“Ethical Eaters,” or “Save-The-World’ers,” as I lovingly call them, are a singular new group of consumers who may drive the future of food full speed ahead into a science-filled revolution.
I noticed this consumer segment emerging a few years back and was perplexed by their two seemingly contradictory beliefs about food. My observation was reiterated at the cellular agriculture conference I attended this fall in New York City. As I surveyed the group that had gathered in the name of new food horizons (300 large, mostly millennials), it occurred to me that the food world has shifted once again: many of the folks who demand clean-label, non-GMO, antibiotic-free products are simultaneously growing to embrace a new era of genetically modified food. How can this be? How can consumers want food that is both simple AND engineered? How are they justifying this desire?
It’s because when they make food choices, “Save-the-World’ers” tend to put ethics before everything else. In their specific hierarchy of needs, ethical, trustworthy, eco-friendly practices trump all else. “World’ers” make decisions with global issues in mind: feeding the exploding population, seeking fair labor practices, combatting climate change, and promoting animal welfare. If a food company is committed to mission-based development, the World’er group is willing to overlook – and even embrace – that company’s science-lab labels and ingredients.
Take the Impossible Burger. Launched with great fanfare through a host of forward-looking restaurants, this new-age veggie burger promises to “use 95% less land, 74% less water, and create 87% less greenhouse gas emissions” than a traditional beef burger patty. Music to the World’er’s ears! Never mind that this burger contains processed ingredients like textured wheat protein, soy protein isolate, in addition to the odd-sounding leghemoglobin (heme) – a genetically engineered molecule extracted from yeast to replicate the taste and juice of iron-rich meat. (So much for clean label!) The fact that it enters through the door of ethical, world-saving practices makes the Impossible Burger an acceptable – and even desirable – food choice, despite its ingredients.
Memphis Meats, a leading proponent of lab-grown meat, claims they’re “developing a way to produce real meat from animal cells, without the need to feed, breed or slaughter actual animals” and they expect their products to “be better for the environment, the animals and public health.” Their meat is grown from animal stem cells in labs and cultured in bioreactors. (So much for non-GMO!) To the World’ers, that’s perfectly okay, because Memphis Meats’ save-the-world mantra resonates strongly with World’er values and creates a trusted pathway to trial.
My 15-year-old daughter recently told me, “I would definitely be a vegan, if the food tasted better…” and that ‘IF’ is a big factor. There is a huge, untapped market of ethical-eating wannabes who, like my daughter, are waiting for food that will deliver on both taste and texture, and be affordable, AND save the world. A recent article in QSR Magazine noted that 80-90% of consumers frequenting plant-based eateries like Veggie Grill in CA and Shouk in Washington DC are NOT vegan or vegetarian. Chances are these diners are trying to take things into their own hands and do the right thing for the planet. The World’ers segment may be bigger than vegans and vegetarians and flexitarians combined, since they view both clean label and engineered foods as acceptable, so as long as the products are on a mission-based path. And, of course, as long as they taste good.
Designing new foods and beverages for Save-The-World’ers will take a combination of authentically ethical practices, transparent communication, and excellent product design. It’s a tall order, but it’s what this growing group demands.