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Will consumers accept healthier meat products?

20 October 2020

Aarhus University

It is possible to produce healthier alternatives to the processed meat products, which are in high demand in Denmark as well as in the rest of Europe, but how do consumers respond to the different options, and which ones do they prefer?

In a new project funded by the European Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food, researchers from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University are investigating this with colleagues from Spain and the UK. Plant-based protein options are in the spotlight, but the demand for processed meat products remains high in Denmark and across Europe. This imposes challenges at public level, as processed meat products have been associated with certain health risks, and because of the impact that overproduction of meat can have on the environment.

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In a new EIT Food research project, researchers from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University are investigating consumer attitudes towards healthier processed meat products with colleagues from the UK and Spain. Photo: Colourbox.

However, the last few years, food technology has improved massively, and there are now many possible ways to produce healthier alternatives, e.g. by reducing the content of salt or fat or by adding fibres or Omega-3 fatty acids.

What is not yet clear is what consumers think of these products, what the best meat products are to use and the best plant-based ingredients to match them with, how much consumers are willing to pay, and the best message to have on the packaging of these products.

In a research project, funded by EIT Food, Associate Professor Marija Banovic and Postdoctoral Researcher Ada Maria Barone from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University are currently trying to answer these questions with colleagues from the University of Reading and the APB Food Group in the UK as well as the Spanish National Research Council, focusing on consumers in Denmark, Spain, and the UK.

Marija Banovic explains:

- Given the many existing opportunities to manufacture healthier meat alternatives in the European food industry, we wonder why we have not yet seen a widespread market uptake. We think that consumer attitudes and expectations are an important part of the explanation and that involving consumers in the co-creation of healthier meat products might provide useful insights for the development of successful products on the market.

Co-creation workshops leading the way

A first step to solving the mystery has been the organization of co-creation workshop and focus groups with consumers in the three countries involved.

- We asked consumers of different ages and meat consumption levels to come up with their favorite healthier meat product, says Ada Maria Barone, and elaborates:

- We showed the participants pictures of meat products such as sausages, meatballs, burgers and chicken nuggets that can be modified and made healthier. Alongside these pictures, we also showed them a series of possible modifications of e.g. fat, salt, protein, etc. This was to give them an idea about what we define as healthier meat products.

Hybrid meat as a transition product

The results of the focus groups confirm that consumers are indeed skeptical about healthier meat products. They believe that the products are over-processed, and they do not trust the production process in general.

However, meat-substitution with plant-based ingredients together with fat and salt reduction, represent a framework under which the acceptance of healthier meat products would be possible.

The most popular plant-based ingredients, across tree countries, were pulses, vegetables and grains, to create a hybrid meat product that is partly meat and partly plant-based.

- We think that this approach could be beneficial for both flexitarians, who want to reduce their meat intake, but also for heavy consumers of meat products, who might miss the taste and texture of meat too much, and who are less familiar with plant-based alternatives. In this way, hybrid meat products have the potential to become a transition product to a more plant-based diet, says Ada Maria Barone.

Marija Banovic adds that the plant-based part of the meat product can have added benefits that could increase acceptance among consumers, only if correct fit between the product carrier, that is the meat, and the ingredient ascertained.

The next stages of the project will use the focus group results for the development of an online survey and experiments aimed at quantitatively testing which combinations of product-related factors (e.g., ingredients, meat base) and marketing-related factors (e.g., packaging, price) will maximize consumers’ acceptance of healthier meat products.

Overall, results from this project will provide useful insight for the manufacturing and marketing of new healthier meat products, Marija Banovic concludes.

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