Researchers have analysed the spending habits of consumers to see which factors contribute positively towards purchasing meat substitutes.

Even if they haven’t tried it, many people know what a veggie burger is and have probably heard of tofu at least once in their life. These products are known as plant-based meat alternatives and are great options for people interested in reducing their meat consumption, switching to a healthier diet, or for those just wanting to try something new. In the U.S., meat substitutes have grown rapidly in popularity over the past decade and can now be found everywhere from fast-food restaurants to chain grocery stores.

But despite plant-based alternatives becoming more common, there are still many misconceptions about what factors actually go into buying these products and what their rise could mean for the meat industry. To answer these questions, this study examined what people are buying meat substitutes in the U.S. and how it affects their spending habits on other types of food.

Researchers analyzed the spending patterns of 52,022 U.S. households between 2014 and 2019 who regularly self-reported their shopping trips to a third-party database. This database contained information on what types of food a household bought, how much they spent on each item, and what their socio-economic status was. Each household’s spending strength on both plant-based substitutes and meat products was calculated based on total expenditures and how often they bought those items.

The results showed that the majority of households (68% of the sample) did not buy any meat alternatives at all between 2014-2019. These households were more likely to be located in rural areas and in counties with food deserts, meaning they had limited access to, or lived far away from, their nearest grocery store. This group was also more likely to contain married couples or young children and have an annual income of under $70,000. On the other hand, only 10% of the sample spent a medium-to-high amount on plant-based meat alternatives. Households in this category were more likely to be college-educated, live in urban areas or on the coasts, and make over $70,000 per year. In other words, a household’s socio-economic status is a great indicator of whether or not they’ll buy meat substitutes, which could be because many meat substitutes are difficult to find in food deserts and viewed as unaffordable.

As for how meat alternatives affect the consumption of other foods, the results suggest that buying plant-based products doesn’t actually have that much of an effect on meat purchases. Interestingly, very few of the households who bought meat alternatives identified as veg*n, and the average consumer of plant-based substitutes still spent a standard amount of money on real meat products every month. This means that plant-based alternatives haven’t had much of an impact on the meat industry yet because most people don’t think of these alternatives as a real replacement for meat.

One possible reason why plant-based substitutes aren’t replacing meat is because consumers are trying it as part of a new diet. Out of every household that ever bought meat alternatives in the data, one-third of them only bought it once. In addition, households who tried plant-based substitutes for the first time usually bought it while they were experimenting with new foods, only to revert back to their original spending habits immediately after. This means that for a lot of people buying plant-based substitutes, they’re probably only trying it as part of a short-lived attempt to change their diet that they don’t actually intend to stick to.

Overall, this study reveals there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to spreading the reach of plant-based meat alternatives. Companies could try to make their products more accessible for everyone by making them more affordable and by selling them in rural grocery stores. Many advocates focus on improving access to fresh, healthy food in areas with food deserts, and this study is further evidence of why such advocacy is important.

Furthermore, we need to continue encouraging people to see meat substitutes as a valid replacement for real meat, especially as products grow more realistic in texture, taste, and nutrition. Overall, though, the willingness of people to try to incorporate meat alternatives into their diets (even as a trial) is very promising for the future of veg*nism. As this study suggests, many people really are open to giving plant-based meat alternatives a chance — now, advocates and plant-based producers have to make sure they want to keep buying them.

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