Consumers’ views a factor for protein sector

Is the hot dog a sandwich? How consumers answer that question shows the tricky emotions that food processors must navigate when promoting their products.  |  Getty Images

Consider the hot dog.

Is it a sandwich?

How the hot dog seems to consumers says a lot to plant protein food product developer and entrepreneur James Battershill about how the plant protein marketplace needs to be approached.

“The reality is that consumers don’t think of a hot dog as a sandwich,” said Battershill, who has pondered the philosophical and nomenclatural question for years.

“Consumers don’t always think or feel rationally about food products. More than any other consumption that we do, food is the one that is driven the most by emotion.”

With plant protein products exploding in popularity, the farming and food industries are scrambling to take advantage of what could be a golden opportunity to add new value to today’s bulk-priced crops.

But during the Manitoba Protein Summit, held Sept. 19 in Winnipeg, a number of experts cautioned protein enthusiasts that consumers have many feelings and concerns around food, and charting a course through the nuances will be essential for success.

If processors, producers and marketers push plant protein products in the wrong way, or if they push the wrong products, they risk alienating the people they’re counting upon to buy the products.

Plant protein isn’t a product by itself. It’s a description of a class of ingredients that can be extracted from crops and used in food products.

“Right now we’re getting a lot of requests for extraction, but it’s based on yield,” said Robin Young of the Food Development Centre.

It’s people saying, “ ‘I want to get the most out of that acre of crop,’ not necessarily creating the most functional or appropriate ingredient to take to the marketplace.”

Dalhousie University food industry expert Sylvain Charlebois gave the summit a detailed analysis of consumer trends and concerns, revealing a complex array of dynamics driving different generations of consumers, from the “flexitarians” of the retired baby boomers to the vegans of the millennial and generation Z generations.

There’s a lot of potential to sell more plant protein products to all generations, Charlebois said, but many challenges to doing it right.

For instance, labelling, packaging and claims about health, diet and environmental sustainability are sending mixed messages.

“Right now it’s so confusing,” said Charlebois.

“The consumer has no idea what they’re eating.”

A number of speakers at the summit complained about conflicting regulations, multiple certifications and differing standards that complicate the consumer’s view of plant protein products.

The concept of “sustainability” in particular brought much discussion, with conflicting definitions vexing farmers, processors and consumers.

Attempts to sort out these issues will be important for plant proteins to move easily into the market, a number of participants said.

When it comes to the simple situation of the hot dog, much can be learned about food complexity and consumer feelings, Battershill said.

“It’s a protein source with toppings in between two pieces of bread. It’s probably more of a sandwich than a steak sandwich or any open-faced sandwich,” he said, considering the nuances.

Yet most consumers just won’t view the hot dog as sandwich-like.

“That’s an important lesson to remember when you’re introducing a novel product,” said Battershill.

“It’s important for us to take those things into consideration very early on.”

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