Why consumers don’t equate sustainable innovation with ‘natural’

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Innovation has sacrifified naturalness in its quest for sustainable solutions, experts fear. Image: Getty/ Rimma_Bondarenko
Innovation has sacrifified naturalness in its quest for sustainable solutions, experts fear. Image: Getty/ Rimma_Bondarenko

Related tags cell-based alternative protein cultivated meat cultured meat precision fermentation

Cultured meat risks failing to take off if shoppers don’t perceive it as natural, FoodNavigator hears.

Significant numbers of consumers say they are willing to try food products made from innovative new technology such as cultivated meat and precision fermentation-derived dairy, according to fresh data from MMR Research.

These novel products are often lauded for their potential to accelerate a shift to more sustainable food systems. But there’s a danger they will be ultimately be rejected by shoppers if they are perceived as being ‘unnatural’.

“It’s been claimed the next 10 years in food will make the last 50 look like it was going at a snail’s pace,”​ Andrew Wardlaw, MMR’s Chief Ideas Officer at Research, told a webinar. However, a lack of regulatory approval means it is difficult to gauge what consumers really think of cultured meat and precision fermentation so far (only Singapore has approved a cultivated meat product; and only the US has authorised dairy alternatives made using precision fermentation).

To dig deeper, MMR polled 3,400 consumers in the UK, the Netherlands, US, China and Singapore on their attitudes to cultured meat and animal-free dairy products. They picked those consumers who already claim to be living more sustainably in an attempt to also investigate the gap that often exists between peoples’ intentions and their actual buying behaviour.

The results revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, fairly favourable attitudes to these products. For example, half of US consumers and 43% of Brits said they were willing to try cultured meat. This rose to over 60% in China.

But the research also revealed these products may face an intriguing challenge: it seems that the closer they get to the real thing in sensory qualities, the greater will be the unease about them.

The cultured meat sector in particular needs to take lessons from the experience of the plant-based meat alternative market, explained Wardlaw. For example, after much initial hype, plant-based meat sales have barely exceeded 1% of global meat sales so far and have actually reversed in some key markets, he said.

There are a few reasons for this. Price has become a sticking point, particularly as the cost of living crisis bites. Many say meat alternatives simply don’t taste good enough. But Louise Hitchen, MMR’s Head of Digital Research Solutions, noted it is the fact that their taste is improving which is threatening purchases. She noted, for example, that some consumers get suspicious about how manufacturers can get meat alternatives tasting “exactly like”​ the real thing

We know that some people won’t compromise on the sensory experience,”​ she said. “But we can also see some unease as products get closer to the real thing.” ​The category, she said, should therefore consider a shift away from mimicking meat.​ “It could be that this hand holding strategy has run its course now,”​ she continued. “I think a new phase in plant-based alternatives offering more distinct sensory experiences could be ahead of us. We also need to be realistic with cell-based meat waiting to happen which is the sensory characteristics much closer to farm-reared meat… this could be the moment the plant-based category pivots to a new blueprint.”

With many therefore believing it is poised to overtake plant-based meat alternatives, there are therefore learnings for the nascent cultured meat sector. “Does innovation conflict with consumer demand for natural products? As the pace of innovation accelerates, is there a risk consumers will simply tune out?”​ pondered Wardlaw.

Consumers will want reassurance about how cultured meat is made to resolve this paradox of ‘the better the mimicry the greater the suspicion’. “It’s going to be very important to establish the concept of cultured meat into the category of meat to better connect it to more emotional reactions,”​ he said. “It needs be seen as meat, not a comparison.”

What about precision fermentation-derived dairy? Already permitted in the US, those companies hoping to supply consumer brands with animal free dairy include Remilk in Israel and Formo in Germany. This sector has a better chance of connecting with consumers’ desire for ‘natural products’, said MMR, because people are more familiar with fermentation. It’s what makes our beer fizzy, our bread rise and our yoghurt thicken. Fermentation therefore feels natural and safe.

People are, however, confused by the term ‘animal-free’ dairy, revealed MMR’s data. “People don’t understand a category that is neither plant nor animal based,” ​Wardlaw warned, “and that leads to a feeling of unease about it.”

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