Are children hungry for plant-based meat?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Compared to adults, much less is known about children’s willingness to substitute conventional meat products with plant-based alternatives. GettyImages/Nils Hendrik Mueller
Compared to adults, much less is known about children’s willingness to substitute conventional meat products with plant-based alternatives. GettyImages/Nils Hendrik Mueller

Related tags plant-based meat meat analogues

What do kids think about plant-based meat alternatives? Is a meat-free diet even suitable for children? As a growing number of studies seek to answer these questions, FoodNavigator brings you the findings.

Farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the UN. Overall, animal agriculture is thought to account for at least half of all food-related GHG emissions.

An obvious way of reducing the climate impact of food production in developed countries is to eat less meat.

Given the size of the plant-based food market, food manufacturers are catching on. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based foods market could make up to 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162bn – up from $29.4bn in 2020.

Adult consumer acceptance of the plant-based meat category has been extensively studied. In a recent literature review conducted by researchers from Hungary’s University of Debrecen – published in the academic journal Foods​ – it was found that although ‘frequent meat eaters’ were less likely to choose plant-based substitutes, 65% of US respondents had consumed plant-based alternatives in the previous year.

Just 22% had not consumed them over the past year and were not interested in trying them in the future.

Much less is known about children’s willingness to substitute conventional meat products with plant-based alternatives, nor whether from a nutrition perspective, a meat-free diet is suitable for primary school-aged kids.

Researchers from around the world have sought to fill in the gap.

What do kids think about meat analogues?

It is understood that food preferences and opinions of children can greatly influence parents’ food choices. So if kids want to eat plant-based burgers, sausages, and nuggets, it could well sway adults’ consumption of meat-free alternatives.

In a recent study published in Appetite​, researchers from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have investigated the perceptions of eight- to 10-year-old Dutch children towards plant-based meat analogues.

A total of 34 kids – aged either 8, 9 or 10 years old – were interviewed. All participants were regular consumers of meat.

Four examples of meat analogues were presented to the children during the interview: a vegan burger and vegetarian balls from Nestlé’s Garden Gourmet Brand, and vegetarian burger and vegetarian ball products from Unilever’s The Vegetarian Butcher brand.

Findings suggested that children’s perception of meat analogues is influenced by product composition and sensorial aspects. Whether kids perceive meat analogues to be healthy or not relates to the perceived vegetable content and reduced amount of fat.

Perception of meat analogues is also influenced by palatability, found the researchers. And expected palatability was noted to be ‘positive’ for most children surveyed.

While the kids appeared to appreciate the packaging of meat analogues when they mimicked that of conventional meat, they did express a ‘conviction’ the packaging should clearly communicate it contains a meat substitute.

And finally, children’s empathy with animals contributed to a positive perception of meat substitutes.

The authors expect their findings can help producers in developing meat analogues that appeal to children. An opportunity exists to move the future generation away from the negative associations surrounding meat analogues related to taste and texture, they noted.

Do children find it morally acceptable to eat meat?

Backing up the Wageningen researchers’ findings on meat consumption and empathy is another study published earlier this year in Social Psychological and Personality Science​.

According to researchers from Exeter University in the UK, children are less likely to categorise farm animals as food, compared to both young adults and adults.

The researchers surveyed 479 people across different age brackets and discovered children were less likely to see a moral hierarchy between humans and animals. Those aged 9-11, for example, thought that animals such as pigs should be treated better than animals did.

Study authors concluded humans are not born with the mental processes used to justify eating meat. The research could be used to better understand consumer motivations behind eating meat, particularly given increased focus on reducing intake in place of plant-based food for human and planetary health.

“As with all social psychological processes, it is worth stepping back to consider where these attitudes and cognitions come from,” ​said lead author Dr Luke McGuire of the University of Exeter at the time.

“Critically examining our relationship with animals ought to be a primary goal of tackling climate change and one that begins in childhood.”

Dr McGuire hopes future research will further investigate how our perspective on animals is shaped during adolescence. “As teenagers, we start to have greater knowledge of the systems in place in the world, as well as autonomy over things like diet.

“It is fascinating to consider how these two elements might work together to lead to the adult thinking we see in our study.”

Is a meat-free diet healthy for kids?

Another big question surrounding children’s consumption of meat-free alternatives is whether they should be swapping out meat at all.

Plant-based diets are increasing in popularity, yet limited research has focused on the nutritional outcomes of children following vegetarian diets. Published in Pediatrics​, a study led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, Canada, analysed the nutrition and growth of children following a vegetarian diet compared to meat-eating kids.

A total of 8,907 children aged six months to eight years of age participated in the study, which found children following a vegetarian diet had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat.

However, the findings also showed evidence that children with a vegetarian diet had almost two-fold higher odds of having underweight, which is defined as below the third percentile for BMI.

There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.

“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets,” ​said Dr Jonathan Maguire, lead author of the study and a paediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital.

“Vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight weight status, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for children with underweight when considering vegetarian diets.”

While further research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, Dr Maguire concluded vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.

‘Consumer Acceptance of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes: A Narrative Review’
Published online 27 April 2022
DOI: 10.3390/foods11091274
Authors: János Szenderák, Dániel Fróna, Mónika Rákos.

‘The perception of 8- to 10-year-old Dutch children towards plant-based meat analogues’
Published online 5 August 2022
Authors: Lotte Pater, Ciska Kollen, Femke W.M. Damen, Elizabeth H. Zandstra, Vincenzo Fogliano, Bea L.P.A. Steenbekkers.

Social Psychological and Personality Science
‘The Development of Speciesism: Age-Related Differences in the Moral View of Animals’
Published 11 April 2022
Authors: Luke McGuire, Sally B. Palmer, Nadira S. Faber.

‘Vegetarian Diet, Growth, and Nutrition in Early Childhood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study’
Published 2 May 2022
Authors: Laura J. Edlliot, Charles D.G. Keown-Stoneman, Jonathon L. Maguire et al.

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