Does Environmental Impact Actually Taste Good? ♻

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
February 1, 2021

Good Monday, fellow nerds! 🤓 It’s another week, which means another foray into the minds of consumers om nom nomming their way through the plant-based food landscape. 🥗🍔

We’re kicking off February with a look at what consumers really want from their protein—and how plant-based brands can meet those expectations. While we’re at it, we’ll take a look at the ongoing protein craze to see how well people understand the reason behind the personal and societal fixation on this particular macronutrient. 💪🏻

It’s All About the (Tastiest) Proteins

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducted a survey of 1,009 consumers over age 18 and found that 70% of them had tried a new plant-based protein in the last year.

The number one reason they picked a particular product? Taste. 🤤

What made the most difference at the point of sale, though, was the message on the packaging. If a plant-based product said it was a “good source of protein,” 28% of consumers were likely to buy it. They also kept an eye out for terms like “natural“ and “organic.” 🌾

But most people are still leaning toward meat as a protein source. Seventy-six percent of respondents in the IFIC survey identified themselves as omnivores, and one-fifth said they didn’t buy plant-based products at all. 🥩 (This suggests that at least some were flexitarians, although the category wasn’t specifically included.)

Among meat consumers, products promising “no antibiotics” and “natural” were top priorities. So-called “humane” options, including free-range and cage-free animal products, didn’t draw as much attention.

Photo by Vova Krasilnikov from Pexels

Does Plant-Based Messaging Need to Shift?

While the quest to end factory farming, make conditions more humane for humans and animals and improve sustainability across the supply chain is extremely important, it’s not what people are looking for when choosing proteins. 🍖🥓

Plant-based companies are aware of this, but a lot of them are making the mistake of leading with the very information that is least likely to prompt consumers to try their products. While it may seem overly simplistic or even counterintuitive, plainly saying, “WE HAVE A PROTEIN. IT TASTES GOOD” and delivering on that promise does far more to grab attention and build brand loyalty than touting sustainability statistics. ♻

Protein Confusion Reigns Supreme

There is a potential risk here, though: By designing messaging based solely on the desire for tasty proteins, brands run the risk of contributing to the widespread misunderstanding of protein in general.

Nielsen Data from 2018 revealed over half of U.S. households were on the hunt for higher-protein products. According to the IFIC survey, they’re looking for foods that will keep them fuller throughout the day and help build healthy, strong muscles. 💪🏻

But there’s more to the story. Nielsen surveyed over 20,000 consumers in 2015 and again in 2018 to see if they actually knew how much protein foods contained. The collective data showed that, although “protein literacy” is improving, people still aren’t good judges of what constitutes a high-protein food.

The weirdest result? Peanut butter 🥜 is perceived as being high in protein—but many common meats aren’t. If meat—animal meat 🍗is seen as a subpar protein option, it’s little wonder the myth that plant-based proteins are somehow nutritionally inferior continues to persist.

Selling Plant Protein to a Skeptical Public

This massively confusing landscape sits before today’s plant-based protein brands as a new—and rather overwhelming—frontier. 🌿 Is it possible to satisfy consumers’ desire for protein from a plant-based angle when they’re already convinced they can’t get what they need from animal proteins?

And what happens to the sustainability angle in all of this? 🌳

It comes back to taste and perception. As of yet, plant-based protein brands haven’t successfully bridged this gap to reach the majority of consumers. But leading with taste has the power to change perceptions—and influence both purchasing choices and eating habits. 🍴

The trick is to nail down taste with ingredients that are actually better for people. Plant-based brands have the opportunity to deliver foods that live up to what consumers want when they seek out natural and organic and offer robust nutritional profiles in the process. 🏃🏻‍♂️ Doing so can prompt more plant-based purchases, which automatically supports a more sustainable food system.

It’s a win-win. Consumers get the protein they want, and plant-based brands don’t have to give up their dedication to creating a healthier food system that’s easier on the planet.

Where do you stand on the great protein debate? Is taste the only way to get consumer buy-in, or should we be trying to change the narrative to focus on health and sustainability first? 👇🏻👇🏻