Persistent preference for meat and dairy, and a sluggish transition to a more plant-based diet

March 28, 2024

Meat and dairy are still the main players in terms of protein consumption, consumer perceptions, retail availability and marketing priorities. That’s the finding of the first Protein Monitor produced by Wageningen Economic Research on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. The Ministry’s target for consumers in the Netherlands is to consume equal amounts of plant-based and animal protein by 2030. The trend is moving cautiously in that direction, but it needs to be accelerated. The monitor offers suggestions and insights to support that acceleration.

As a whole, consumer diets in the Netherlands are made up of 39% plant-based proteins and 61% animal proteins. “We’re seeing a cautious shift towards more plant-based protein consumption,” says Marleen Onwezen, expertise leader in Consumer Behaviour at Wageningen University & Research. “But it’s not happening quickly enough.” Animal proteins are mostly consumed during the main meal at home and in hospitality settings, so that’s where for example major opportunities for change can be seen. And it’s not just meat: levels of milk and cheese consumption are also still high. Young people are already eating more plant-based food and are more open to it.

Unique insight into consumption and supply

The Protein Monitor has been developed as a way of monitoring annually whether protein consumption in the Netherlands is indeed shifting towards 50/50. The monitor provides a unique insight into the consumption patterns of both individuals and groups within their social context, and also sheds light on why consumers might opt for either plant-based protein or meat and dairy. The monitor also provides an overview of the range of plant-based and animal protein products available in supermarkets, including the way in which they are offered to consumers. 570 consumers used an app to report on their consumption patterns. A survey of 3,000 respondents provided an insight into why consumers choose either plant-based or animal proteins.

Motivation, environment, skills

Based on their participation in the Protein Monitor, it’s evident that the majority of Dutch consumers are still committed to meat and dairy. “Consumers value meat and dairy more than plant-based protein products, especially meat and dairy substitutes,” says Marleen Onwezen. “It’s also evident that people are more accustomed to animal-based products, that they have a better understanding of how to cook animal proteins, and that there’s a greater acceptance of animal protein consumption in our social settings. In terms of purchasing intentions, animal proteins also come out on top and meat/dairy substitutes are bottom.”

According to the Protein Monitor, the way to create behavioural change is to combine a positive narrative around alternative proteins with a supportive food environment and the skills to get started. Consumers are most open to buying unprocessed plant-based proteins such as nuts and pulses. These products are also very sustainable and healthy, so the researchers see them as a great point of entry for coming up with alternative protein products.

The monitor also reveals that consumers are less motivated to choose plant-based proteins than they are to choose meat and dairy. According to the researchers, this is partly due to the generally limited level of overall attention given to plant-based products. In supermarkets, the main focus is still on animal products: they are the default option. This applies to product launches, portion sizes, prices, private-label brands, product positioning and the variety on offer.

Online, the range of plant-based protein products stands at 32% against 68% for products based on animal proteins. Supermarkets make substantially more effort to market animal-based protein products. For example, those products receive more space on supermarket shelves and are more often included in special offers. The researchers argue that this imbalance currently makes animal proteins the easier and more appealing choice for consumers.

Supermarkets seem afraid of losing customers if they promote plant-based products too much. “Another factor is that most of the recipes offered to consumers still contain animal products. Consumers therefore lack the skills they need to prepare tasty plant-based meals,” says Marleen Onwezen.

Work to be done

So there needs to be a change in consumer perceptions, the availability of plant-based proteins needs to improve, and there needs to be a stronger marketing push for plant-based products. “This monitor shows that there is work to be done to accelerate progress to 50/50,” says Onwezen. “We need powerful interventions. Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy should be promoted much more, drawing on the positives they have to offer. For example, you could emphasise how the most delicious curries are made with lentils, beans or pulses rather than meat. And skills are important: you need to know how to make a tasty roasted cauliflower.”

The Protein Monitor was first produced in 2023 and will be repeated every year to track the progress of the transition to '50/50’.