OPINION: AHEAD OF WHAT'S NEXT
Sustainability and health concerns are spurring consumers to try plant-based meat alternatives, but the taste experience of these products is still falling short, according to recent research from ingredient company Kerry Taste & Nutrition.
These findings came from research that Beloit, Wis.-based Kerry carried out this year with more than 1,500 consumers in four countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Brazil — to uncover sensory expectations regarding plant-based burgers and cheese alternative slices. Kerry’s research, released this past May, discovered that flexitarians, the key consumer group driving growth of plant-based products, are more critical of such items than vegan and vegetarian consumers. Although they’re interested in the sustainable attributes of plant-based products, flexitarians are unwilling to compromise on taste and so seek products that offer a taste experience as close as possible to that of animal products.
In the case of plant-based burgers in particular, consumers don’t want just great-tasting products, but also those with improved succulence and a meaty “bite.” They also look for cooking cues such as charring that signal that a burger is properly cooked and safe to eat, and meat alternatives featuring better nutrition.
“Our research of U.S. consumers’ opinions on plant-based burgers shows that they want the taste and texture of beef burgers, only better,” says Shannon Coco, Kerry’s strategic marketing director, meat and meal. “They want a burger experience with only positive taste attributes, coupled with improved nutrition and better environmental impact. Plant-based burger makers need to continue looking for ingredients and combinations of ingredients that improve taste, texture and cooking over time. Applications expertise by the ingredient supplier will be needed to help manage the synergy of new ingredients and processes.”
Adds Coco: “Plant-based manufacturers need to focus on the end goal when it comes to improving products and where the consumers’ expectations are heading. Right now, consumers want variety, and they are looking for quality taste paired closely with nutrition.”
Better for People and the Planet
She also notes that messages conveying the healthiness of these products and their better environmental impact are crucial to marketing plant-based burgers and dairy to consumers. “Our research found that 63% of U.S. consumers started eating plant-based products because they are considered healthier,” observes Coco. “There is significant support for plant-based as being better environmentally, with 40% having entered the plant-based category as better for the planet. Animal welfare is important to many consumers, with 39% committed to improving animal welfare.”
That being the case, “marketing and advertising messages focused on the healthiness, better environmental impact and improved animal welfare plant-based burgers can deliver will resonate with many flexitarian consumers,” she contends.
What will forthcoming meat-alternative products be like? “The future of plant-based products is firmly focused on continuous innovation and improvement in taste, texture and cooking of burgers and plant-based cheese,” asserts Coco. “These products will simply get better and better as the months and years go by.”
She attributes this product evolution to “future-forward innovation [that] will drive the category in the years ahead, with early-stage technologies like cell cultivation, precision fermentation, novel production methods and ingredient innovations accelerating improved taste. Currently, more consumers now than ever are incorporating plant-based foods into their diets and seeking products with expanded options and availability that replicate traditional meat and dairy.”
A key takeaway of Kerry’s research is that plant-based food makers and the grocers that sell their products can’t ever take taste for granted when selling these items to consumers, particularly those who also eat animal proteins. Health and sustainability are powerful purchase drivers as far as they go, but it’s taste that really captivates shoppers and keeps them coming back for more.