Wim Verbeke

A quarter century of protein transition in Belgium: Insights from agri-food marketing and consumer science

Professor Wim Verbeke1

1Ghent University, Department of Agricultural Economics, Gent, Belgium

Aim: The evolution towards a more sustainable, equitable and balanced protein system – also referred to as the ‘protein transition’ or the ‘protein shift’ – figures high on many agendas, including the socio-economic, political, ethical and food technological ones. This contribution focuses on the consumer perspective and discusses the role of health and sustainability as possible drivers of food choice while accounting for diversity in terms of personal characteristics, attitudes, interests and motivations.

Method: Findings from selected consumer studies are shared taking the recent evolution of meat consumption and the Green Deal protein strategy’s ambition as points of departure. The selected consumer studies address the citizen attitude – consumer behaviour gap, the mapping of consumer perceptions and attitudes, the perceived importance of health and sustainability relative to other food product attributes, as well as determinants of purchase intentions and behaviour in relation to alternative proteins. Market segmentation studies address diversity among consumers and willingness-to-pay studies reveal the market potential for foods with a health and sustainability benefit.

Results: Empirical findings illustrate that the concepts of health and sustainability match each other for a large majority of consumers, although only about one third is strongly interested in both concepts while making food choices. Since favourable attitudes towards health and sustainability do not systematically translate into according behaviours, the attitude-behaviour gap is discussed, providing insight into why individual consumers may not consistently act in line with their attitude as a citizen. The addressed cases concern plant-based foods, foods with microalgae protein, insects and cell-cultured meat, each with their factors of appeal or repel from the consumer perspective. Specific challenges emerge with respect to the ultra-processed status of foods with alternative proteins, micro- and macro-economic evolutions, as well as product branding and labelling.

Conclusions: This contribution argues that the protein transition has been on-going for at least a quarter century in Western societies and that it tends to slow down rather than to speed up recently. Based on the presented insights, implications and challenges for food policy, public and private communication and food technology will be discussed.


Wim Verbeke is full professor of agri-food marketing and consumer behaviour, making use of his complimentary background in natural and social sciences. Wim graduated from Ghent University with a Bachelor of Science degree (in 1991) and a Master of Science degree (in 1993) in Bio-science Engineering: Agricultural Sciences. He obtained a Master of Business Administration in Marketing Management from the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in 1994. He holds a Ph.D. in Applied Biological Sciences (1999) from Ghent University and he is currently involved in academic teaching and scientific research in the field of economics, food marketing, market(ing) research and consumer behaviour. Wim Verbeke and his research team were/are a partner in multiple European and national research projects dealing with food consumer science. Wim has (co-) authored more than 350 peer-reviewed papers in leading international journals and books in the disciplines of agricultural economics and policy, agricultural sciences, marketing, communication, food science and technology, and nutrition and dietetics, including multiple highly-cited papers.