Does “Vegan” Food Taste as Good as “100% Plant-Based” Food? Apparently Not.
You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
That’s one reason front-of-package food labeling is so important. A rose, by another name it turns out, just doesn’t smell as sweet.
This is a major reason so many animal product replacement companies have tended to shy away from marketing their products as “vegan” as opposed to “plant-based,” “meat-free,” or other terms. The conventional wisdom in the sector is that “vegan” labeling may appeal to the tiny portion of people who are vegan, but it can be a turnoff to the broad masses who prefer omnivory. In other words, is the goal of these companies to make vegans’ lives easier or to displace the greatest amount of meat, eggs, and dairy by selling as much product as possible?
“We want to appeal to mainstream consumers, which is why even though we never use animal ingredients, we don’t use the v-word in our marketing,” said Kimberlie Le, CEO of alt-meat maker Prime Roots.
Le has good reason to feel this way. As I’ve written before, the evidence is pretty strong to support decisions like hers. Study after study (after study) finds that a good way to depress your sales with mainstream consumers is to label your food “vegan.” In fact, one study found that just by segregating plant-based entrees into a “vegetarian section” on a restaurant menu is a great way to get fewer people to order them.
In 2018, research conducted by food industry experts Mattson asked “which tastes better” — “100% plant-based” or “vegan” food. The response: A whopping three-quarters of respondents said “plant-based” tastes better, with only a quarter of people preferring “vegan.”
In the 2019 study referenced above, “vegan” ranked as the least appealing of pretty much any food marketing term.
Social scientist Chris Bryant, whose PhD research focused on the psychology surrounding meat and alt-meat consumption, sums it up: “Take a generic product that’s already vegan and label it, for example, ‘Vegan Bread’, and watch sales drop.”
Is Vegan Still a Four-Letter Word Today?
But these studies tend to be a few years old. I’ve wondered recently if the term “vegan” has become more mainstream and acceptable to average meat-eating consumers in the past year or two. According to a brand new study, the term appears to be less problematic, but still suboptimal.
In this new 2022 Veylinx study, they found that of all the terms tested to describe a hot dog, “vegan” performed the worst, with “meatless” performing the best. The delta between them isn’t vast — 16 percent — but in the highly competitive food industry, boosting sales 16 percent can be the difference between product survival and oblivion. And from a planetary perspective, increasing alt-meat market share compared to animal meat by 16 percent would be a massive gain for the planet, animals, and public health.
Why Might This Be?
Why might people think “100% plant-based” food tastes better than “vegan” food, and that “meatless” hot dogs are better than “vegan” hot dogs? It could be that a lot of people just don’t like vegans. The Guardian, for example, headlined “Why Do People Hate Vegans?” And one study (full text here) finding bias against vegans discovered that the only “out-group” more disliked than vegans is drug addicts.
It Aint Easy Selling Greens
Plant-based meat has exploded in popularity in the past couple years, but so has demand for animal meat. Per capita meat consumption is higher than ever before, though there’s some evidence that in the US it may soon start to fall.
To the extent that marketers of alt-meat, eggs, and dairy want to take market share away from their animal-based counterparts, of course focusing on taste and price are king and queen. But how these foods are marketed and labeled will also be very important. And it seems like the “vegan” label at least so far is more of a limiting factor than a rising tide lifting all the animal-free boats.
Paul Shapiro is the CEO of The Better Meat Co., the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.