Using Nudges to Encourage Alternative Protein Consumption

June 8, 2021

Katie Collier

Katie Collier is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with a minor in Cognitive Science. In addition to studying behavioral economics and decision making, she is interested in how the alternative protein market can mitigate the effects of climate change. She participated in the Risk Center’s Undergraduate Fellowship for the 2020-21 academic year.  

As the global population inevitably grows, the effects of human behavior naturally multiply. In many cases, this magnification has resulted in disastrous environmental effects on our air, water, biodiversity, and climate.

In regard to inducing climate change, one of the most damaging activities is the production of meat and animal products. Animal consumption is currently at its highest level and has been increasing since the 1960s, with a significant acceleration after the 1980s. The livestock industry releases around 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which is about the same as all of the world’s cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships combined. The methane and nitrous oxide released from animal agriculture, per unit, have a 28 and 265 times higher effect on climate change than carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land concluded that eating less meat, and creating the political environment to make this option accessible and preferable, is a significant climate change mitigation strategy.

Barriers to adoption of alternative protein  

The growth of the alternative protein industry has accelerated with the development of new technologies from Beyond Meat, founded in 2009 and Impossible Foods, founded in 2011. While traditional animal-free foods, such as black bean burgers or oat milk, largely did not attempt to completely mimic meat products in a sustainable way, recent efforts have developed plant-based, cultivated, and fermented products that replicate or are molecularly identical to real meat. Alternative proteins can provide the hedonic experience of real meat without negative environmental externalities. However, some barriers need to be overcome to encourage consumer adoption of this product:

Culture – In many Western, industrialized countries, meat consumption is an ingrained part of culture. Ideals of masculinity, wealth, and racial superiority have evolved over the course of history, and have been associated with meat consumption. The result of this association is the normalization of using animals for food. In modern times, the media and other institutional actors have played a role in portraying meat as necessary from a cultural standpoint. For example, advertisements continue to push the masculinity-meat narrative, emphasizing male traits of domination and power, while correlating pro-environmental notions with femininity. It is interesting to note that many emphases on meat consumption are a reaction to social movements that challenge the male identity and perceived supremacy: civil rights, women’s and gay rights, and antiwar movements.

Feelings of Disgust and Lack of Safety – To some consumers, the idea of eating cultivated meat, which is designed to molecularly mimic meat, is unappealing. Studies suggest that those who perceive the product as unnatural are less accepting of it than others. The perceived un-naturalness of the product also draws concerns over food safety. Some consumers distrust the idea of biologically manipulating animal cells to create cultivated meat or are concerned about its potential long-term effects.

Taste – According to consumers, taste is the most important factor when deciding to buy plant-based products. While alternative protein products are improving across multiple fronts, consumers are still critical of the taste and texture of alternative protein products.

Price – Currently, alternative proteins are more expensive than meat. However, the United States government spends $38 billion annually to subsidize the meat and dairy industries. Thus, current animal product prices do not necessarily reflect the true market value of these products. Despite these considerations, Boston Consulting Group recently released a report stating alternative protein will reach price parity by 2035.

With these barriers in mind, how can alternative protein companies increase consumer adoption of their products? This is where nudges can be useful.

What are nudges?

Nudges are tools used by governments, businesses, or any sort of decision-making facilitator, that steer people in a particular direction, but still give them the choice to go their own way.  The use of nudges can make life safer and/or easier for decision makers and is a cost-effective way for public or private institutions to advance their economic, public health, or other goals. A simple example of a nudge is when an employer automatically enrolls employees in a pension plan. Without automatic enrollment, many employees may not have chosen to enroll even though enrollment is a decision that benefits them.

Nudges can likewise be used to promote the purchase of certain products. In fact, many efforts to encourage sustainable choices have been facilitated by nudges. Nudging to promote sustainable residential choices was successful in one study. Swedish burger chain Max witnessed a 16% increase in the purchase of burgers with lower average carbon footprints after introducing carbon labels for their menu items. In another Swedish study, the use of nudges to encourage consumers to choose vegetarian options at a Swedish University restaurant led to an average 6% increase in the number of plant-based meals sold.

How can we use nudges to encourage the adoption of alternative proteins?

Nudges can be used in a variety of ways to increase consumers’ consumption of alternative proteins. Here are three examples:

1. Increase ease and convenience

People are drawn to making choices that are easy for them; individuals are much less likely to change if they face challenges in achieving a certain behavior. To alter behavior in favor of alternative protein, we can put alternative protein at the front of the grocery store’s meat department. By making the product easily accessible, the consumer is aware of its existence and does not have to trek to the often small and isolated vegan or vegetarian section to find the product. In addition, allowing a consumer to taste test the product before buying a larger amount at the store will further reduce barriers people may feel towards wasting food or money. In a restaurant setting, meals that include alternative protein can be featured at the top of the menu or in a location that draws attention.

2. Use social norms

Use of social norms to affect behavior change is considered one of the most effective nudges. Informing a consumer that the majority of others are engaging in a certain behavior can push people to also behave that way. Alternative protein advertising campaigns can emphasize a variety of sentiments using social norms: “77% of people want to learn how to live more sustainably”; “Nearly a quarter of Americans have cut back on eating meat”; “60% of individuals are making more environmentally conscious or ethical purchases since the start of the pandemic.”

3. Use appealing packaging design

Package design can influence consumers’ perceptions of the taste of the product. As noted above, taste is the most important factor for consumers’ adoption. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit working to accelerate alternative protein innovation, offers multiple suggestions to use packaging to positively influence taste perceptions. They suggest using dark colors, high contrast design, and familiar imagery as well as listing key ingredients and the vegetable association. They advise against packaging the product in cans or shrink wrap, recommending boxes and pouches instead. Shrink wrap and clear windows are effective only if the product looks like the conventional protein it is mimicking.

Looking forward

Further research into nudging, sustainability-related nudging, and alternative protein market data could affirm if these or other nudges are effective.