Kyösti Pennanen

Values guide the consumption of meat substitutes

Tiia Alkkiomäki
Once again, a rushed shopper adds minced meat and cold cuts to their shopping basket. They are curious about meat substitutes, but the high prices drive them away from the vegan options. And would they even have the time or interest to learn new recipes?

Replacing meat with alternative products is easier than ever. New products emulating the taste and texture of meat appear frequently on the shop shelves. Meat substitutes are products imitating the appearance of, for example, minced meat or chicken pieces, made from legumes, cereals or other plant proteins. 

The market for substitute products is predicted to increase manifold in the next few years, and there are already a variety of innovative products available – pulled oats, seitan and vegan mince are now options to the familiar tofu. However, a true best-seller has yet to appear.  

– Consumers understand the benefits of meat substitutes, but it is not reflected in their buying behaviour, says Kyösti Pennanen, Senior researcher of marketing at the University of Vaasa.

People find environmental issues important and know how they could be more responsible consumers. They do not need to be educated on the topic.
Senior researcher of marketing Kyösti Pennanen

Values guide buying behaviour 

Pennanen and his team have studied consumers’ motives for purchasing meat substitutes and what kind of marketing is needed to boost the consumption of these products. 

– Consumption is mainly guided by the perceived ethicality, sustainability and healthiness of the products.

Meat substitutes are currently being marketed by highlighting their health and environmental benefits, which fails to influence the majority of consumers. In reality, most consumers continue to buy minced meat instead of tofu even though they are aware of the environmental and health benefits of the vegan option. 

– People find environmental issues important and know how they could be more responsible consumers. They do not need to be educated on the topic. It is interesting to try and identify effective marketing techniques that would reach consumers who do not prioritise environmental values.

Experts working with food production technology believe that when the taste and price of meat substitutes are aligned, all is well.

In their research, Pennanen and his team identified consumer groups with different life values, to whom marketing should be targeted in a way that appeals to them. The aim should be to convince different types of consumers that a product meets their core values.  

– Marketing should reduce the inconsistency between consumers’ values and the product marketed.

As an example, Pennanen mentions consumers who value power and performance. These consumers may become interested in a substitute product if it is marketed as a status symbol. On the other hands, consumers with strong environmental values should be targeted by highlighting the product’s environmental benefits. 

The study also discovered that consumers who value tradition and safety have a more negative attitude towards meat substitutes. This attitude was lessened by the importance of belonging to a group meaningful to the consumer. 

– Consumers who value tradition might respond to marketing that emphasises the importance of meat substitutes to the well-being of the consumer’s family or future generations. This would align the products with the values of consumers who value tradition and safety.

High cost and weird taste 

Previous studies on the consumption of meat substitutes have proven that the widespread consumption of these products is slowed down by people’s attitudes and fear of new things. Sometimes the reasons for non-consumption are more practical: meat substitutes are still relatively expensive, and consumers may find their taste unappealing. Meat substitutes can also be challenging for consumers’ cooking skills. 

– Cooking is one of the key routines of most households, and in many families the same person is responsible for both cooking and grocery shopping. The family’s dietary habits influence what ends up on the dining table.

If a familiar product is replaced by a substitute, it naturally takes some time to learn to cook a tasty meal out of it. For example, meat substitutes may require stronger or different seasoning to hide the taste of the main ingredient, such as peas. 


Finnish food production is doing well 

Experts working with food production technology believe that when the taste and price of meat substitutes are aligned, all is well. Pennanen and his team disagree. It only means that meat substitutes have established an equal standing with traditional products, and marketing experts still have much to do. There are also other challenges in the horizon. 

Pennanen has recently encountered studies stating that up to 50% of European consumers consider meat substitutes ultra-processed products and try to avoid them. This type of thinking makes it more difficult to win over consumers and get them buy meat substitutes. Finland has the advantage of a high-quality domestic food production network. 

– We produce good domestic food from high-quality ingredients and have a strong food production and trade industry.

Finnish consumers trust Finnish food production. Companies should inform consumers of, for example, the differences in nutritional values between meat substitutes and meat products and the benefits of food processing. 

– While the term ‘food processing’ sounds sinister to consumers, they do understand the difference between, for example, pulled oats and potato crisps.

What if someone wants to eat food that is as clean as possible? 

– Catching your own fish and hunting game are good options.

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