With the advent of Beyond Meat and Impossible brands of plant-based burgers with the taste and appearance of red meat, the floodgates appear open to even more food products created and grown — not on farms, but in laboratories. Whether it’s molecular whiskey, flora-based dairy or protein made from air, a push to develop synthetic and lab-based foods is underway.
Is the consumer ready for these mind-bending innovations?
A new poll reports awareness and interest in technology-driven foods but reveals the need for transparency and education to remove fears and potentially drive adoption. However, younger consumers appear to be more open to embracing the laboratory as a new route to food production.
To understand perceptions about synthetic and lab-grown foods, Wisconsin-based strategic marketing and communications agency Charleston|Orwig worked with two research partners, Maeve Webster of Menu Matters and Confidential Consumer, polling 500 consumers across the United States.
Key poll findings:
- More than 40 percent of those surveyed describe the concept of lab-produced or synthetic foods and beverages as “scary,” with no intention of adding them to their diets.
- Conversely, more than half of the population is open to the idea of products created with new technologies.
- Younger consumers, Gen Zs and Millennials, are significantly more willing to try synthetic foods. Only 26 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds called lab-grown items “scary” and said they’d be unwilling to sample compared to 46 percent of those over 55.
- About 20 percent of younger consumers agree these types of products will help “save the planet” and that they are “cool” and the “future of foods/beverages.”
“There is an emerging awareness by Americans, especially the younger generation, that new technologies will become part of our food system,” says Mark Gale, CEO of Charleston|Orwig. “However, for most consumers who are willing to give synthetic and lab-based foods a try, transparency and more information will be critical to adoption. They wonder: What’s in it? How is it made? Is it safe to eat?”
To assess these information needs, the poll asked survey participants their biggest concerns about consuming synthetic or lab-produced foods and beverages.
- The number one concern, expressed by a third of respondents (33.4 percent), is a lack of understanding about the long-term health impacts.
- One quarter of consumers (25.2 percent) expressed concerns about the healthfulness of these products compared with conventionally produced food.
- Other top five concerns: lab-produced foods/beverages would not be better for the environment (21.6 percent); would not include natural ingredients (19.2 percent); and would lead to completely processed products (19.0 percent).
Again, Gen Zs and Millennials have a slightly different take. They are less concerned about the healthfulness of these lab-based products with only 15 percent indicating this as an issue.
While they are sometimes unsettling, Gale believes new food technologies can have a positive impact.
“Decades ago, pasteurization was a technology that revolutionized food safety. Today American farmers are increasingly using high-tech tools such as satellite imagery to grow food,” he said. “We don’t know yet whether a lab-grown chicken nugget, synthetic vegan ice cream or even wine created in a laboratory will become part of our daily food consumption. We do know that these innovations will continue to break barriers. Building new brands and protecting existing leaders is going to get ever-more complicated. It’s definitely an exciting time to be involved with the food and beverage industry.”
For more information, visit charlestonorwig.com.