What Nutrition Facts Information Do People Use to Decide Which Product is Healthier?
- Based on comparing blinded Nutrition Facts labels, 45% believed the plant alternative was healthier than animal meat, while 32% believed the plant alternative to be unhealthier.
- The top influences for those who believed the plant alternative was healthier were the number of vitamins and minerals and the amount of specific vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
- Sodium content was the top influence for those who believed the plant alternative was unhealthier.
- When 13 of beef’s inherent vitamins and minerals are included on its label, and that label is compared again with the plant alternative label, fewer people believe that the plant alternative is healthier (from 45% down to 34%).
- 41% believe that a burger made from plants is healthier than a burger made from ground beef. Conversely, 31% believe the beef burger is healthier.
In our first consumer survey on plant alternatives to meat, we explored people’s experiences with meatless protein products made from plants. We heard about their likes and dislikes and their reasons for having tried them. In doing so, we also found that based solely on Nutrition Facts labels, more people believe that a plant alternative is healthier than ground beef. But we did not learn what information on the Nutrition Facts label people use when making such decisions. This follow-up consumer survey of 1,000 Americans conducted in March 2020 identifies the factors involved.
After comparing Nutrition Facts labels, more people think a plant alternative is healthier. Survey takers were shown two (blinded as “Product A” and “Product B”) Nutrition Facts labels—one from a plant alternative to animal meat and one from a package of 85/15 lean 100% ground beef—and were not given information on the ingredients or the exact type or origin of each product. Based on the Nutrition Facts alone, 45% of respondents said that they believed the plant alternative (Product A) was at least somewhat healthier than the ground beef (Product B). Thirty-two percent stated that they believed the plant alternative was less healthy than ground beef. These numbers were similar to those reported in our first plant alternative to meat survey, in which the same two (blinded) Nutrition Facts labels were used. People who reported being vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian or having some vegetarian days during the week were much more likely to say that Product A was healthier as compared with the answers of omnivores. Men (compared with women) were more likely to say that Product A was healthier.
Vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts label are top influences on perceptions of plant alternative healthfulness. Of those who said that plant alternative (still blinded as Product A) was healthier than ground beef (still blinded as Product B), the top influences on this decision were the number of vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts label (33%) and the amount of specific vitamins and minerals (29%). Notably, the Nutrition Facts label of the plant alternative product that was used in our survey included eight more vitamins and minerals than were listed on the ground beef label. While vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are mandated inclusions on the label, and thus appear for both products, others can be voluntarily reported. Animal products like ground beef inherently contain nutrients like niacin, vitamin B12 and zinc, but those nutrients are not typically included as part of their Nutrition Facts labels.
Higher sodium content on the plant alternative label is the top reason for thinking they are less healthy than beef. The Nutrition Facts label for the plant alternative product used in our survey contains 370 milligrams of sodium per serving, or about 16% of the maximum daily amount recommended for someone consuming 2,000 calories a day. In comparison, the Nutrition Facts label used for ground beef has just 65 milligrams per serving, or about 3% of the maximum amount recommended per day. Slightly more than half of survey takers (52%) identified sodium as one of their top two influential factors when deciding that the plant alternative is less healthy than beef. Saturated fat (34%), calories (28%) and total carbohydrates (26%), all of which appear in higher amounts on the plant alternative label, trailed sodium.
When more vitamins and minerals are included on the ground beef label, fewer people believe that the plant alternative is healthier. To test the effect that the number of vitamins and minerals listed on Nutrition Facts labels has on perceptions of healthfulness, we added 13 inherent micronutrients to the ground beef label using values (≥2% of the Daily Value) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central for 85% lean ground beef. These additions made the ground beef label (still blinded as Product B) lengthier than the label for the plant alternative (still blinded as Product A).
We then showed the new beef label alongside the original plant alternative label to survey takers and asked again which product they thought was healthier. Including more micronutrients on the ground beef Nutrition Facts label resulted in fewer people believing that the plant alternative is healthier (from 45% down to 34%). Conversely, the percentage of people believing the plant alternative label is less healthy than the beef label increased from 32% to 40%, spurred primarily by an increase in the number of survey takers responding that it was “somewhat unhealthier.” The percentage of people in the plant alternative is “much unhealthier” group (8%) remained the same. In line with this result, there were declines in the influence of the amount of specific vitamins and minerals (from 29% to 21%) and the number of vitamins and minerals listed (from 33% to 21%) as top reasons for why the plant alternative is healthier. The opposite happened for people who thought that the plant alternative, which had the shorter list of vitamins and minerals on its Nutrition Facts label, was less healthy than ground beef. When comparing these two labels, the influence of the amount of specific vitamins and minerals and the number of vitamins and minerals listed both increased (from 5% to 11% and from 4% to 16%, respectively).
Essentially, what these results boil down to is that, for many people, the vitamin and mineral information provided on Nutrition Facts labels has an influence on the perception of healthfulness. When survey takers were presented with a label that had more information on both the number and amount of specific vitamins and minerals, a sizable group associated that label with a healthier product. It’s the opposite of “out of sight, out of mind”—when the information is there, people notice it and compare it with other product labels, and this difference can be a deciding factor for how healthful a food is perceived to be.
Up to this point all Nutrition Facts label comparisons were blinded, so survey takers didn’t know that Product A and Product B were a plant product or a ground beef product unless they were keenly familiar with these products’ nutrition information prior to taking the survey. To close the survey, we wanted to ask a few general questions about plant alternatives to animal meat and ground beef.
Four in ten believe that a burger made from plants is healthier than a burger made from ground beef. Thirty-one percent said that a ground beef burger was healthier, while 17% said that neither was healthier and 11% stated that they were not sure.
Purchasing history and future purchase intent of plant alternatives is mixed. Forty-five percent of survey takers reported previously purchasing plant alternative products, with slightly over half these individuals saying they planned to do so again. Just under two in ten (18%) said that they previously purchased plant alternative products but did not plan to again. Nearly one in four (23%) said they had not previously purchased plant alternative products but might in the future, while 26% said they had not previously purchased plant alternative products and did not intend to in the future. Overall, 44% of survey takers stated that they did not intend to buy plant alternative products in the future. Of note, men (compared with women), people under age 45 (compared with older age groups) and people who go meatless some days of the week (compared with omnivores) were all more likely to have previously purchased plant alternative products but did not intend to again.
Preferred labeling terms for plant alternatives and ground beef products differ depending on self-reported eating patterns. When asked to choose the most appealing labeling terms from a list we provided, “all natural” (34%) and “100% beef” (33%) were the top choices for the overall group of 1,000 respondents. “Vegan” (9%), “meat-free” (8%) and “imitation meat” (6%) were the least appealing. People who reported being omnivores (n=658) had preferences that aligned with the overall population, as they were the majority of survey takers. For vegetarians (n=47), “vegetarian,” “made from plants” and “plant-based” label terms were most appealing. Vegans (n=40) were most drawn to “all natural,” “100% beef” and “planet-friendly.”