- Protein is a vital part of most people's meal planning, a new survey from the International Food Information Council found. Almost three-quarters of consumers try to eat protein — from animals or plants — at dinner, while 56% try to eat it for lunch and 49% at breakfast. Consumers' top three reasons for eating protein are to have a balanced diet, to satisfy hunger throughout the day and to build muscle health/strength.
- Almost seven in 10 people said they have tried at least one new plant-based protein in the last year. The largest number — 28% — tried a plant-based alternative to meat. There were also many who tried new varieties of milk alternatives (24%) or other dairy alternatives (21%), and other new varieties of packaged foods high in plant proteins (21%). The top reason that consumers choose any protein — plant or animal-based — is taste, according to a quarter of participants. Price (20%), type of protein (19%) and healthfulness (17%) were also seen as important.
- Protein has been in the spotlight as a desired nutrient in the last several years as consumer demand has skyrocketed and manufacturers have included healthy proteins in a diverse variety of products. While IFIC's study focuses primarily on "center-of-plate" proteins — meats and alternatives — it also looks at other natural sources of protein, including dairy, eggs, beans, peas and soy.
It's not surprising that most people have sampled new alternative forms of protein in the last year. For this survey, IFIC spoke to 1,009 adults older than 18 on Nov. 9 and 10. At that point, many consumers had spent the previous eight months primarily at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the summer, a previous IFIC study found the pandemic had changed eating habits for 85% of consumers. And the health halo of plant-based foods has led many consumers to at least give them a try.
But no matter how outsized the trend toward plant-based food seems, the IFIC study found that most consumers still rely on and prefer meat. In the study, 76% of respondents identified as omnivores — rather than vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, vegetarian on some days, or others. (The study did not include the trendy term "flexitarian.") A full fifth of survey respondents said they do not buy plant protein. Those who do seem to look at it as a more natural protein substitute. Survey participants were asked to choose the three most important labels they look for on plant-based proteins. The top choice, with 28% of responses, was "good source of protein," followed by "natural" (26%) and "organic" (22%).
On the meat side, the survey showed that sustainability and humane treatment label claims don't matter as much to consumers. "No antibiotics" and "natural" were tied as the most important meat label claim, with each getting 23% of responses. They were closely followed by "no added hormones" at 22%. "Humanely raised" trailed, with just 16% of responses, and "cage-free" (11%), "free range" (11%), "sustainably raised" (10%) and "fair trade" (5%) were near the bottom.
This survey shows manufacturers and producers would benefit from concentrating on quality products that taste good and are inexpensive and healthy. If the coronavirus pandemic forces the meat and egg supply chains to tighten again, manufacturers can succeed with products that don't necessarily meet sustainability certifications. Providers of plant-based meats, which scientists say may not actually be healthier than the real thing, should also play up the aspects of their products that are better for consumers. Telling consumers that a plant-based burger will fill them up with natural ingredients may be more compelling than comparing its environmental impact to that of a conventional burger.
The question is whether these are short-term consumer attitudes shaped by the pandemic, or if this is how consumers will look at protein in the long run. It may depend a lot on how consumers emerge from the long period of lockdown. Some financial analysts think that CPG companies will see lower profits this year as more consumers are vaccinated for COVID-19 and can transition from eating at home to going back to restaurants. But a recent survey from consumer marketing firm Hunter found that seven in 10 consumers say they will continue to cook at home more after the pandemic. If protein products become more plentiful and consumers aren't necessarily looking for food that will keep them healthy, issues like sustainability and humane treatment may become a top consumer concern.