Will consumers eat cultured meat and dairy?

Cellular agriculture is being heralded as the future of the alt-protein space. While there’s no denying that it’s a major milestone in food innovation, there is a key question that researchers are still digging into: will people want to eat these products?

Food-tech startups the world over are hard at work creating cultured-meat and -dairy products for the mass market. From salmon to chicken to cheese, many well-loved animal-based foods are being developed as cultured alternatives. These products have the potential to significantly improve the sustainability and safety of the global food system. The key to their success, however, is acceptance. Will consumers want to buy and eat these products?

Current research suggests varying levels of acceptance of cultured-meat and cultured-dairy products, and there are many factors at play.

How people adopt products: innovators vs laggards

When it comes to innovation – of any kind – some people fervently embrace change while others are reluctant, preferring to stick to what they know. In general, there are five types of adopters of new products:

  • Innovators: these are the first consumers to try new products. They are risk takers, excited by the possibility of new ideas.
  • Early adopters: this second group tends to have the most influence on the market. Early adopters typically have higher levels of education and income. They also make reasoned decisions (and write reasoned reviews!) about the products they engage with.
  • Early majority: these consumers emerge when a product begins to have mass-market appeal. They want to be reasonably certain that they will like a product before purchasing it.
  • Late majority: people in this category are generally skeptical of innovation. They tend to have lower levels of income and prefer to put their more limited resources into tried-and-tested products. 
  • Laggards: these consumers are the last to arrive at the adoption party. Laggards value tradition and are very averse to risk and change.

Customer adoption patterns hold true for basically any product – and cultured meat will be no exception. We’d expect to see innovators and early adopters taking the reins and, if the response is positive, everyone else will surely follow.

Cultured meat sausages
Cultured sausages from New Age Meats

Who wants to try cultured meat?

According to a study by researchers in the US, there is a generational divide in terms of how people feel about cellular agriculture. 35% of the American consumers they spoke to, for example, said that they are likely to buy cultured meat, with those under 40 being most open to the idea.

The same study also showed that higher-income, higher-education groups were the most receptive to cultured meat. This fits with known customer adoption patterns, so we’d expect to see this replicated in other parts of the world.

In Europe, consumer awareness of cellular agriculture is relatively low at the moment. However, when surveyed, 44% of French and 58% of German consumers said that they would be willing to try cultured meat. In contrast, an Australian study published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggested that 72% of consumers were not yet ready to try cultured-meat products. 

What does seem to be universally important is knowledge. The more information and product awareness people have, the more open they are to cultured meat. One study from the Netherlands even went so far as to conclude that “previous awareness of cultured meat was the best predictor of its acceptance”.

Real dairy without the cows

Compared to cultured meat, less research has been conducted on the consumer acceptance of cultured-dairy products. Early results, however, are very promising.

Just this year, the food-tech company Formo surveyed over 5,000 people in Brazil, Germany, India, the UK, and the US in order to investigate the levels of acceptance of precision-fermentation-derived dairy products. Formo found that 79% of consumers are “probably or definitely” likely to try animal-free dairy cheese.

In addition, 70% said that they are “probably or definitely” likely to buy such products when they are available. This figure is substantially higher than previous research has found for cultured-meat products.

Precision fermentation-dervied cheese from Formo
Animal-free, precision fermentation-dervied cheese from Formo

Participants in the Formo study anticipated that animal-free dairy cheese would be “significantly tastier than current vegan cheese products”. They also noted that it would likely be “just as tasty and safe” as conventional animal-derived cheese, while being significantly more ethically produced and environmentally friendly.

It’s for a good cause

When it comes to the reasons for adopting cultured products, not all arguments are equal. Explaining the positive environmental impact of such products, for example, makes a sizeable difference on acceptance. In a recent study, hearing such arguments shifted the willingness of participants to try cultured meat from 25% to 43%.

The cleanliness, safety, and ethical benefits of cultured meat also appear to be motivating factors for consumers. In contrast, focusing on the innovative and technological aspects of cellular agriculture and the ‘naturalness’ of these products proved to be far less effective.

These attitudes are important for cultured-food startups to take note of –  particularly when they are developing strategies and ideas for marketing their products and communicating with their customers.

So, will consumers buy cultured meat and dairy?

In short, yes. But they’re not all going to jump on the bandwagon at once. Innovators and early adopters will be at the front of the queue, forks at the ready. However, cultured-meat and cultured-dairy products will have to earn a good reputation in order to secure mass market appeal.

As it stands, some consumers are ready, some are skeptical, and others have yet to make up their minds. Providing new information markedly shifts perceptions, so we are excited to see new research emerging in this field all the time.

In addition to consumer acceptance, there are further challenges to face in terms of regulation and cost. However, once price parity is achieved, we expect to see cultured-meat products displacing conventional animal-based meat in many uses, for example in fast food and convenience products.

There is still a long way to go before we get there, but the starting pistol has been fired and the race is already well underway.

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