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Is the flexitarian trend declining in Europe?

A few years ago, around 40 percent of European consumers said they wanted to eat less meat products, while 30 percent said they wanted to eat less dairy products. Today, consumers are still interested in both, but to a lesser extent.

What are the causes of this consumer behavior and why is the intention to avoid meat and dairy products decreasing in some cases?

Fewer consumers describe themselves as flexitarians and fewer plan to limit their meat consumption

In 2021, a pan-European survey across 10 countries found that the “flexitarian” diet trend is alive and kicking. Of the 7,500 people surveyed as part of the EU-funded Smart Protein project, 30% said they were flexitarian.

Just this week, a new, separate study was published as part of the HealthFerm project. The results showed that fewer and fewer people describe themselves as flexitarian: only 16% of the 7,900 consumers surveyed in nine European countries see themselves that way.

Interestingly, 27% of consumers eat meat less than three times a month, but do not necessarily consider themselves flexitarian.

Not only is the number of flexitarians decreasing, but so is the intention to eat less meat. The 2021 survey found that 40% of consumers planned to reduce their meat consumption in the following six months, while in the 2024 HealthFerm results only 27.5% said they wanted to eat less meat.

Nutritional preferences explained

  • omnivore​: I often eat meat such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish and/or shellfish
  • Flexitarian​: I sometimes eat meat, but I try to reduce my meat consumption and often choose plant-based foods instead
  • Pescetarian​: I eat fish and/or shellfish, but no other types of meat
  • vegetarian​: I do not eat meat or fish, but I eat eggs and/or dairy products
  • Vegan​: I do not eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy products or other animal ingredients.

Changing dairy consumption seems even more difficult. The latest results show that almost 77% of respondents want to consume “about the same” amount of dairy products in the next six months. Only 13% want to consume less.

This is in stark contrast to the 2021 Smart Protein Project, which found that more than twice as many (almost 30%) planned to reduce their dairy consumption.

Consumers do not want to consume “much less” meat or dairy products

Although the two EU-funded studies are separate, Armando Perez-Cueto – who now heads the Sustainable Food Transition Research Group at Umea University – was involved in both.

I'm confused: which survey is which?

In 2021, the Smart Protein project published a survey examining what consumers in Europe expect from plant-based foods. A total of 7,500 people were surveyed in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK.

Just this week, the results of the first wave of a new, separate survey as part of the HealthFerm project were published. 7,900 people from Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Romania and Switzerland were interviewed.

The main similarity between the two studies is that respondents who are omnivores and flexitarians are mainly willing to reduce their meat consumption “a little less,” he told FoodNavigator. However, those willing to significantly reduce their meat consumption are “quite few” in this latest, first wave of the HealthFerm survey.

Perez-Cueto can only speculate why the willingness to significantly reduce meat and dairy consumption is declining. “One can speculate that we are reaching a kind of plateau in the desire to reduce meat and dairy consumption among omnivores and flexitarians, as eating less meat is becoming more and more normal and people may therefore not see the need to further reduce their meat consumption.”

To be sure, researchers would have to “dig a little deeper,” he told this publication, but his hypothesis is supported by the findings that a large percentage of consumers (40%) reported having changed their eating habits. Among those who had made a change, 69% switched from an omnivorous diet to one that included fewer or no animal products.

75% of all participants in the HealthFerm survey describe themselves as omnivores. 25% of respondents assume that they are currently either consciously reducing their consumption of animal products or have already eliminated them from their diet to varying degrees.

As for the reasons for the change, personal health is the key to success, but environmental sustainability is also important to consumers.

Which country has the most flexitarians?

The HealthFerm project surveyed 7,812 consumers in nine countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Romania and Switzerland.

In Germany, the proportion of flexitarians is highest at 30%. In France, Switzerland and Belgium, between 18 and 20% of respondents described themselves as flexitarians, in Romania it was only 14% and in Finland only 6%.

Educational level, socioeconomic status and age are associated with nutrition

What the survey could confirm is that lower consumption of animal products is associated with higher levels of education and socioeconomic status.

Two percent of respondents with a bachelor's degree identified themselves as vegan, which is twice as many as those who completed secondary school. Consumers with a college degree identified themselves as vegan almost twice as often as those with only a bachelor's degree.

From a socioeconomic status perspective, respondents who described their financial situation as “extremely easy” were more than twice as likely to identify as vegetarian or vegan than those who described their financial situation as “neither easy nor difficult.”

Age is also linked to meat consumption. In the age group of 25 to 43 years, 10% of respondents described themselves as vegetarians or vegans, while in the age group of 65 years and older this figure fell to just 3%.

Interested in other HealthFerm findings?

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The general perception is that consumers are more willing to buy a product if the price is lower. But when it comes to plant-based products, Europeans buck this trend.

Find out more here: Consumers don’t want cheap plant-based meat and dairy products​​