Ideological objects in the practical world: How plant-based meat shapes food practices

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based food as a significant affect on food practices. Image Source: bymuratdeniz/Getty Images
Plant-based food as a significant affect on food practices. Image Source: bymuratdeniz/Getty Images

Related tags plant-based meat Beyond meat plant-based alternative protein vegan Consumer trends

While the consumer market for plant-based meat does not completely consist of vegetarians and vegans, choosing a vegan burger over a meat one remains a conscious rejection of meat-eating. This provides plant-based meat with a meaning, its presence in cooking representative of a belief in the undesirability of eating animal meat. However, in many situations practicality often merges with, and even takes prominence over, this meaning. How do the two things affect food practices?

The meanings a consumer gives to food, and how their beliefs inform this, can be linked to many things – their social surroundings, the marketing they’re exposed to, their own life experiences – but the one thing that is a constant is that it will ​affect their consumption choices in some way.

Ideological objects are the culmination of this. They are objects that are suffused with meaning by the consumer. Plant-based meat is almost inherently ideological, representative as it is of a conscious rejection of meat, even when eaten by flexitarians.

In a paper published in the journal Appetite, ​the meanings behind plant-based meat, and how these meanings affect food practices, are explored.

Recruiting 21 participants of varying ages and locations (urban and rural), and a mix of vegetarians, vegans and omnivores, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews on practices related to plant-based meat. They also observed vegan message boards for a more general understanding of the issue.

Plant-based food and practice

Plant-based food is often associated with significant meaning. Whether it is with health, sustainability or the ethical treatment of animals, all of these meanings exist in direct opposition to meat (which is often perceived as unhealthy, bad for the environment, and the result of animal cruelty).

On the flipside, using plant-based food can change one’s practical habits. When one takes up a diet incorporating plant-based meat, they often need to change how they cook, the restaurants they go to, and perhaps even how they work out.

Where these two aspects combine is in the issue of how switching to plant-based meat affects those who the participants live with. The necessity of cooking different meals containing plant-based meat often has the potential to affect how those people eat as well, due in large part to practicality (as of course, it is easier to cook one meal than two). “She [my wife] mostly eats the same as me​,” one participant said, “[she] prefers the plant meat mostly to regular meat. I strictly don't eat meat, but yeah, she's a bit more flexible​.”

However, ethical considerations sometimes had an influence on those around the participant. One participant even said when she became vegan, her and her ex-boyfriend, “talked about philosophy and got out some philosophy textbooks,” ​and ”he went vegan like a month after me​.”

This can extend beyond families to friendships as well. One participant has a group of friends who buy plant-based meat to accommodate her diet.

Many people incorporated plant-based food into their meals as a substitute for animal meat. Image Source: MEDITERRANEAN/Getty Images

Many of the participants use existing plant-based meat alternatives to replace conventional meat in meals. However, some others created their own plant-based meats at home. One consumer, who lives in regional Australia without much access to shops which sell plant-based meats, is particularly creative. For example, he is substituting meat with vegetables he has grown himself.

Practicality can butt heads with social norms, however. For example, social occasions centred around eating meat such as Easter and Christmas. But by marketing to consumers products that can directly replace these meats (substitutes for turkey or lamb) food manufacturers have a way out of this debacle.

Diet and meaning

In many occasions, practice, which is created by meaning, itself creates meaning. For example, for those who adopt plant-based meat because their family members have done, plant-based meat can itself come to mean family.

For one participant, eating plant-based meat brought her closer to her mother, a former vegan who gave up meat again in solidarity with her daughter. For another, plant-based meat was imbued with the meaning of parental care, with the participant seeing plant-based meat as a way to impart health towards her children.

Sometimes meanings can develop over time. One participant originally became vegan simply for convenience (as her daughter was vegan), but after some research, solidified her convictions as a vegan due to ethical reasons.

It can also be reinforced by bodily sensations. One participant felt much lighter after eating plant-based meats as opposed to beef, and thus her convictions solidified due to the clear improvements to how she was feeling.

Participants were aware that plant-based meats are not always the healthier option, and tried to remedy this: one by focusing on diet and health, one by attempting to find less processed versions. A switch to plant-based meat also meant, for some, taking dietary supplements.

Participants began to feel an emotional and psychological lightness as well, on top of their physiological lightness.

The study found that people adopt plant-based meat for reasons either of meaning coherence -which helps them to feel more comfortable with themselves - or for practicality. But these two things were not necessarily separate from each other.

Ideological objects such as plant-based meat, suggests the study, disrupts and then reconfigures practices in a new way. Meanings would shift between practicality and ideology, often not settling on one or the other.

The implications for manufacturers

The stories discovered by this study both support and refute the idea that people eat plant-based meat for deeper ideological reasons. Many do so, in fact, simply out of practicality, because their family member is doing it, but many others hold deep ethical convictions.

In fact, they can often be led to the path of imbuing plant-based meat with deeper meaning from a starting-point of practicality, as many participants did. The study suggests that plant-based food manufacturers must be aware of these things when branding their products.

In the end, the meanings given to these products can help manufacturers engage with what consumers want.

Sourced From: Appetite
'Transforming practice chains through ideological objects: How plant-based meats impact consumers’ everyday food practices’
Published on: 27 June 2023
Authors: Dr R. Venkatraman, M. P. H. Ruiz, Dr A. S. Lawrence, J.Lei, A. Nagp

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