A national survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change and the Earth Day Network shows that a lack of information may be what’s keeping consumers from buying and trying plant-based foods. Factors like taste, convenience, and price also play an important role in the decision.

Here’s a look at how American consumers perceive plant-based products, with special attention to how those products and their meat and dairy alternatives impact the environment.

Plant-based profiles

While only a small number of survey respondents identified as vegan or vegetarian, most (94%) said they were willing to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet, and more than half (54%) were willing to eat less meat. That includes switching to meat and dairy alternatives, in which about half of the surveyed consumers expressed interest. However, only 26% would be willing to eat lab-grown meat in place of animal meat. 

These results correlate with another recent survey from The International Food Information Council (IFIC), which found that 66% of consumers considered themselves omnivores, and almost half said they had tried plant-based alternatives.  

Plant-based persuaders

According to the Yale report, there are several motivators for and barriers to purchasing and eating plant-based foods, including

  • Health: The top influencer of plant-based purchases and consumption was health — 91% considered health at least a “moderately important” reason to choose plant-based foods. 
  • Taste: Taste was an important factor to 83% of Americans. Almost half (44%) said they don’t like how plant-based foods taste, and 67% would eat plant-based over meat products if they tasted better.
  • Convenience: More than three-fourths of Americans (77%) said the ease and speed of preparing plant-based foods were at least “moderately important” to their purchasing decisions. More than four out of 10 Americans (44%) considered plant-based foods too much of an effort to be worth the purchase.  
  • Cost: The price of plant-based food was important to 75% of consumers. More than half (58%) expressed a belief that plant-based foods are too expensive, and 63% said they’d eat more plant-based foods if the price was less than for meat-based options. This attitude is most prevalent among lower-income Americans — 71% said plant-based products cost too much.

IFIC’s report revealed an additional reason consumers buy plant-based food: curiosity. More than 40% said they tried plant-based products because they enjoy sampling new foods. 

Environmental impacts

The surveys also uncovered varying opinions on the connections between food production and global warming. More than half of Americans in the Yale survey said they believe that meat production contributes at least somewhat to global warming, but only about a quarter of them believed it contributed “a lot.” Another quarter did not believe it contributed “at all.” Opinions about dairy products were similar. 

On the other hand, the IFIC survey found that nearly half of consumers considered plant-based alternatives better for the environment than meat products. 

According to the Yale survey, the majority of American consumers were of the opinion that a universal switch to a plant-based diet would reduce global warming at least “a little.” Additionally, most believed practices like reducing or composting food waste and buying locally grown and produced foods would also reduce global warming. 

Need for education

Roughly one in four of the Yale respondents admitted they don’t know how the production of different types of food products impacts climate change. Only 29% said they hear about this topic in the media once a month or more. The rest answered “don’t know,” said they never hear about it, or said they only hear about it several times a year or less.

About half of the survey respondents would be more motivated to eat plant-based foods if they had more information on how their food choices affect the environment. These results indicate a need for food companies to educate consumers on the environmental effects of their products, as well as publicize the steps they’re taking to minimize those effects. 

And there are profits to be won in doing so — environmental practices have more influence over consumer purchasing decisions than brand names. Yale’s survey found that over 25% of Americans rewarded food companies for making an effort to reduce environmental impacts by buying their products at least once in the past year. Conversely, 21% chose to punish companies for a lack of action by not purchasing their products.

Learn more about Yale’s findings from the full report.