animal welfare needs to be high on the agenda for vegetarian brands where, for example, animal-based foods such as eggs are used in meat substitutes.

"Animal welfare and health are obviously very important to consumers, so manufacturers would do well to take these aspects into account and then market their foods accordingly,”​ advised Klink-Lehmann.

Fresh research from consumer insights platform Veylinx supports the suggestion that consumers could be persuaded to eat plant-based products more often. In their study, while only 5% of participants identified as vegan or vegetarian, 77% reported that they are open to increasing the frequency that they eat plant-based foods.

Veylinx found personal motivations like health and taste preference were the top driver of purchase intent in plant-based, coming in ahead of both animal welfare and concern for the environment. Health was a motivator for 42% of participants while taste was cited by 35% - in contrast less than 30% said they buy plant-based because of animal welfare or environmental benefits.

Improve taste and price to boost consumption

The insight provider argued that greater concern for animals or the environment won’t be the biggest drivers of change. When it comes to purchasing alternative proteins more often, improved taste would convince 35% and a lower price would persuade 28%.

Veylinx, which uses behavioural research to measure consumer purchasing habits, tested seven proteins (meat, plant-based with meat-like properties, conventional plant-based, cultivated meat/fish, mycoprotein, microalgae, and insect) across different categories like burgers, bacon, jerky, lasagne and more. It also measured demand for brands to determine what consumers value most and what impacts their willingness to pay.

Meat-based proteins drive the most purchase interest but alternatives ‘trail closely’, Veylinx found.

Consumers also expressed varied preferences for substitutes across categories. Cultivated meat is the preferred alternative for burgers, jerky, nuggets and filet mignon; plant-based with meat-like properties drives the greatest demand for bacon and lasagne, and microalgae is favoured for sushi. Shoppers are also willing to pay extra for plant-based lasagne and plant-based bacon.

This points to the opportunity for plant-based innovators to extend the category’s appeal through innovation in new product segments, suggested Anouar El Haji, CEO of Veylinx.

“While we may be approaching a saturation point for products like burger patties and hot dogs—making it difficult to win shelf space and market share—our research shows there are still plenty of categories like seafood, jerky, and ready-to-eat meals where consumers are seeking more varied plant-based options,”​ he said.

“Brands can succeed in these categories by launching products that are delicious and priced competitively, even if they don't duplicate the taste and texture of meat. We also found that consumers are willing to buy unfamiliar protein innovations like mycoprotein, microalgae, and even edible insects—especially when they are incorporated into packaged foods like frozen lasagne and jerky.”

Welfare and environment can dent meat demand

While the research from Bonn and Veylinx points to the limited impact environmental motivations have on promoting plant-based consumption, Veylinx did find an interesting relationship between this messaging and shopper’s purchase intent for meat products.

When consumers are presented with statements highlighting the negative effects of meat consumption, demand falls, they found. Animal welfare messaging reduces purchase interest by 7%, while environmental messaging shrinks it by 6%.

And while consumers may choose meatless alternatives for health reasons, warnings about the negative health effects of meat consumption only drop purchase interest by 2%.


‘Exploring factors determining German consumers’ intention to eat meat alternatives’
Food Quality and Preference
Authors: Marcus, N., Klink-Lehmann, J. und Hartmann, M

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