Consumer interest in animal-free dairy builds, but many still have questions about processing, safety

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	ClarkandCompany
Source: Getty/ ClarkandCompany

Related tags precision fermentation animal-free dairy animal-free

While most consumers are willing to buy animal-free dairy made with precision-fermentation, a sizeable portion are either unsure or unwilling to try it – revealing a potential stumbling block that if left unaddressed could be just as damning for the nascent industry as more immediate threats, such as limited manufacturing capacity.

“Consumer research on perceptions of fermentation enabled products is still pretty limited. However, existing research does point to consumer interest and willingness to try products made with fermentation,”​ Mallie O’Donnell, corporate engagement project manager at Good Food Institute, said this week during a webinar hosted by the non-profit think tank.

Pulling data from the group’s recently published 2022 Fermentation State of the Industry Report​, O’Donnell explained that GFI currently is funding research on consumer perceptions and nomenclature for precision fermentation to build on insights from existing studies that suggest most consumers are open-minded about the process, but many also are reserved.

Research​ published in Frontier In Sustainable Food Systems in 2021 found most consumers globally willing to try and buy animal free dairy cheese made with precision fermentation, but a closer look at responses from Americans revealed some hesitancy that they industry should address to support more successful product launches and initial sales.

At a global level, the researchers found 70.5% of consumers surveyed said they would probably or definitely buy animal-free dairy cheese and 49.8% said they would regularly purchase it.

“The USA was on average slightly less enthusiastic,”​ with 54% saying they would buy animal-free dairy cheese, 28% reporting they were unsure and 19% saying they would not, the researchers reported.

Despite this divide, the researchers were encouraged to find most consumers considered animal-free dairy safe, natural, better-tasting than plant-based offerings and still meeting their environmental and animal welfare concerns.

A positive trajectory of acceptance

These rates are also notably higher than those of UK consumers surveyed just three years earlier by The Grocer, which found only 28% would purchase “synthetic milk” and 32% would not. This suggests consumer education and outreach efforts are positively impacting perception over time.

Additional research​ published last fall in Frontiers in Nutrition suggest this positive trajectory has continued. It found a similar “cautious openness” to the idea of animal-free dairy as the 2021 study found, with few of the participants in their focus groups expressing “outright opposition.”

Equally rare though was “unabashed enthusiasm” ​for the products, reported the researchers.

More common were questions about how the technology of precision fermentation worked, its overall safety and regulatory standards, its potential impact on the health of people and the planet and its taste, texture and price compared to other options.

“Among the negative frames, concerns about messing with nature and creating potential health risks to individuals were seen as the strongest arguments against”​ animal-free dairy, the researchers report.

They concluded, “the key to [animal-free dairy’s] future as a viable market option will depend on large part on the extent to which it can clearly demonstrate that it is preferable to conventional dairy or its plant-based competitors, particularly in the arena of taste, but also across considerations of health and safety, nutrition, environmental effects and animal well-being.”

Educating consumers now rather than later could be an easier lift

Reflecting on these findings, GFI concluded that “these surveys and others demonstrate an opportunity to build consumer awareness of these products and increase consumer education and marketing on the benefits of consuming foods made with fermentation to drive greater consumer understanding, acceptance, trial and, ultimately, adoption.”

Recent research​ published by FAO suggests educating consumers about the safety and logistics of new food technology before products are launched is a better strategy because it reduces the risk that the products and initial experiences of taste, texture and function will overshadow other consumer concerns. The sooner industry stakeholders educate consumers about precision fermentation the less likely they will be fighting against negative perceptions – making it easier to have an open dialogue.

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