Alternative protein burgers are having their moment in the sun. But, will they be more than a flavor of the month?

A new, first-of-its-kind study, co-authored by Dr. Jayson Lusk, professor and department head at Purdue University's Department of Agricultural Economics, examined consumer behavior at point of purchase in an effort to answer that question.

The simulated shopping experiment asked 1,800 American consumers to choose between a package of ground beef burgers, pea protein burgers (marketed as Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger), animal-like plant protein burgers (marketed as Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burgers) and lab-grown, or cultured, beef products (marketed as a hypothetical Memphis Meats product). The full study is available online.

Beef is still king

The online study presented shoppers with burger patty packages labeled according to content. In one version, the consumers were presented with the products’ corresponding brands. Another did not include brands.

Reassuringly, the study found that 72% of consumers chose “farm-raised beef burger patties” with no other brand information present on the package. Out of those picking alternatives: 16% preferred the plant-based burger patties made using animal-like protein; 7% the plant based burger patties made with pea protein and 5% the lab-grown beef burger patties.

When brand names were added to that equation, 80% went for ground beef marketed as certified Angus beef. That goes to show the power of both the name and the mystique of Angus beef. It can pull the flexitarians back into the fold!

As for the question of price, the study found that even if plant and cultured proteins were marked down by as much as 50%, the majority of shoppers would still buy beef.

Alternative protein labeling

The study is also notable for examining consumer attitudes toward the labeling of meat and alternative protein products. Right now, there is controversy surrounding whether alternative protein products can be sold as meat.

The respondents said they are strongly opposed to allowing plant-based and cultured meat products to be sold as “beef.” At least 70% of respondents said they supported a prohibition of the use of the word “beef” on lab-grown and plant-based products. An overwhelming majority, 81%, said there should be a requirement for any product label as “beef” to come from cattle born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner.

A beef tax?

Consumers were also polled on their reception to raising a tax on beef products. When asked if there should be a “10% tax on beef from cattle in an effort to reduce beef consumption for environmental and animal welfare objectives,” 68.8% were opposed and 31.2% supported it.

This is important. The beef tax discussed in the question is not just a hypothetical. It’s possible it could be applied as a new kind of sin tax. The idea is gaining traction due to the supposed benefit reducing beef production would have on global greenhouse gas emissions.

At this point, these results are a matter of perspective. You can feel assured that a significant majority of respondents rejected the policy or you can be disturbed that nearly one in three support a tax on beef. The past shows when these concepts catch on in Europe, they usually spread to other developed nations.

Even if no tax is ever levied, will American consumers one day think ordering steak is indulgent not for its price but rather its carbon footprint? Only the future will tell.