Accelerating the transition to plant-based proteins

Replacing meat and dairy by plant-based alternatives may not be easy since meat and dairy are so deeply rooted in consumption practices. We use categorization theory to shed light on how meat and dairy alternatives are perceived by consumers and what the consequences are for adoption.


We study consumer responses towards the positioning of plant-based proteins. Transitioning to plant-based proteins is challenging for consumers, since meat and dairy are rooted in consumption practices. We study how consumers classify, evaluate, and choose plant-based proteins, thereby taking habits, dietary preferences, health beliefs, social norms and family composition into account.

We use categorization theory to shed light on how plant-based proteins are perceived by consumers. Specifically, we focus on three types of plant-based proteins currently marketed as food to consumers: analogues, non-analogues and hybrids. Analogues mimic animal-derived meat and dairy products (e.g. vegetarian burgers, soy drinks). Non-analogues do not mimic animal-derived meat and dairy products (e.g. tofu, nuts, legumes). Hybrids contain a blend of plant-based and animal-derived proteins (e.g. seaweed-beef burgers). Comprehending consumer categorizations of this wide range of alternatives replacing deeply-rooted products is crucial to effectively market plant-based proteins.


Our aim is to formulate effective positioning and naming strategies for the marketing of plant-based proteins. Thereby, we establish the best supermarket shelf position for plant-based proteins and to what extent “analogue naming” is a viable long-term strategy for the marketing of plant-based protein alternatives, to subsequently guide consumers in transitioning towards more plant-based diets.


Study 1: We studied how different consumers – meat eaters, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans – categorize plant-based alternatives compared to their animal-derived counterparts using a card sorting technique. 121 Dutch participants sorted 80 product cards. Participants were free to make as many groups as they wanted. Forty participants explained their categorisations in follow-up interviews. Meat eaters do not separate proteins as strictly as flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans. All consumer groups separate animal-derived meat from plant-based meat alternatives. Hybrid meat is ambiguous for meat eaters and flexitarians. Nuts and beans are not associated with proteins. But for all consumer groups, we found that supermarket organisation determined categorisation. This shows the influence of supermarkets in how consumers consider food categories. Therefore, tailored positioning strategies, for example in supermarkets, are needed so that more consumers identify and adopt plant-based proteins, to guide and accelerate the protein transition.