The number of people eating a plant-based diet is rising fast. According to the Vegan Society, there were approximately 600,000 vegans in Great Britain in 2018, up from 150,000 in 2006, while research from Mintel estimates the meat-free food market was worth £740m two years ago.
Much of this growth comes down to innovation and just how close many vegan food products are to tasting like their meat counterparts. Yet despite such a substantial increase, these figures still mean only a fraction of Brits have made the leap to adopting a full plant-based diet.
Frozen food manufacturer Strong Roots, however, claims to have found a “scientifically-proven” method to help push those numbers up even higher.
Last week, the Dublin-based company, founded in 2015 by Sam Dennigan, unveiled the world’s first “meat-patch” designed to help carnivores wean themselves off meat. The product is inspired by the nicotine patches used by smokers to help with their cravings, but instead gives off a bacon scent using a scratch and sniff mechanism which is to be used while eating a healthier alternative.
But could such a product actually work in practice? And does it suggest a wider problem for plant-based food with regards to scent?
Smell of success
The decision to launch the bacon-infused patch was based on research from Oxford University professor Charles Spence which revealed that the public found meat harder to give up than even cigarettes or alcohol. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the 2,000 people surveyed on behalf of Strong Roots by market research firm OnePoll said they “love” meat and one-third described themselves as being a “meat-o-holic”.
The nicotine style patch is, at least to some extent, somewhat of a marketing ploy by Strong Roots. And based on the amount of coverage the campaign – fronted by boxer and Love Island star Tommy Fury - has obtained in the national and international press over the last week, it appears to have been a success.
It’s not hard to see why the announcement gained so much traction. A growing number of Brits are attempting to reduce their meat consumption, but many find it difficult to give up meat altogether, with the first few weeks deemed to be the hardest. The smell of meat, and of bacon in particular, is one reason why it’s so hard for meat eaters to kick the habit. “Studies have shown that scent can reduce food cravings,” Professor Spence said.
“Our sense of smell is strongly connected to our ability to taste therefore experiencing food related cues such as smelling a bacon aroma, can lead us to imagine the act of eating that food. Imagine eating enough bacon and you might find yourself sated.”
According to Spence, as much as 75-95% of what we taste is actually delivered from smell.
Spence has done plenty of research in recent years into the role all five senses play when it comes to eating and enjoying food. Last year, for example, the professor found that specific music can make food appear up to 10% more sweet or salty. There is even a growing field of research called sonic seasoning which looks at how noise can affect the other senses.
A wider problem?
Food Spark’s ‘man on the inside’ Sparkie is far more sceptical about such trends though and believes the most recent research into smell is counterintuitive. “Generally, when you smell food you develop a desire for it rather than becoming satiated by the smell alone,” Sparkie says.
“Their evidence is stating that repeated exposure leads to the satiety,” he adds. “I think there would be an argument that if the exposure is frequent enough that you wouldn't be satiated, you'd be fed up of having the same thing over and over - this is a common problem with scientific testing environments, in that they can be very difficult to replicate real life.”
The Telegraph’s restaurant critic Keith Miller also gave the patch a test drive. According to Miller, the odour of the patch wasn’t “unpleasant” and actually “smelt more like bacon than a lot of things that smell like bacon but aren't bacon”. However, he also thought that if he did have strong cravings that the product wouldn’t allay them.
“Some time in the evening – not suppertime, but earlier, out on the street, with the cold air focusing my mind – I had a flashback to an earlier life as a tour guide, and endless breakfasts in the dining rooms of countless hotels. I remembered two things: smelling coffee, and wanting some coffee; and smelling bacon, and wanting some bacon.”
It also raises questions as to whether non-meat alternatives have a ‘scent problem’ more broadly, particularly if such a high percentage of Brits are failing, despite their best efforts, to become vegan because of temptation.
Plant-based options may have come closer and closer in recent years to replicating both the flavour and texture of meat, but perhaps how similar such products are with regards to smell could well be the next frontier of NPD.
“Bacon has become a meme through advertising efforts and lobbying by pork farmers and butchers in America and there is a lot of evidence of how meme culture may skew scientific results, rendering them unreliable. Aside from my issues with the flawed science, it’s definitely a marketing gimmick for this company. It is treating meat consumption like an illness which will be funny to vegans/vegetarians but I think meat consumers might not see the funny side so much. This isn't a bad thing for Strong Roots though as controversy drives media attention.”