Consumer Perceptions of Four Controversial Plant-Based Ingredients

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Over a series of four surveys conducted between November 2021 and March 2022, we asked our panelists at Moonshot Collaborative (each of whom has purchased a plant-based meat or dairy product in the 90 days prior to signing up for our panel) about their overall opinion of heme, carrageenan, methylcellulose, and guar gum. Let’s dive into our findings.

What is your overall opinion of __________ as an ingredient in foods and beverages?

consumer perceptions of ingredients including heme, methylcellulose, and carrageenan
Based on four surveys conducted between November 2021 and March 2022 with between 496 and 676 responses

Within the public sphere – specifically in the plant-based industry, the health & wellness community, and food advocacy groups – there’s a degree of controversy surrounding these four ingredients. Are they overly processed? Are they healthy?

But what emerges from our research on the consumer side shines a new light on the topic: plant-based buyers, by and large, feel a sense of neutrality towards these ingredients. 

We’ll note that “neutral” in the context of this survey suggests either that respondents don’t have an opinion on the ingredient, or, more likely, that they’re not familiar with it. But a lack of familiarity is interesting in and of itself, when you assume that this survey essentially mirrors the real world: most people look at food ingredient lists and may not know what an ingredient is, but nonetheless are not bothered by it. Their lack of familiarity with an ingredient doesn’t automatically lead to negative perceptions, nor does it factor into their purchase decision.

Beyond this noteworthy sense of impartialness, we also observed the following:

  • Of the four ingredients, methylcellulose is met with the most negative reaction from consumers, with 1 in 4 expressing a negative sentiment about it. Without further research it’s hard to say why, but one theory is simply the name, which might sound more “chemical” to consumers than the other ingredients listed. 
  • Heme (or leghemoglobin), despite being relatively new to the scene as an ingredient, is quite widely accepted, with over a third of consumers feeling positively about it and only 9% feeling negatively.
  • As with many things plant-based, there is a significant generational gap. Generations Y and Z are more likely to have a positive reaction to these ingredients, while older generations are more likely to be neutral or negative in their reactions. 

What these findings mean for your plant-based brand

The overarching feeling of neutrality we see among respondents reveals an important point: consumers are nowhere near as familiar with these ingredients as many of those in the plant-based industry. There’s a bit of a bubble effect at play, and it’s important to consider that the industry frame of reference may be quite niche when mapped against the average person. So whether you view these ingredients as good, bad, or ugly, it’s useful to remember that for most consumers these products simply aren’t on their radar.

But, since these ingredients have historically served a functional purpose in many plant-based products (or, in heme’s case, a few very notable products, like Impossible Foods), you may wonder about their viability for your own brand and products. Although our findings offer hope for these ingredients in terms of consumer appeal (or, at least, indifference), the bottom line is that their suitability for your products will depend heavily on your specific target customer. For consumers focused on health and whole food ingredients, they may cause real pause. But for the vast majority of plant-based buyers, these ingredients don’t pose an issue.

Want to hear our founders speak on this topic, and others related to plant-based ingredients? Watch the webinar we put on with the Good Food Institute here.

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Moonshot Collaborative

Moonshot Collaborative is a consumer research firm that provides unparalleled access to thousands of plant-based and sustainability-minded shoppers to help you understand their purchase decisions and how you can appeal to them more effectively.