Plant-based alternative “meats” may generate hot marketing buzz right now, but research out of Kansas State University shows consumers are cool to their taste when compared to ground beef.
Travis O’Quinn, a K-State associate professor, presented the results of a two-year K-State study into consumer preferences between ground beef and plant-based ground beef alternatives during the June 30 Kansas Beef Council’s Beef Insights webinar. It’s a topic that Kansas beef producers are concerned about, considering that in the past year there’s been a 45% increase in the alternative products year over year.
Same concept, different marketing
O’Quinn explains that plant-based meat alternatives are not new. In fact, there was a canned product, Protose, introduced to the market in the late 1800s that was marketed to vegetarians. In the 1980s, America saw the Boca Burger come to market, a soy-based meat alternative. The difference in those first two waves and this latest is that those first alternative products were marketed to vegetarian consumers.
These modern products, though, are targeting beef consumers with their marketing, he says.
“Today we have more consumers that are participating in a flexitarian diet,” O’Quinn explains. They may primarily eat plant-based, but they also will eat animal products on occasion. Foodies also enjoy a variety of foods, and so the goal with these new products is to draw ground beef customers away from beef.
But how do they taste?
The study set out to test consumer preferences between ground beef and plant-based alternatives. The project tested ground beef in 70/30, 80/20, and 90/10 lean/fat percentages against retail ground beef alternatives, food service alternatives and a traditional soy-based alternative. Each was hand-pressed into quarter-pound patties and cooked to 160 degrees F before being served to a group of 120 consumers from the Manhattan, Kan., area.
“We asked the consumers to evaluate the appearance of the patty, and then many of the eating characteristics like juiciness, tenderness, texture, mouth feel and overall flavor,” O’Quinn says. “We asked them to focus on how ‘beefy’ the product was, and how much they liked that beef-like flavor.”
In every category, consumers chose beef over plant-based alternative products, according to O’Quinn.
“Our consumers indicated that they did not like the three ground beef alternatives very much, especially in comparison to the three ground beef products that they evaluated,” he says. “Consumers thought those products had a flavor that was very different than the ground beef, and probably one that was not liked overall.”
The key points from the consumer panel include:
• Appearance. The three ground beef categories rated much higher than all three of the alternative products for their appearance.
• Juiciness. While, the food service ground beef alternative ranked as juicy as the 70/30 ground beef, the retail and traditional alternatives were very dry according to the panelists. “The traditional beef alternative was rated extremely dry by every measure that we evaluated,” he says.
• Flavor. O’Quinn says the three alternative products ranked very low by the consumers for beef-like flavor. “Essentially, our consumers did not think this product tastes like beef, and they did not like the flavor of it if it was supposed to be mimicking a beef-like flavor,” O’Quinn says.
The next step is evaluating consumer preferences when the products are cooked more according to real-world conditions, with cheese and condiments that can mask flavors, O’Quinn says
“Our study was served without any extra seasoning,” he says. “There’s some additional research that needs to be done to be able to evaluate how these products actually do in this real-world scenario, like a consumer would actually consume them to see if these differences hold true.”