Can lab-made meat pass the 'naturalness' test?

“Cultured meat”, sometimes also referred to as “cultivated meat” or “lab-made meat”, gets a lot of media attention. Investors have put over $12 billion behind more than 100 companies developing cultured meat products. Consultancy firms claim it's a major opportunity, with some saying that it will take a 30% share of the meat market within the next decade. But it is consumers, not investors or consultants, who will decide the future of this technology.

Makers of cultured meat say significant market activity has thus far been obstructed by regulatory hurdles, with so far only Singapore allowing sales of consumer products. However, regulatory approval is not going to help if you don’t also achieve consumer acceptance – and if recent research is anything to go by, this is going to be a challenge.

A study published recently in Journal of Food Science investigated Dutch consumers’ attitudes towards cultured meat, with a particular focus on how ‘willingness to consume’ (WTC) differed when the product was directly compared to other meat alternatives and to conventional meat.

The study, which was done at Wageningen University & Research, surveyed 323 Dutch consumers and their willingness to consume a burger made from cultured meat, conventional meat, a plant-based meat alternative, fish and an insect-based meat alternative. Consumers were asked to score their perception of these products for 10 attributes:

  • Natural
  • Disgusting
  • Safe
  • Nutritious
  • Health
  • Tasty
  • Sustainable
  • Ethical
  • Interesting
  • Animal friendly
  • Willingness-to-consume (WTC)

Cultured meat scored the highest in terms of how interested in it consumers claimed to be.

However, the study found that although around 75% of participants showed moderate WTC cultured meat based on the parameters of sustainability, ethicality and animal friendliness, its taste and perception of naturalness – or rather lack thereof – will be a significant challenge. “Its image of naturalness seems to be the main challenge it would have to overcome for a general acceptance”, the authors concluded. Cultured meat also scored comparatively low on perceived healthiness and safety.

This aligns with research from the International Food Information Council who, in 2021, asked 1,009 Americans about their opinions on different protein sources. Cultured meat was given a resounding “no” when respondents were asked to choose between that and an original animal protein source they are familiar with. Nearly three-quarters (74%) chose the original animal protein. Coupled with the fact that most respondents in IFIC’s survey said that taste and naturalness were the most important factors when choosing their protein, it seems that American producers of cultured meat will meet the same challenges as Dutch.

The Dutch Government has a National Protein Strategy, into which it has already invested over €100 million, to promote alternative protein sources, including cultured meat. Perhaps this will help convert Dutch consumers’ expressed interest in cultured meat into actual consumption – but it would be naïve to expect that consumption to be anything other than low. Taste, healthiness and naturalness have been key factors in consumers’ food choices for many decades now, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.

Read the full study here:

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