In assessing the prospects for commercializing cultured meat grown in-vitro from animal stem cells, consumer attitudes are of great interest. In particular, researchers aim to understand (and counteract) the reasons for the “yuck factor”.
After all, what would be the point of developing a product that many or most potential consumers perceive as disgusting and unfit for consumption? Interest in the psychological underpinnings of such perceptions has motivated several studies since the first animal-free beef patty was presented in 2013. As of 2022, researchers seem to have identified the main factors that account for disgust towards lab-grown meat.
According to Paul Rozin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leading researchers on disgust, our relationship with meat is generally a turbulent one: “We love it, and we are easily disgusted by it. Cultured meat has to navigate that difficult boundary,” he explains. Thus, our feelings of disgust are driven by the perception of traditional meat as a potential vector for disease and contamination. When it comes to cultured meat, this pre-existing feeling is compounded by distrust of an unfamiliar meat product.
Actually, lab-grown meat is safer than traditionally farmed meat due to its controlled methods of production. However, several studies have shown that the risks associated with artificially produced meat are much less accepted than those associated with natural meat. According to Rozin, this is because the technology is considered “unnatural,” and therefore perceived as less safe and, consequently, repulsive when it comes to food.
Rozin’s findings appear to confirm the results of the research paper “Testing potential psychological predictors of attitudes toward cultured meat ” published in 2019 by Yale University. When participants in that study were asked about their views on cultured meat, most indicated that their primary association was that this food is “unnatural”. “People seem to define something as unnatural perhaps when it looks bad, disgusting, or scary,” explains Matti Wilks, professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh and one of the study’s authors.
However, the research revealed that the dominant factor in revulsion toward cultured meat is food neophobia, or fear of novel foods: The less accustomed participants are to trying or experiencing new foods, the less willing they are to accept cultured meat and recognize its benefits. Research on consumer attitudes toward cultured meat in four countries, conducted by Supertrends in 2021 in collaboration with experts Yahan Liang, Jessica Büchi, Somya Bansal, Miguel Ángel Caro, and Frank Staedtler, also aligns with these findings.
However, despite the disgust factor among some consumers, the market for cultured meat continues to grow and attract funding worldwide to advance the technology. Moreover, attitudes could to be changing among some consumers and in some parts of the world: In a recent poll conducted in the US, two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents said they would be willing to try cultured meat.
According to this data, the spread of a more accommodating attitude toward these “unnatural” meat products is linked to the pressing challenges of our time, primarily food and environmental insecurity and the rising global economic challenges. In this context, potentially cheaper, more accessible, and more environmentally friendly food sources are welcome, perhaps even to the point of overcoming disgust.
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