News - December 6, 2018

Real men must have meat?

Tessa Louwerens,Gina Ho

A barbecue loaded with spareribs and chops is said to make the average Dutchman feel manlier. So the Netherlands Nutrition Centre Foundation (Voedingscentrum) launched a campaign to encourage men to eat vegetarian now and then, using slogans like ‘never bean so happy’ and ‘get egg-cited’. Is that going to work? And is the image of men as diehard carnivores really right?

Text Gina Ho and Tessa Louwerens illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

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Kees de Graaf

Professor of Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour

‘Men eat a bit more meat than women, but then they also eat more bread, milk and other products. Their energy requirements are higher. From that point of view, I think the Voedingscentrum overestimates the difference. The association between masculinity and meat-eating has a strong cultural basis. It goes back to our hunter-gatherer period. For some men, eating meat is an important part of their identity and that explains their sometimes fierce reactions to meat substitutes. In think the campaign will help raise awareness but there is always a certain group that you can’t change.’


Tomas van der Heijden

MSc student of Plant Sciences

‘When we were still hunter-gatherers, it was mainly the man’s role to go out and hunt. If it wasn't for hunting and the calories it brought in, evolution would probably have gone a lot slower. Eating meat gave us enough nutrients, and enabled us to focus on different things than foraging for berries. In this day and age there is nothing masculine about eating meat. I’m a flexitarian: I have cut down on meat because I care about my climate footprint. Caring for the environment shouldn’t be a masculine or feminine thing: that's polarizing. It should be part of our humanity to care. The campaign is a funny way to promote a different diet, but I don't think it will be very effective.’​

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Hans Dagevos

Sociologist of consumption at Wageningen Economic Research

‘In the advertising world, cars, beer and meat are seen as men’s products. Behind every stereotype there is a germ of truth. Research does show that men are more attached to meat. But there are a lot of nuances, and there is a whole group of men who are very happy to do without meat. The food consumption survey done by the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment shows that men do eat more meat, so it is logical for the Voedingscentrum to focus on that. But you shouldn’t overemphasize the gender difference, because then you indirectly reinforce the link between meat and masculinity, and you risk alienating both the meat-eaters and the flexitarians. What is more, it distracts us from the core issue: that we all need to cut down on meat.’


Louisa Aarrass

MSc student of Organic Agriculture

‘I’m mainly vegetarian but I won’t turn down meat at, say, a big family gathering. I think this campaign by the Voedingscentrum is lame. It equates food choices with gender expression and it’s reductive: it puts people in boxes when it doesn’t have to. Instead of dismantling this old idea of what masculinity is, it’s actually reinforcing it. Instead, we need campaigns that excite people. Art can connect, provoke and stretch people’s imagination and it has a subtle but deep power that could actually change people's choices, including food. Initiatives that start in the community instead of top-down have a lot of power too.’

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Margreet van der Burg

Associate professor of gender studies

‘The image of meat as macho and masculine doesn’t fit the men like those in Wageningen, who are already thinking seriously about their food choices. And I don’t think the men we see as fanatical meat-eaters will feel the campaign is talking to them. Compared with other countries, the Netherlands is not an extremely carnivorous country – although we do produce and export a lot of meat. I think the campaign is a nice idea but I think it would be more effective to look at how meat is marketed. In the supermarket, for example, it is not easy to buy portions for just one or two people. You are encouraged to buy it in large quantities. And I think it’s good to go on being “tough” by eating less meat per meal and having one meat-free day a week.’


Hanneke Nijland

Researcher in Strategic Communication

From an evolutionary point of view, there is an instinctive link between eating meat and strength: it gives people a powerful feeling to be at the top of the food chain. But I think we’re past that now. From my research on motives for eating or not eating meat, it emerged that older people see meat as a status symbol. That is partly because they went through the post-war period when meat was expensive. But nowadays, with cut-price meat, the opposite is true. In our study we didn’t find any big differences in the motives of men and women. It is too simplistic to concentrate solely on self-image; it reduces men to a group that don’t look beyond that. It would be better to emphasize environmental impact, health and animal welfare. Because what we want is for people to see the bigger picture, not just their own interests.’

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Ted Sparkes

MSc Environmental Science

‘The vegetarian option is not always the one with the lowest carbon footprint – for example, an apple flown over from New Zealand isn’t necessarily ‘greener’. I’m fine with animals being killed for food, as long as they were treated humanely. People from rural areas are more likely to associate eating meat with masculinity, like the two guys I used to live with – they care more about supporting local farmers than climate change. Also, you need to be more creative with vegetarian cooking, and some people still think cooking is not masculine. Speaking for myself though, I don't agree that being vegetarian is less masculine because I wasn’t brought up with that idea. The more educated you become about climate change, the more you realise that’s a dated and narrow-minded view.’