meat market Germany's eating habits die hard

Late to the party, Germans are starting to embrace health food and even vegetarianism, with meat and sugar consumption on the decline.
Traditional tastes.

Until a few years ago, guests in a typical German cafeteria had lunch options ranging from pork knuckle to schnitzel, with a strong coffee and sweet cake to round out the meal. Germans love eating, beginning with a hearty breakfast, then a lighter second breakfast and lunch. After that, coffee and cake breaks up the afternoon, with dinner to look forward to later.

But times are changing, gradually, unevenly and sometimes reluctantly. A typical German diets is not as packed with meats and sweets as it once was, a reflection of changing lifestyles and influence from abroad. A new survey by Civey shows Germans are now consuming less alcohol and less meat, and eating more fruit than in the past. These changes are also making themselves felt gradually in the country's canteens, which now are more likely to offer vegetarian options.

Larger companies have been forced to rethink the way they sell food by more agile newcomers to the market, many of them family-run small and mid-sized enterprises. They have also had to change packaging to appeal to greater numbers of people eating on the go, and single people buying smaller portions of food. Germans spend more on organic food than any other country in Europe, the survey showed. Concerns about the environment and health are changing the amount of meat people eat, too.

Ten years ago, a US exchange student visiting Germany for the first time recalled her shock and dismay at her first formal occasion in southern Germany, at a rotary club, where the meal was a local specialty, blood pudding. “I stuck my fork in and all this stuff came out,” she said. “It was gross but I forced myself to eat it — I was trying to be diplomatic.”

Now, several food scandals later, only 21 percent of Germans eat meat every day, though on average, Germans tend to eat more meat than average in Europe. Consumption here has dropped to 64 kilos a year from 69 in 2010, thanks to health, ethical and environmental concerns.

That’s also making vegetarianism and veganism more popular, with 10 percent of Germans leading meatless lifestyles in 2016, twice as many as in 2006. It’s good news for the meats substitutes sector: In 2016, Germany launched more vegan products — from ersatz currywurst to dark chocolate nut bars — than any other country, according to research agency Mintel. However, that's still small potatoes compared to the market for processed meat and seafood.

Germans aren't the most innovative when it comes to snacks.

An international trade fair all about sweets in Cologne, Germany, has felt those changes strongly. "Three years ago, we broadened our focus to include savory snacks," said Christine Hackmann, a spokeswoman for the trade fair. Now there is a fresh focus on cereal bars, savory goodies and vegetable snacks. For a conservative industry like food, it took time and not everyone was happy about it, Ms. Hackmann noted.

Many of the changes to German eating habits have come from abroad, she said. "Chocolate has really been around for much longer, whereas savory snacks only arrived here 30 years ago with American-style TV," she said, adding that Dutch and the British are much further ahead in terms of fast and healthy food. "Germans aren't the most innovative when it comes to snacks.”

Much is changing in Berlin and other larger cities in the way of international influences but less so in rural areas, according to Per Meurling, a Swede who runs a website about restaurants called Berlin Food Stories. He doesn't expect the rest of the country to catch up for some time. The way Germans eat is also shaped by their war experiences, he said, and later the industrialization of food. "Food was heavily industrialized here – Germans do that really well, he said. "And that's one reason why many shop at discount supermarkets." Germans still spend less money, as a proportion of income, on food than any other country in Europe aside from the Dutch.

Sugar still exerts a strong influence, with 20 percent of Germans slurping sugary soft drinks or eating sweets daily. But for the first time, Germans are importing fewer sweets, and the market for cereal bars is growing rapidly. Concerns about obesity and other health issues are also driving many Germans to eat better. According to Civey, many consumers want more government support. Berlin's politicians have called for a system similar to the one in France, where labeling systems make it more clear to consumers how healthy foods are. The German food lobby argues that major companies already label foods, but critics say this doesn’t go far enough.

Relatively speaking, the spat is a storm in a teacup. Germany remains a land of dumplings, cakes and sausages, even if in less delicious excess.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. Heike Jahberg und Antje Sirleschtov from Der Tagesspiegel newspaper contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected]