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Research: Consumer understanding of cultivated meat is ‘very limited’

Article-Research: Consumer understanding of cultivated meat is ‘very limited’

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Consumers have a very limited understanding of what cultivated meat is, which translates to an opportunity for the food industry to shape future perceptions and steer communication around this topic, says ProVeg International.

The media cannot get enough of cultured meat. Yet it doesn’t appear that all the information around lab-grown meat is being soaked up by consumers. Research conducted by non-profit organisation ProVeg International suggests that less than 2% of UK consumers have a correct understanding of the term ‘cultured meat’.

In 2022, ProVeg conducted two online consumer surveys on cultured meat and hybrid foods. The first, involving 750 UK participants, explored the role of imagery in consumer perceptions of cultured meat, whilst the second survey focused on consumer perceptions around hybrid products.

Jaczniakowska-McGirr, director of corporate engagement at ProVeg International, presented the findings at Fi Europe’s Innovation Hub.

Cultivated meat…which is what exactly?

She started by explaining what is meant by the terms ‘cultivated meat’ and ‘hybrid meat’.

“Cultivated is animal meat created directly from cells as opposed to the animal. To produce a cultivated meat product, you take a biopsy, put those cells in a nutrient rich environment, and watch them grow. Once they reach the desired size, they can be harvested and processed into foods like burgers,” she said.

She defined hybrid meat as a blend of plant-based meat with cultivated ingredients such as fat:

“Plant-based products can really benefit from these cultivated ingredients, because they help to improve taste and texture, and cultivated products can benefit from hybrid ingredients because they can accelerate market entry. So there is big potential when it comes to combining these two product types into hybrid solutions.”

In the last three years, cultivated and hybrid meats have started to gain more traction, bolstered by two landmark rulings.

In 2020, Singapore’s Food Agency granted approval for San Francisco based Eat Just to sell its cultured chicken while on 21 June this year, two US companies got approval to sell cultivated chicken in the US when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent grants of inspection to UPSIDE Foods (formerly known as Memphis Meats) and GOOD Meat (the cultivated meat division of Eat Just).

In this context, ProVeg, whose agenda is to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040, concluded that it was time to address the question of how to communicate cultivated meats to consumers.

“With the rise of cultivated meats globally, it is more important than ever that we talk about the communication strategies that are going to engage these consumers,” said Jaczniakowska-McGirr.

A picture tells a thousand words…or does it?

She said that the first research project followed ProVeg’s observations about the images that were being used to depict lab-based meat.

“The top 12 images brought up by a Google search all feature blue gloves, petri-dishes and labs. We wanted to see whether these images were having a negative impact and whether food-based images would be more appealing.”

Participants were divided into three groups: group 1 was shown images of both lab-based and food-based cultivated meat; group 2 was shown only lab-based images; and group 3 was shown only food-based images.

The results did not indicate that the lab-based imagery was negatively influencing consumer perceptions of cultivated meat.

Asked how accurately, the images they were shown portrayed cultivated meat, 64% of the group 2 respondents and 48% of group 3 respondents said either ‘very accurately’ or ‘accurately’.

Participants in both groups were also asked, based on the images, how much they agreed or disagreed with three statements: ‘Cultured meat is appealing to eat’, Cultured meat is tasty’, and ‘Cultured meat is safe to eat’.

Interestingly, the food-based images generated more positive responses than the lab-based photos here: 43% of respondents in group 2 agreed cultivated meats were appealing, compared with 49% in group 3. Similarly, 35% of respondents in group 2 agreed cultured meat was tasty, compared with 47% in group 3.

“There wasn’t a huge difference here, but we can see that those respondents shown food-based images think cultured meat is more appealing and more tasty, so there is an opportunity to portray these as tasty foods without confusing the consumer,” noted Jaczniakowska-McGirr.

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Use food rather than lab imagery, urges ProVeg

She added that ProVeg recommends using food-based images to communicate about cultivate meat products.

The survey revealed that consumers have a very limited understanding of cellular agriculture. 57% of those surveyed had no understanding of cultivated meat; 15% had an inaccurate understanding; 16% had some understanding; and less than 2% had a good understanding of the term.

The survey also assessed participants’ exposure to the topic. Half of those who took part said they knew nothing about cultivated meat, a third said they had read articles and communications in the media and had some understanding; and a quarter said they had read articles and seen communications but don’t understand what it is.

In addition, the researchers sought to establish consumer sentiment towards cultured meats. The vast majority were classified as having a ‘neutral’ sentiment.

ProVeg took this stance and the lack of understanding around cultured meats as a positive.

“This showed that, as an industry, we have a good opportunity to shape future perceptions,” said Jaczniakowska-McGirr.

Gender divide on hybrid meats

The second study explored consumer attitudes towards hybrid meats in a sample of 1,000 UK consumers. Key takeaways from this were that 35% of UK consumers said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ try or buy a meat hybrid burger, while 30% were ‘unsure’ whether they would.

“A lot of people were unsure, which is not surprising given how new this category is, but what this means is that there is an opportunity for the industry to shape understanding of these types of products,” said Jaczniakowska-McGirr.

It also found that men are more likely than women to give hybrid meat a chance (40% of men versus 31% of women would try hybrid meat), and that university educated millennial or gen Z males were most open to buying hybrid meats.

Consumer perceptions of hybrid meats were found to be quite high, in that a high percentage of respondents said they expected them to be tasty, enjoyable, healthy, nutritious and safe.

“The results are quite promising - especially given the unfamiliarity of the products. With this in mind we need further research, in particular around the terminology and nomenclature used for these types of products,” concluded Jaczniakowska-McGirr.