Armando Perez-Cueto, Professor at the Department of Food, Nutrition and Culinary Science, Umeå University and affiliated at the University of Copenhagen, is leading the Smart Protein work on consumer research. Learn more about his cutting-edge work in this interview.
What is the role of your organisation within the Smart Protein Project?
Armando Perez-Cueto: Two departments of the University of Copenhagen are involved in the Smart Protein project.
First, the Department of Food Science carries out research and education that is helping to solve the global challenges in relation to food, with a focus on the development of new foods and new ways of producing them. The Department of Food Science is involved in Smart Protein Work Package 2 (food processing and sidestream up-cycling) and Work Package 3 (food processing), and is leading Work Package 6 (consumer studies). For consumer studies, we run pan-EU surveys, using sophisticated equipment. Future Consumer Lab investigates the determinants of the consumer transition towards greener food choices, as well as exploring sensory preferences and evaluating the effectiveness of behavioural interventions that support this transition.
Second, the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences has world-leading competences in plant production and stress-mitigation strategies. The Crop Stress Physiology group, task leader in Work Package 1 (protein crop, soil, and water management), focuses on the physiological and biochemical regulation of growth and the functioning of crop plants subjected to abiotic stresses, including drought, heat, cold, salinity, and light.
The Department of Food Science is leading Smart Protein’s work on consumer research, with the main objectives of evaluating levels of trust, marketability, and consumer acceptance for alternative-protein sources and products. Such strategic information will provide evidence supporting the development of products and interventions to endorse consumer preferences for plant-based foods in food-service and retail.
Why did you decide to join the Smart Protein project?
Armando Perez-Cueto: Personally, I am convinced that the way ahead for a food-system shift in Europe is through focusing on plant-based foods, as they deliver from a health, sustainability, and ethics perspective. Through my work and involvement in this project, I wanted to see whether the European market is going in this direction. The Smart Protein studies give a clear confirmation of a societal shift towards more plant-based eating. My involvement in the project started with the project ideation team early in 2019. Additionally, these current activities with consumer studies strengthen the work I have been doing on consumer research for the past 15 years, and consolidates the arena of behaviour interventions, upscaling the research from laboratory to real life and looking at how we can make the plant-based choice, which is also the sustainable and ethical choice, the easiest for consumers.
What benefits will this project bring to your organisation and to Europe and European citizens in general?
Armando Perez-Cueto: Leading the consumer research for the Smart Protein project will consolidate the preeminent role that the University Copenhagen plays in food-system transformation and research on plant-based food.
From a European perspective, supporting the transition to more plant-based diets requires robust evidence that is based on consumer behaviour and attitudes to plant-based foods. The Smart Protein findings on European consumer attitudes are crucial evidence to support consumer-oriented legislation and dietary guidelines for a greener food system. Moreover, it provides evidence to develop new foods and food categories that are consumer-acceptable. The findings also further the choice-architecture interventions that will help consumers navigate through the needed dietary transition, helping to change their eating behaviour and optimise social sustainability.
What are the main challenges faced in the process?
Armando Perez-Cueto: The biggest challenge so far has been COVID-19 and the world slowing down for almost two years now. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed the humanitarian and environmental challenges of a food system that prioritises efficiency, growth, and profit over human values. Many consumers are now more aware of the role that intensified animal agriculture plays in pandemics, and it seems that COVID-19 has had an effect on the market for plant-based foods, as shown by the Smart Protein Plant-based Food Sector Report based on Nielsen retail scanning data. Owing to the observed market trends and increased consumer demand for sustainable healthy foods, the Smart Protein project is fully dedicated to plant-based proteins and ingredients. Doing so will contribute towards a safer, more sustainable, and more resilient food system.
What results from the project are you and your team most excited for?
Armando Perez-Cueto: The Smart Protein project has revealed some very interesting findings, with a general blooming and blossoming of the plant-based sector in Europe. I have been researching consumer acceptance for 15-20 years now and it is quite overwhelming to witness the increasing presence of flexitarians, now representing 30% of the European population. This group still consumes animal products but is looking to diversify their diets with healthier, more sustainable, and ethical food products, while reducing their meat and dairy consumption. We are currently witnessing a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour towards healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical food products. Therefore, targeting flexitarians is strategically essential, as this group is already open to changing its behaviour and represents a substantial portion of the population.
Another interesting finding is that the barriers towards adopting a plant-based diet – such as the lay belief that humans are meant to eat lots of animal-based meat, the expectation that plant-based food products are not tasty enough, and the experience of not enjoying such products – are experienced to a lesser extent by consumers than used to be the case. The consequence is that more and more people are likely to engage in shifting their eating behaviours when they realise how impactful doing so is. Diet shift at population level will happen one meal at a time.
I am also looking forward to the implementation of delicious meals using the prototypes developed by Smart Protein, and the planned studies on nudging and choice architecture that will give us more insights on how to better promote plant-based foods.