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Meat substitutes are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, the meat alternative market has been growing for years, but it was during the pandemic that its profile soared. Despite this, a new study has found that not enough people know about the benefits of meat substitutes.

Why are meat substitutes tricky to market to consumers?

Caroline Roux, associate professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business, and Daniella Sucapane (MSc 20) recently published a­ paper on the topic in the journal Appetite. In it, they argue that a particular combination of product descriptors and packaging colors can appeal to the flexitarian consumer.  Flexitarians are those who lean toward vegetarianism, but who still enjoy the odd meat-based meal. But there are lessons marketers should heed when it comes to selling meat substitutes.

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Meat substitutes should be marketed with these ideas in mind

Along with fellow assistant professor of marketing Kamila Sobol, the researchers conducted two studies that looked at how descriptors and colors affected consumer behavior. In the first, they tested how they responded to the terms “plant-based” and “meat alternative,” two common industry descriptors. In the second, they looked at how packaging colors affected consumers’ perceptions and behavioral intentions.

 “Certain cues can unknowingly sway perceptions of different products.”

What does plant-based and meat alternative really mean?

For study 1, the researchers looked at how the terms “plant-based” and “meat alternative” affected perceptions of a product’s healthiness, eco-friendliness, ethicality, expected enjoyment, and satiety. They also looked at how satisfied they would feel after eating it, as well as their likelihood to try it and how much of it they would eat.

Meat made from plants

The researchers recruited 148 participants for a five-minute online study, excluding vegetarians and vegans, since research has shown that they can react negatively toward meat-based cues. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Each group was given almost identical descriptions of a pea-protein patty made by the Canadian company Lightlife. Here, the product was described as “plant-based ground” for one group and “meat alternative ground” for the other.

Front-of-package labeling identified each as either “Made from plants” or “Meat made from plants” respectively. The packaging’s color was changed from the usual red to a more neutral brown. Participants were then asked to rate the product on a variety of scales from one to seven.

“Participants said that they felt that the plant-based product was healthier and more environmentally friendly than the meat alternative,” Sucapane says. They also indicated they were more likely to try plant-based food, but that they would eat less of it. They did not find effects regarding ethicality, enjoyment or satiety.

Red meat alternatives and packaging options

Study 2 tested whether product packaging color affected the results found in study 1. The researchers wanted to see how participants would evaluate a product with green packaging. Green is a color closely associated with eco-friendliness and healthy living — and one with red packaging, which is more evocative of meat and tastiness.

meat substitutes

Yevhenii Kondratiuk/Shutterstock

Using the same evaluation method, a new set of participants was assigned to one of four experimental conditions. Two were “matched” with “green-plant based” and “red-meat alternative,” while two others were “mismatched” with “red-plant based” and “green-meat alternative.”

An evolving marketplace 

The results were surprising, according to the researchers. They found that participants were more likely to consider matching red-meat alternatives more eco-friendly, than the mismatching green-meat alternatives, and increased trial likelihood.

The matching green-plant-based descriptor was associated with decreased anticipated feelings of satiety. No effects were found on perceptions of health, ethicality, or expected enjoyment.

“You really got the idea that adding colour adds another layer of complexity to simply using terms like plant-based or meat alternative,” says Roux, Concordia University Research Chair in Psychology of Resource Scarcity.

She explains that the study can be used as a word of caution to marketers, who may not fully appreciate the consequences of adding particular colors to particular product descriptors, especially in new markets like meat substitutes.

Meat substitutes clearly have their place

“It is a category that is still being transformed and trying to find its space in the retail environment,” she adds.

“Sometimes it is found alongside products like tofu or veggie burgers, the traditional first generation of meat substitutes. In other cases, you will find it in the meat section.”

These are very different reference points that marketers should consider when marketing meat substitutes.  Certain cues can unknowingly sway perceptions of different products.

Read more

Read more on what our expert panel thinks about meat substitutes  by clicking here:  Plant-Based Meat Substitutes


Read the full cited paper: “Exploring how product descriptors and packaging colors impact consumers’ perceptions of plant-based meat alternative products.” 

Watch a video of Daniella Sucapane and Caroline Roux discussing their research:  Click here:


Em Sloane

I am an introverted nature lover, and long time contributor to My role is to publish the information in a consumer friendly format, which we receive on the latest medical news, press releases and general information on the latest longevity related research findings.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.