Affordability still major barrier to plant-based adoption

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Affordability still major barrier to plant-based adoption. GettyImages/cyano66
Affordability still major barrier to plant-based adoption. GettyImages/cyano66

Related tags plant-based vegan plant-based meat Dairy alternatives Sustainability Protein

When it comes to promoting a plant-based diet, one consumer belief is proving tough to break.

The plant-based industry has experienced some major ups and downs over the past decade. From its boomtime rise in the late 2010s to rumours of decline less than a decade later​. But while some early plant-based adopters are returning to animal products, the bigger issue appears to be encouraging newer members to embrace the meat-free life, why?

Why are some consumers reluctant to choose plant-based alternatives?

There is a whole range of reasons why consumers continue to choose animal-based foods over plant-based foods, but the one reason that comes up time and time again, is cost​. Consumer perception that plant-based products are more expensive than animal-based is proving powerful in preventing them from making the switch. But more importantly, that view is not without foundation, with non-profit organisation, the Good Food Institute, stating that, “plant-based options are currently priced at a significant premium across categories.”

This poses a barrier to consumers across Europe who are already facing financial challenges resulting from the cost-of-living crisis.

“The cost-of-living crisis has had an effect on consumer spending habits - the first items to go are often those in a higher price bracket which includes plant-based meat substitutes,” Maisie Stedman, media and public relations officer for the Vegan Society, told FoodNavigator.

Furthermore, figures from the Vegan Society show that 28% of students believe a vegan diet to be too expensive for them, highlighting that affordability has potential to influence the spending habits of the next generation of consumers too.

However, while the cost of plant-based products, such as meat-free burgers and sausages, remains an issue, it appears that other plant-based products, such as beans and lentils, are more affordable and proving more popular.

“Our Live Vegan for Less campaign found a third of shoppers were cutting back on meat and dairy products in response to cost-of-living, whilst our cost comparison research across the major supermarkets, showed that vegan sources of protein, such as dried lentils, peanut butter and baked beans continued to be the cheapest options,” adds Stedman. “Both non-vegans and vegans may be replacing meat and meat-substitutes with more budget friendly vegan options in a bid to make savings on their weekly shops.”

Buying vegetables in supermarket - GettyImages-SolStock
Environmental experts are urging governments to promote the consumption of plant-based foods. GettyImages/SolStock

The plant-based industry is also acutely aware of the ‘cost barrier’ to plant-based adoption and is working to tackle the issue of affordability.

“We are looking to be a much lower in cost,” said Frankie Fox, CEO at plant-based seafood brand FoodSquared, while speaking at the recent Future of Fish event in London. “At least price parity, or lower, at scale.”

"If you want people, who would otherwise eat fish, to substitute that once or twice a week, it needs to not cost them twice as much."

And this view is echoed across the plant-based seafood industry.

“If you want people, who would otherwise eat fish, to substitute that once or twice a week, it needs to not cost them twice as much,” agrees Zac Austin, co-founder and CEO at plant-based seafood brand, Pacifico Biolabs.

And the plant-based industry overall expects to be able to lower its prices, making it more competitive, in the coming years, as a spokesperson for the Good Food Institute explains.

“We anticipate this gap shrinking as plant-based producers increasingly scale up production, achieve economies of scale, and seek price parity with their conventional competitors.”

Another issue facing the plant-based industry is the apparent lack of government support.

“Right now, the food system is really incentivising conventional animal and dairy production through a range of subsidies, tax measures like VAT, public procurement policies and even the denominations and naming rules that apply to products in this category can be very restrictive,” Paul Whitehouse, director of scientific affairs at plant-based brand Upfield told FoodNavigator at the recent Positive Nutrition Summit. “If you think about subsidies, the European Union is spending about 28 billion Euros a year which goes mostly towards the livestock industry. Plant-based producers get a very small share. It’s anti-competitive.”

This view is supported by environmental experts who are keen to see a change in food systems and support for the plant-based industry.

“There’s overwhelming scientific evidence to show that the current level of consumption of meat and dairy products is unsustainable from an environmental and health point of view,” Marco Contiero, agriculture policy director for Greenpeace EU, told FoodNavigator. “So governments, especially in wealthy countries, must stop spending public money to promote the consumption of these products and start promoting the consumption of balanced diets, where the main source of nutrition is plant-based.”

Industry experts are also keen to highlight that plant-based is still a relatively new sector and, as such, it will take time to become truly competitive.

“It really boils down to scale and optimisation,” says Zak Weston, supply chain manager for the Good Food Institute. “Developing operational efficiency is something that takes years, and the animal ag industry has a multi-decade head start on this. As the quantity produced goes up, we’ll be able to drive up operational efficiencies."

In fact, the Netherlands has already been successful in, not only achieving price parity, but surpassing it​, with plant-based burgers now an average 78 cents cheaper than their meat-based counterparts.

Plant-based burger texture - GettyImages-Hinterhaus Productions
Taste and texture have proven challenging for plant-based manufacturers, with consumers complaining of off notes in flavour and dry, chalky textures. But researchers and industry experts are innovating to improve these issues. GettyImages/Hinterhaus Productions

What other reasons do consumers have for avoiding plant-based?

Cost aside, taste​ has also been identified as a major issue for consumers of plant-based foods. In particular, off notes​, often described as an objectionable taste and/or odour, are a widespread problem in meat-free foods.

“There are flavour challenges of some kind with pretty much all plant proteins used as meat alternatives.” says Michel Mellema, global innovation director of Re-Imagine Protein at ingredients supplier IFF. “They can include beany off notes, earthy flavours, astringency and lingering bitterness.”

But the industry is addressing this. One project in particular, has seen International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) partner with British multinational Unilever and Dutch university Wageningen University & Research (WUR), to explore the ways in which flavours bind to protein molecules, with the goal of recommending novel flavouring strategies to improve the flavour of plant-based meat alternatives.

Texture ​has also proven to be challenging and has deterred some consumers. However, as with taste, industry experts and researchers are working on ways to tackle this problem together, using alternative proteins, such as cyanobacteria​.

“Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are living organisms that we have been able to get to produce a protein that they don’t naturally produce,” explains Professor Poul Erik Jensen of the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. “The particularly exciting thing here is that the protein is formed in fibrous strands that somewhat resemble meat fibres.”

And last, but by no means least, the ever-present consumer concern regarding ultra-processed foods​ is turning some away from plant-based products. Many consumers associate plant-based products with ultra-processing methods and such methods are often viewed negatively. However, it appears that despite that association, consumers do not prioritise this factor over taste and texture.

“When people are asked what they value most highly for plant-based products, normally things like taste, texture and other sensory properties rank the highest,” says Robin Simsa, CEO and co-founder of Revo Foods.

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