Two of the biggest ongoing stories in the food industry revolve around a single topic: meat. Both camps agree on a single point: The way humans currently consume meat is problematic, be it for health, for environmental reasons, or because of inhumane treatment.
But the solutions are distinctly different, though not mutually exclusive. A new generation of plant-based meat alternatives like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are currently expanding around the globe in restaurants and on store shelves. Hot on their heels, however, are companies developing cultured meat (also known as “lab-grown meat” or “clean meat”) hoping to skip the animals and make “real” meat out of its cellular building blocks.
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Though cultured meat hasn’t reached the commercial market quite yet, its launch seems inevitable and imminent. What is less certain, however, is whether people will actually consume plant-based meats and/or cultured meats. Are these just novelty products or can they really change the way humans have eaten since, well, forever?
A recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems took a straightforward approach to determine the answer to this question: They asked people. A team of researchers from the United States, China, and the United Kingdom surveyed over 3,000 participants from the United States, China, and India (the world’s three most populous countries) to see how they felt about meat alternatives.
The authors’ biggest takeaway was that Americans lagged behind both the Chinese and Indians when it came to their willingness to say they would purchase clean meat (the paper’s preferred term) and plant-based meat. In the U.S., 23.6 percent of respondents said they were “not at all likely” to purchase clean meat compared to 29.8 percent saying they were “very or extremely likely.” In China, those numbers skewed heavily towards the latter answer: 6.7 percent against the idea compared to a massive 59.3 percent saying they’re on board. The results were similar in India: Just 10.7 percent were “not at all likely” to purchase clean meat whereas 48.7 percent were “very or extremely likely.”
The results were similar for plant-based meat. In the U.S., 25.3 percent were “not at all likely” to grab something like an Impossible Burger, whereas 32.9 percent were “very or extremely likely.” In China, that split was 4.4 percent to 62.4 percent. In India, it was 5.5 percent to 62.8 percent. Cultural factors likely played a role here: China has a long history with plant-based proteins like tofu; India has a higher rate of vegetarianism. But the study even dug into some of these factors. Interestingly, even “when focusing on omnivores only, India still has a significantly lower meat attachment compared to China and the USA,” the paper states.
The study made some observations unique to Americans too. “In the USA, we find that those who follow pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan diets are significantly less likely to purchase clean meat compared to omnivores,” the authors write. “Purchase intention is also higher for those who are left-leaning politically, and for those who are more familiar with clean meat.” More politically liberal people were also more likely to purchase plant-based meat as well.
Another interesting note about U.S. respondents: A massive 57.3 percent said they were not even familiar with clean meat. And over a third of Americans — 36.4 percent — said they weren’t familiar with plant-based meats… a surprisingly high figure given all the hype around new products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, even at major chains like White Castle and TGI Fridays.
Overall, the study concluded that, though much of the groundbreaking work with meat alternatives is taking place in the U.S., in actuality, China and India “may represent especially good opportunities to displace demand for conventional meat.” Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The impact of meat consumption is a global issue, so the finding that the two largest countries in the world might be more willing to change their ways than the U.S. could be a pretty positive takeaway.
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