ARE EXISTING PLANT-BASED CHICKEN AND BURGER PRODUCTS GENERALLY ACCEPTABLE TO MEAT-EATERS AND FLEXITARIANS OR IS MORE RESEARCH NEEDED TO CREATE MORE ACCEPTABLE PRODUCTS?

The mass production and consumption of meat raises many concerns for the environment, human health, and animal welfare.  An important part of getting average people to reduce or eliminate consumption animal products is to provide them with analogues to those products that have the same taste, feel, and are priced similarly.  This reduces friction in transitioning to a plant-based diet.

Millions of dollars are being spent by animal advocates to both promote research into new plant-based meats, and to advocate for diet changes that rely on these products.  There are products on the market today that purport to taste and feel like chicken and hamburgers, and we were interested to know to what extent existing products mimic chicken and beef burgers across a variety of measures.

With financial support of Animal Advocacy Research Fund we engaged Precision Research to conduct a taste test of 4 chicken alternatives and 5 beef burger alternatives, including real chicken and real beef burger in the test to have as a baseline for comparison.  The taste test was conducted in Chicago facility of Precision Research with subjects well distributed across demographic and ethnic groups. Here is a link to our first report.

All products were purchased or requested from producers in the least altered form and products were selected with least possible seasoning.  They were all cooked by a professional chef on skillets according to cooking instructions. Real chicken and burgers were purchased frozen and not seasoned and were simply one of the products included in what subjects tasted.  Subjects tasted products “as is” without any condiments. 

The subjects were not given any detail about of the types of products they were tasting, and the order in which the products were offered was randomized across five seatings of subjects for each product type (chicken or burger).  Tasting sessions were followed up by focus group discussions, three focus groups for each product type.  Participants for the focus groups were selected if they gave enthusiastic responses about at least one plant-based product tasted.

It is very important to note that these products were served bare (with no dressings or condiments of any kind) which is not how they would normally be consumed.  We therefore expect that ratings of taste would be lower than if the products were offering in the manner they would normally be consumed (in a burger sandwich or in a chicken salad or burrito for example).  So a product not receiving the highest rating it could get in the test does not mean the consumer would not like the product in a meal or wouldn’t consider purchasing it, as we learned in the focus groups.

It is also important to keep in mind that subjects were given no information about the ingredients or any health benefits of products they were testing.  Additionally they had no information about price.  Ingredients, health benefits, and price all affect consumer behavior so again, these taste test results should not be taken as an indication of how consumers will react to these products in the marketplace.  The taste test simply revealed how the plant-based products were rated by chicken and beef burger eaters in comparison to actual chicken and burgers.

The results of the plant-based chicken taste test suggests that there were no plant based chicken products in the test that, when tasted bare and without condiments, seemed analogous to chicken by chicken eaters.  There were however products that once revealed as plant-based, sparked an interest in purchase to be used in dishes, provided the products did not seem to have too many ingredients or be overly processed.

This results of the plant-based burger taste test suggests that there was just one plant based burger product in the test that, when tasted bare and without condiments, seemed analogous to a beef burger by burger eaters.  Like plant-based chicken, there were however products that once revealed as plant-based, sparked an interest in purchase to be used in dishes, provided the products did not seem to have too many ingredients or be overly processed.

These findings are most significant for brands that are purchased in grocery, where the consumer might taste them outside of a prepared dish or with condiments.  For brands that always reach consumers in a prepared dish (for example served prepared in restaurants or food service,) it may be less significant that the core plant-based product does not rate as well as the actual animal product.

The almost complete absence of plant-based chicken and burgers that rate equivalent to the animal products they seek to replace suggests that more research is needed to create and bring to market at least one plant based chicken that seems to chicken eaters to be analogous to real chicken.  And even for beef burgers, it would probably be good to have more than one brand that burger eaters rate as analogous to a beef burger.

This does not however mean that existing plant-based chicken and burgers do not have a potential consumer base among meat eaters.  But it does suggest that these products should be marketed to be consumed in prepared dishes or with condiments.

The focus groups revealed that consumers are aware of the health benefits of plant-based chicken and burgers, and they value those health benefits, while environmental or animal benefits are not part of their consideration.  Participants indicated a willingness to purchase some of these products if they understood the ingredients, and if the pricing was acceptable.

A major finding of the focus groups is that average chicken and burger eaters are not seeking out plant-based analogues, and so being offered free samples is a prime way to introduce them to these types of products.

Based upon these findings, we recommend more research into plant-based chicken alternatives with a goal to create products that share the same basic properties as chicken, and more research into the potential ROI for plant-based meat companies and advocates to offer product sampling of plant-based meats.