Study explores plant-based meat alternatives buying habits

A recent study led by Auburn University agricultural economists suggests that plant-based meat alternatives, or PBMA, might be seen by consumers as a niche product rather than as an actual substitute for meat.

“We realized there is very little information about how people purchase plant-based meats,” said Dr. Joel Cuffey, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology and leader of the research, in explaining the reasoning for the project.

“There are a lot of studies that look at whether people would be hypothetically willing to buy plant-based meat alternatives, but none on actual plant-based meat alternative spending behavior,” Cuffey said. “So we thought it would be interesting to document this using data on household spending for food-at-home (i.e. not spending at restaurants).”

The study is detailed in a recent article, “Consumer Spending Patterns for Plant-Based Meat Alternatives,” that appeared in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, published by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association.

Co-authors include Dr. Wenying Li, also from Auburn University; Dr. Lauren Chenarides, Arizona State University; and Dr. Shuoli Zhao, the University of Kentucky.

The study focused on finding out who is buying plant-based meat and whether or not they continue buying after they try it. The research covered the time period from 2014 to 2019.

The study shows that most households (68%) never purchased plant-based meat alternatives from 2014-2019. A large percentage (11%) tried the alternatives only once, and about 20% purchased them more than once.

Also, the study shows that PBMA purchasers are wealthier and more highly-educated. When households first try PBMA, spending on meat does not decrease. PBMA spending drops by over 75% in months after a household first tries PBMA products—suggesting PBMA is not being incorporated into diets regularly.

“Of all the findings in the study, we were most surprised by the one that spending on traditional meat products is not affected by PBMA spending,” Cuffey said. “This suggested to us that households buy PBMA products as part of a broader dietary strategy instead of simply substituting PBMA for meat.”

Primary implications of the study include—at least through the end of the data in 2019—that consumers are not consistently purchasing PBMA.

“Most consumers in our sample never purchased PBMA, and almost half of households that ever purchased PBMA only did so once,” Cuffey said. “Furthermore, households in our sample that do purchase PBMA do not use PBMA as a substitute for meat.”

The results suggest that PBMA will be a product for a niche market or occasional use,” he said. “Importantly, our study did not measure purchase of PBMA at restaurants—it is possible that households are more willing to purchase PBMA at restaurants.”