Increasing adoption of alternative protein through storytelling and unified communication
NOTE from LRIC: This post is one in a series of LRIC-prepared summaries of discussions and presentations that were part of the 2021 Future Food-Tech Alternative Protein Summit. LRIC attended this virtual summit to learn more about how the livestock sector is viewed and how it may be impacted by the growing popularity of protein alternatives. LRIC believes it is important for those in the livestock industry to know what is being said about our industry so we can refute where possible and change where necessary. Originally published in the August 2021 Livestock Innovation Newsletter.
The alternative protein industry’s marketing strategy relies heavily on the “cleaner, healthier” perception of their products. Conventional agriculture, by comparison, fires back by pointing out the sometimes lengthy ingredient lists and increasingly complex science behind plant-based foods, cellular agriculture products and precision fermentation.
Leading marketers in the alternative protein industry believe one of the keys to greater adoption of their products lies with better consumer understanding of what’s in them and how they’re produced.
Tom Rossmeissl is head of marketing at Eat Just, a California start-up that sells an egg alternative made of mung bean in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States. It’s also the first company in the world to be selling cultured chicken, which was first launched in Singapore in December 2020.
“We use the term cultured or cultivated or cell-based or cell-cultured. The media calls it lab-grown, which we don’t prefer,” he said while speaking at the recent Future Food-Tech Alternative Protein Summit. “It’s developed in a lab but scaled in a facility. We extract cells from a living animal and feed the cells the same kind of nutrients you give an animal, like lipids, water, nutrients, and amino acids, to produce the final product.”
Food tech company Change Foods uses microbial fermentation technology combined with biotechnology to develop its animal-free dairy products. According to Chief Marketing Officer Irina Gerry, the process is different from cellular agriculture and biomass fermentation.
“We use microorganisms like yeast to produce specific compounds and we use bioengineering to produce dairy proteins that are biologically identical to those made by a cow but skipping the cow,” she said. “We are completely animal-free but making animal ingredients.”
By comparison, Nature’s Fynd relies on naturally occurring fungi that is high in protein which it grows rapidly and efficiently in large quantities using biomass fermentation. By growing the microbes with simple sugars and foods in a controlled environment, the process only takes a few days to harvest.
“It’s a 24/7, 365-day growing season for us whereas animals take years and plants take a growing season, so we can grow large amounts of new protein rapidly,” explained Chief Marketing Officer Karuna Rawal. “We have great textures for meat but can convert into a texture for dairy too; the versatility is significant.”
When it comes to what to call these novel foods and technologies and communicating to the public about them, a few things stand out as being important. The term “plant-based” carries positive connotations in terms of taste and health, but appeal and cooking versatility are also important characteristics for consumers.
When it comes to cultivated meat, Rossmeissl says the “slaughter-free” aspect is important, as are the no antibiotic and growth hormone-free labels, and the idea of a more sustainable alternative.
“We only grow the meat you eat, not the whole animal or bird and as we scale, the promise of this technology is to find a more sustainable way to eat meat,” he said. “Cultivated is descriptive and truthful. You need to know it is real meat if you have an allergy, but it’s also not disparaging to the conventional industry. We want it to be fair and neutral but also marketable and appealing.”
Precision fermented dairy products are in a similar situation when it comes to nomenclature: dairy without the animal, but bioidentical to “real” dairy products. According to Gerry, landing on the right wording is important for consumer acceptance of both the technology and what they can expect from the taste, texture and performance of the final product.
“For us, the language is not yet settled but the centre of gravity at the moment is around “animal-free”, so animal-free cheese, which ticks all the boxes in telling consumers what it is,” she said, adding that testing new language for entirely new food products with consumers is challenging as it’s hard to ask people their opinion on something they’ve never heard about.
According to research by food intelligence firm Spoonshot AI, consumer interest in dairy-free alternatives has grown by 73% in the last two years, and company CEO and Co-founder Kishan Vasani noted two leading drivers behind that shift.
“Health is the number one driver on the list – the perception that dairy-free is healthier,” he said. “But the dairy alternatives segment also has the top perception among consumers in terms of being cruelty-free.”
Dairy alternatives account for 16% of the dairy products, making it the leading category in terms of alternative products, the report says. In the dairy-free space, milk accounts for 45% of market share, followed by cheese (29.5%), ice cream and frozen desserts (10.8%) and yogurt at 9.9%.
As with conventional agriculture, story-telling is considered a leading method for resonating with consumers. Nature Fynd’s Rawal is a big believer in story-telling to help explain the many different terms in the alternative protein space and the technical aspects of the products.
“We are emotional as humans and need to feel a connection. Consumers want to understand the story and we have to do as good a job as cow milk producers to get our story out. It’s what the consumer walks away with on an emotional level that is critical,” she said, adding they promote four aspects of their company’s story to consumers: natural, healthfulness, sustainability and versatility.
For Gerry, the growth in consumer interest in sustainability has been very interesting, along with a growing recognition of the impacts of climate change as weather-driven disasters start striking closer to home in wealthy, western countries. Taste, though, is both the driver and the barrier for making alternative proteins more mainstream, regardless of the type of alternative product it is.
“If we offer consumers a no-compromise product, the desire is there, but the taste has to be there,” she said. “Milks are leading the way, but cheese, ice cream and yogurt are lagging and the reason for that is taste. It’s about the presence of positive first, like taste and sustainability, and giving people options so the choice doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.”