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The “Flip-Flopping” Attitudes on Alternative Proteins

“Extremely volatile” is how cultural anthropologist Ujwal Arkalgud describes consumer attitudes on alternative proteins.

“They don’t quite know what to do with it,” said Arkalgud, in a recent interview with CFI CEO Charlie Arnot. “They don’t know what purpose it’s meant to serve in their lives. It’s a shiny object. They try it, they’re unsure,” he said.

A member of The Center for Food Integrity’s new Consumer Trust Insights Council and co-founder of MotivBase, Arkalgud said online digital ethnography analysis over the past two years shows people are “flip-flopping” on the issue.

“One day, it’s the next big thing. The next day, it’s boring again and perhaps not solving the problem they were intending to solve in the first place,” he said.

Moral Moorings

Part of the reason this is happening is we live in a culture of moral reasoning, people believe every decision should have a moral rationale, he said.

“The greatest moral alibi right now with alternative proteins is environmentalism,” said Arkalgud. “Interestingly, however, what’s driving the demand space is interest in health.”

The topic of environment is in the headlines, but that’s not what’s behind consumers’ decisions, said Arkalgud.

The volatility has tapered a bit in the last few months and the growth pattern is slowing to five to six percent, he said, with an anticipated market ceiling of about 35- to 40-million U.S. consumers.

“That’s not a lot when you think about the adult population of about 200-million people,” said Arkalgud. “That tells us there’s growth, but the growth is not going to replace our need for animal proteins.”

What Consumers Want

The biggest takeaway for the animal protein sector is it needs “to do better addressing the emerging needs of consumers,” he said.

The online analysis shows consumers want nutritionally dense food to be cheaper and to know that the meat they’re eating is high quality.

Labels such as hormone-free or organic labels indicate some marks of quality, but consumers want more than that. “Their fear is not resolved by a simple label. They want to know where the meat is coming from, how it’s produced, what animals are fed and how they’re treated.”

One fear the online research revealed about alternative proteins is that they are nutritionally deficient.

“It opens the door for animal proteins to say, ‘Hey, guess what? Not only have we been nutritionally more complete since the start of time, but we’ve also taken measures to ensure that we deliver the best quality products to you.”

As consumers continue to navigate this new space, the volatility is bringing to life important emerging consumer needs around proteins and opens the door for both sides of the coin to play in the marketplace, he said.

For more information on the CFI Consumer Trust Insights Council and Illuminate digital ethnography reports, reach out at learnmore@foodintegrity.org.