According to the study, consumers acknowledge the challenges facing the global food system, including sustainability, ethics, health and food security. Almost 75% of respondents reported they wanted their food as natural as possible; while 61% see science and technology as a driver to address climate change and improve food system. As a result, precision fermentation may be closer to consumer adoption than we think given its positive regard as a technological solution towards global systemic food challenges, says Laurie Demeritt, CEO, The Hartman Group.
“As [consumers] become more educated about science and technology and its role in food, they start to really open their eyes up to all the opportunities that they can endeavor with these new processes,” Demeritt explained.
More consumers are open to food technology than before
Over 2,500 US adults participated in qualitative and quantitative research that revealed consumers are more accepting towards food technology compared to the past. Previous case studies surrounding GMOs showed a gradual acceptance from consumers. The slower pace could be attributed to a lack of transparency and communication in the public, Demeritt noted.
“Almost half of those consumers are saying that they're open to GMOs as long as companies are communicating why they're being used. So with this growing sentiment among consumers both the growing skepticism of plant based and the growing acceptance of GMOs, it really opens up this ideal opportunity for precision fermentation,” she added.
“Even though precision fermentation might not be as well known by consumers today as other processes, even with just a little bit of information, we see the likelihood of purchase go up dramatically,” Demeritt explained of the data, which saw an increase from 43% to 56% of consumers who would be “at least somewhat, if not extremely likely to purchase products made with precision fermentation.”
Expect younger generations to “vote with their wallets” on products that are both nutritious and environmentally sound
As more consumers, particularly Gen Z and Millennials who are coming of age in a tech-driven economy, are concerned about the future of the environment, they will likely choose to “vote with their wallets” on products that contribute towards a sustainable food system, explained Mark Fahlin, business development leader, Cargill.
Over 40% of US adults are ready to try products made from precision fermentation, according to the study. With the growing Gen Z group and more openness towards technology, the market size is expected to reach 130 million US consumers by 2027.
Cargill studied how consumers read labels and found that their primary motivation is avoidance.
“In the US, 60% of consumers are checking ingredients from an avoidance standpoint, versus 40% who are seeking specific ingredients,” he continued, “We’ve been tracking [for a decade] what ingredients they avoid…and historically GMOs were in the top grouping of the list along with sugar, artificial sweeteners, salts, fats and oils, and preservatives.”
He added that GMOs now are no longer top of mind for consumers when shopping for consumer packaged goods, attributing again to the positive perception of food technology and its viability towards a more sustainable and modernized food system.
Brands must substantiate sustainability claims to avoid greenwashing
Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept, Fahlin explained and it’s no longer a distant issue. Gen Z, Millennials and upcoming generations are faced with sustainability challenges (climate change and food security as the most prominent) that now impact their purchasing decisions.
Another critical layer of the proverbial sustainability onion is supply chain efficiency and reliability, particularly in recent years due to global shipping issues.
The study found consumers believe that society needs to meet its nutritional needs with fewer resources and who are willing to change their lifestyles for the environment. As sustainability will drive purchasing decisions for younger generations, Allison Fowler, CMO, Perfect Day remarked that brands must develop transparency and substantiate sustainability claims to avoid greenwashing:
“It's important to call out that savvy consumers [are] not just taking sustainability at face value, and they're very wary of greenwashing for profits sake. They want to know who's behind the company? What's their motivation and intent and similarly, transparency that remains really key. So it's important to provide tangible objective substantiation for sustainability claims.”
As sustainability will drive purchasing decisions for younger generations, brands must establish clear language surrounding precision fermentation
Additionally developing language that resonates with consumers in the context of precision fermentation is essential. Fowler explained that while the initial approach was to use the term “animal-free,” consumers often misinterpreted it as plant-based foods.
Perfect Day tested nomenclature that emphasized precision fermentation as the process behind the ingredients, and eventually landed on referring to their product as “whey protein from fermentation” while categorizing the broader category as “dairy from fermentation.” Consumers, she explained, were better able to understand the concept when it was defined as true-to-nature ingredients made through fermentation.
Similarly, Cargill’s research on perceptions of 60 different ingredients found that consumers preferred the term “whey protein from fermentation” over “whey protein” and “non-animal whey protein,” highlighting the potential role precision fermentation can play on consumer perception of nutrition, environmental health, ethics and food security.
Fahlin also emphasized that market conditions and consumer attitudes about nutritional and environmental needs must be achieved with fewer resources. He suggested category managers consider messaging and reevaluating the current focus on natural and organic cues, which are not necessarily aligned with sustainability.
While consumers may prefer natural and organic foods, Fowler added, there is also a growing need to understand innovative, technology-driven solutions that address a complex and dynamic food system. She suggests taking inspiration from the growth of the plant-based dairy category to create communications oriented around the "planet positive" benefit, which resonated with consumers in the study.