Start looking into sustainable lifestyles and it’s only a matter of minutes before one of the primary contributors to an individual’s carbon footprint is revealed: meat and other animal products.

Historically, giving up animal products entailed fewer options at mainstream restaurants and perhaps questioning from bemused relatives. However, as consumer interest in veganism has gathered pace, an increasingly diverse range of options has become available, many emphasising the win-win nature of switching to alternatives: great taste, happier planet, happier body.

But is this too good to be true?

Fuelled by headlines like ‘Is Organic Food Really Better for the Environment?’, consumers are examining the umbrella of ‘virtuous’ food claims with a healthy dose of scepticism.

It is no surprise that people are unwilling to accept a simple answer to a complicated story – consumers think they like what they see but are eager to peek behind the curtain.

The narrative around veganism and plant-based diets is changing, and this is reflected in what’s available to consumers. Beyond simply being vegan, it is important for companies making meat alternatives to align branding and communications with what consumers expect from 'sustainable' and 'plant-based' products.

Attitudes are becoming more nuanced.

We are moving away from an all-or-nothing mindset with a growing population identifying as ‘flexitarians’. This change in mindset – to reducing meat consumption rather than removing it altogether – represents a major cultural shift, whereby vegetarianism and veganism are no longer considered extreme diets. Being a weekday vegetarian, or vegetarian on Mondays, or for a month of January doesn’t mean signing up to a whole new food philosophy or having an opinion on the ethics of animal farming. In this context, a new class of ‘life like’ meat alternatives has hit supermarket shelves.

But people aren’t always getting what they want from meat alternatives.

When they first came onto the market, meat alternatives were considered ‘better’- for your health, for the environment, for animals. The question was whether to compromise on the authentic meat experience and pay a little more while doing so. This, too, is changing.

In many places, meat alternatives are not much more expensive than meat (in the UK, the McPlant is the same price as a Big Mac). And the rise of meat-mimicking options such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat means that it’s possible to now have (almost) the same taste experience, just without the animal.

Why, then, is the industry drawing criticism?

The answer lies in the messaging.

As meat alternatives have become closer in taste and texture to true meat products, they have become more heavily processed and less ‘natural’. Health and wellbeing conscious consumers are concerned by the array of ingredients they don’t recognise, or food printed in a lab rather than grown in a field. And the ‘plant-based’ label – whilst technically correct – doesn’t seem to belong on a product processed so far beyond its natural origin.

The evidence confirms that alternative meats result in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, less water use and less cruelty to animals than eating meat – but the questions are mounting for plant-based products that fail to live up to their promise of being ‘better in every way’.

It’s not enough to just be sustainable.

Our research shows that people like their sustainable products to offer a multitude of virtues, whether it’s an organic egg that tastes fantastic or a chemical-free cleaning product that doesn’t cost more.

Some brands have followed suit, using superlative language to describe sustainable products, which can lead to mismatched expectations. We assume a ‘natural’ chocolate bar is wholly composed of chemical-free ingredients, farmed in a way that protects natural environments, local communities and animal habitats, and is aligned to our body’s natural chemistry. If it turns out that some of these assumptions are false, we start questioning whether any are true.

So, the answer lies in transparency: brands feel more trustworthy in their sustainability claims when they are specific about the benefits of their products, or when they explain how ingredients can be both healthy and processed (like probiotic yogurt).

Back to basics.

The other possibility is to embrace meat alternatives that don’t try to replicate their meaty other half. Eating vegetarian meals is now so common among non-vegetarians that there is no longer a need to disguise plant-based meals in a ‘meat and two veg’ format.

Options like bean burgers, chickpea cakes and tofu can easily be swapped in for meat without too much thought. Cheaper than meat and processed meat alternatives, these back-to-basics products make vegan options affordable in the cost-of-living crisis. They are high in protein, contain simple, recognisable ingredients, are better for the environment and better for animal welfare. Most importantly, they live up to all the preconceived notions of what something that claims to be ‘natural’ should be, and therefore feel more trustworthy. They don’t, however, taste like meat.

What are the broader implications for food and drink brands launching sustainable products?

  • Embrace the celebratory tone of plant-based alternatives. There has been a gradual shift in how veganism is presented in popular culture – from a diet of restrictions and principles to an opportunity for showcasing creativity and innovation. For brands looking to inspire with new vegan options, a playful, up-beat imaginative tone reflects how consumers see veganism today.
  • Be clear on how your product is ‘good’… and how it isn’t. To build trust, transparent, honest claims and communications are key. Consumers are alert to claims that sound too good to be true and they’ll look for ‘the catch’ if it isn’t apparent.
  • Don’t feel pressured to pick a side. As people diversify what they eat, there is a place for both high-tech and ‘old-school’ vegan and vegetarian option to suit different budgets, tastes and philosophies.

Want to find out more?

Talk to our People & Planet team about how we can help you align your branding with a deeper understanding of consumer expectations of sustainable products.

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