Influencing protein consumption calls for broad societal changes

November 29, 2022

The shift to consuming more plant-based protein is an essential aspect of the protein transition. ‘The responsibility lies not just with the individual consumer, and the solution lies not just in innovative food products, such as meat substitutes’, WUR professor of Consumption and Healthy Lifestyles Emely de Vet stresses. ‘We must adopt a broader perspective to include all factors influencing our behaviour and a broader range of solutions. From stimulating legumes to reducing the serving size of meat.’ During an online session on 5 December, De Vet and her colleagues will discuss these topics with policymakers for new perspectives on the “barrier” in the protein transition.

‘The discussion frequently focuses on the consumer,’ De Vet states. ‘But individual preferences are not the only determining factor in meat consumption. Someone’s social circle is a factor of influence, as are the food supply and the product range in supermarkets and public spaces.’ These aspects are precisely what policymakers can influence. Hence, De Vet and her colleagues will enter into a dialogue with stakeholders in the public sector on 5 December during an online session on Strategies for a consumption shift. This session is part of the WUR campaign “Protein transition: from Pain Points to Perspectives”.

Reduce rather than substitute meat

When discussing solutions in the protein transition, the focus rapidly shifts to innovative food products such as meat substitutes. But, says De Vet, there is already an overconsumption of proteins in most high-income countries. ‘Thus, we must not focus blindly on substituting meat with severely processed alternatives. The consumption of (mainly animal) proteins should be cut back, and the intake of, for example, whle plant foods, increased.’ Serving sizes are also an issue. ‘Meat packaged as a single portion exceeds the number of recommended grammes.’

Legislation on meat serving size could have a significant impact without the need for new technology. ‘Many such small interventions in the protein supply will have significant combined influence,’ De Vet underscores. ‘In addition to rules for serving sizes, policymakers could focus on how food is presented. For example, pulses could be presented next to the meat shelves as a protein source.’

Meat as part of social identity

‘Discussions often focus on the choice between meat or vegetarian’, De Vet clarifies. Such a distinction invites polarization. ‘In reality someone is often part of different social groups, each with their own standards regarding meat. In Wageningen, a student may be confronted with a vegetarian diet while still eating meat, potatoes and vegetables at home.’ Meat is a part of social identity. ‘That explains why a campaign or measure can lead to such resistance.’ Effective measures must take the social factors that influence the choice for animal proteins into account.

Creating conditions for better choices

‘In addition to the consumer, there are many other parties involved in the protein transition, such as food producers, retailers and governments.’ An important question is how to make the transition worthwhile for all the stakeholders. Science depends on collaboration with other institutions involved. ‘For example, policymakers will have to implement a particular intervention for scientists to be able to study its effect.’ The recent prohibition of advertisements for meat in Haarlem provides researchers with an excellent test case. ‘It offers us an opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of such a measure and may also provide information on a more extensive implementation of the measure.’

‘The societal context is highly relevant to consumers’ eating behaviour. Policymakers can create conditions for responsible choices, which is why we are happy to discuss with them,’ De Vet explains. ‘We do a lot of research and we would like to use our knowledge to help policymakers see (animal) protein consumption from a broader perspective. We hope many policymakers and other stakeholders in the protein transition will join us on 5 December.’