February 18, 2013

Flexitarianism—A Unique Perspective on Consumer Behavior from the Netherlands

Raychel Santo

Raychel Santo

Sr. Research Program Coordinator

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Also contributing to this article is Allison Righter, program officer in the Eating for the Future program at the Center.

Vegetarianism has been getting a lot of press coverage in the health news world recently. A couple weeks ago the media hyped a large study of more than 45,000 U.K. residents that found vegetarians to be nearly 30 percent less likely to get heart disease than their meat-eating counterparts. And just a few months ago, data released from researchers at the Loma Linda University suggested that vegetarians may have a higher life expectancy by up to nine years. These are just two recent examples of the growing body of literature on vegetarian diets, particularly documenting the potential health advantages, but also addressing the implications for improving the environment and animal welfare. But if this dietary pattern is so beneficial (on so many different fronts), why haven’t more people adopted it? The most recent national poll from the Vegetarian Resource Group suggests that only about four percent of American adults identify themselves as strictly vegetarian or vegan. So the question still exists, can you reap these aforementioned benefits of a vegetarian diet without giving up meat entirely? In other words, can you have your meat and not eat it too?

Enter flexitarianism, the newest buzzword in the food world (as if there aren’t enough already!). This is an emerging trend towards meat reduction on a part-time basis, likely attributed to the widespread media coverage and public interest surrounding the potential health, environmental, financial, and ethical benefits of eating less meat. From campaigns like Meatless Monday and books such as The Flexitarian Diet and The Plant-Powered Diet, the idea of cutting back on meat without having to give it up entirely has been resonating loudly with consumers and health advocates alike. According to results from a NPR survey released in March 2012, 39 percent of Americans report eating less (red) meat than they did three years ago. However, other than these types of figures and anecdotal evidence, little attention from the scientific community has been given to defining and studying the implications of this group of “meat reducers,” or flexitarians.

Recognizing this research gap, the Netherlands’ Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) decided to do something about it. As part of its efforts to “become the global leader in the field of sustainable food within 15 years,” (2009) the LNV has identified the need for a “protein transition,” which entails turning the consumption of animal proteins into a more sustainable, plant-based diet that will ensure global food security in face of the world’s expanding population. In order to support and facilitate the protein transition in the Netherlands, the LNV commissioned a fascinating report by a team at Wageningen University to investigate, through the consumer’s perspective, how to achieve more sustainable levels of meat consumption.

While the above English summary of the report was released in 2010, a journal article analyzing the results of the Dutch study was recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.

The authors of this article set out to negate the common view among sociologists that modern consumers are driven by the need for instant gratification. In what is often deemed the “consumer vs. citizen” debate, consumers cannot often overcome their egoistic desires for enjoyment, quality, and price in favor of behaviors that live up to their moral principles and ideals. In the case of meat, people may give in to their cravings for the taste, tradition, and ease of eating this staple, despite potential health, environmental, and ethical consequences. In contrast to this approach, the authors argue that there is no clear distinction between these influences, yielding instead what they deem “citizen-inspired consumption behavior.” As a result, they suggest that “consumers can and should be regarded as allies and agents of change.”

Supporting these claims, the study found that nearly 75 percent of Dutch consumers reported having at least one “meat free” day per week, and 40 percent reported having at least three “meat-free” days per week. Moreover, while only 4 percent of Dutch consumers identify as “meat avoiders,” and 26.5 percent claim they are “meat lovers,” 70 percent claim that they are “meat reducers.”

The authors identified this middle group of meat reducers as the one for whom targeted policy-making offers the most potential for achieving broad-scale sustainable meat consumption patterns, recognizing that consumers driven by strict views on the moral implications of their food choices are only a small minority of eaters in the developed world. They presented three alternatives to the rigid ethical/political persuasions for reducing meat consumption that can often inhibit progress on a broad-scale level. These include:

  1. “Sustainability by stealth.” This approach—ideal for passive consumers—involves increasing sustainable food innovations to reduce meat consumption through acceptable hybrid imitation products (½ meat, ½ plant-based ingredients). It risks public criticism and backlash because these consumers aren’t as likely to engage in this moderation.
  2. “Moderate involvement.” This approach is better for active and engaged citizens who are willing to take small practical steps, guided by the help of informational campaigns, to eat smaller portions of meat or regularly incorporate meatless days (like Meatless Monday!) into their eating routine.
  3. “Cultural change.” This is the most radical approach, involving changing cultural values surrounding meat. Consumers who accept this approach will be “the most stable ally” to government efforts towards sustainable consumption, but they also may prove its biggest critics if they think the government “is doing too little to achieve sustainable goals.”

The authors recognize that these approaches are non-exclusive and that they all may be part of the solution to achieving sustainable meat consumption. These strategies simply help define the different mechanisms by which the government—or more likely public health advocates in the U.S.—can effectively engage consumers at different levels of the meat-moderating spectrum.

Ultimately, as meat consumption is embedded into Dutch culture in ways similar to our American one, we should utilize the unique perspectives presented in this study to better strategize our own efforts towards more sustainable meat consumption patterns in the U.S. We agree with the authors’ assertion that meat reducers or “flexitarians” will be a vital demographic to reach, and we hope that this study will catalyze more efforts focused on understanding, supporting, and mobilizing this growing population.


  1. Posted by Cynthia

    Interesting article! But it doesn’t answer the question it raises at the beginning: can one have the benefits of vegetarianism if one still eats some meat. And it doesn’t really even talk about whether anyone is investigating that question – only that there is a paper on moving people to eating that way (apparently without confirming whether such a move has health benefits).

    I hope someone will do that research. I eat that way (flexitarian) and it would be nice to know if it’s sufficiently healthy or if more adjusting would be advised for good health outcomes. The Price Foundation suggest thy met is essential. The Forks Over Knives folks say it shouldn’t be eaten at all.h

  2. Posted by Cynthia

    Apologies for typos in my previous post,although substituting “thy” where I meant to type “that” makes an interesting turn of phrase.

  3. Pingback: The CLF Week in Links: Fish, Beef, Pork—Whom To Trust? | Center for a Livable Future

  4. Hello Cynthia,

    Thank you for your comments. There is definitely a lot of uncertainty around exactly how much meat (and what types) in the diet is optimal for health. But there are several studies showing that replacing meat (particularly red and processed meat) with plant-based alternatives, like legumes or nuts/seeds reduces the risk for certain diseases. And certainly, adding more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables to the diet is extremely beneficial to overall health and wellbeing in so many ways. Our aim in this blog was to raise these questions and identify this gap in the literature on this growing population of meat-reducers, or flexitarians. This Dutch study is one of the first to our knowledge of directly identifying and considering the trend of flexitarianism in a scientific way. We, too, hope to see more research in this area and we will definitely report back when we do!

    Thanks again!

  5. Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

    Posted by Allison Righter

    As a follow-up to this study, another set of Dutch researchers have recently published a fascinating study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21983048) that investigates consumer behaviors regarding of meat consumption, reduction, and substitution. The study highlights many facts that could be helpful in structuring effective social and policy responses to encourage meat reduction and substitution. Many of it’s findings could and will be particularly helpful in understanding how to effectively target campaigns like Meatless Monday, and which tools/resources the campaign should focus on promoting.

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