Most Americans (89 percent) agree it is important to eat enough protein in their diet, and that protein can be part of a heart healthy diet (86 percent), reports Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)’s Food and Health Survey 2015. Nearly three-quarters also say protein helps people feel full, the IFIC reports.

While the IFIC doesn’t have specific data on portion size and protein, the foundation does ask Americans about barriers to protein consumption. IFIC data reveals that the top reasons Americans do not consume more protein than they do now are the beliefs they already get enough protein and foods with protein are sometimes more expensive.

“There’s still room for additional education and communication around some of the perceived barriers to protein consumption that may prove challenging for portion-controlled meat and poultry products, but the overall direction for consumer interest in this important nutrient is positive,” says Sarah Romotsky, IFIC’s director of health and wellness.

Who wants portion control?

The 2015 IFIC survey found that although a downward trend occurred in taking control of the healthfulness of one’s diet, specific actions in regard to diet changes are consistent with the foundation’s survey from last year. For example, the majority of Americans (68 percent) say they have made an effort to consume smaller portions during the past year or longer. This number was consistent with 2014 survey results. The IFIC also found 41 percent of Americans say “eating smaller meals or snacks” has or will contribute the most to maintaining or losing weight.

While a steady awareness and interest in portion control is present among the majority of consumers, the IFIC found that college graduates, people with a higher income and women are the groups most likely to make this diet decision.

“We know from our research that 75 percent of Americans say ‘they would be likely to eat smaller portions of what they eat now as a method for weight management,’ and those with a higher BMI are most likely to say this,” Romotsky says. “Also, women and younger Americans are more likely to say ‘eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks’ is a method they are likely to use or continue to use for weight management.”

The IFIC survey also found most Americans, particularly younger consumers, are excited about the idea of futuristic food technology, especially as it pertains to calorie control. The survey asked, “If you time traveled 30 years into the future and found that the following had been invented, how excited would you be to try food that has customizable nutritional value/calories?” More than three-quarters (78 percent) of Americans would be very excited or somewhat excited.

“As a registered dietician, I know that portion control and energy balance are effective methods for weight management and weight loss, and now it seems the American public is on board with these strategies as well,” Romotsky says.

When buying meat and poultry, cost, perceived availability and lesser taste are reasons why consumers place more weight on attributes such as price and convenience over nutrition, finds the 2015 Power of Meat report from the North American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute. Shoppers do have strategies, though, relative to their diet. For example, 42 percent “regularly” cut down on portion sizes of meat and poultry and another 47 percent “occasionally” do, the report found. In addition, 38 percent said they “regularly” limit second helpings of meat and poultry as a healthy eating tactic with 47 percent of those sampled saying they “occasionally” do.

The 2015 Power of Meat also reports that middle- and lower-income shoppers tend to place a lower emphasis on nutrition when purchasing meat and poultry and are less likely to implement healthy eating strategies. If they do, they tend to focus on portion control and avoiding second helpings. In addition, the report again found women most frequently focus on portion control by cutting down portion sizes and second helpings. Shoppers who have purchased natural and/or organic meat and poultry in the past three months also implement healthy eating strategies, including cutting down on portion sizes, with greater regularity.

In tune with these finds, The Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Wash., also believes consumers are regulating themselves today more than in the past.

“Whether true or not, consumers believe themselves to be more capable of controlling portions than in the past era of 100-calorie packs and the like,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of Hartman Retainer Services. “Consumers want the ability to decide the sizes of their portions for themselves, rather than have it be dictated for them by a company.” 

Consumers concerned with portion control are largely concerned about weight management along with health and wellness, Abbott says. “Cost is less of an issue, with many consumers often willing to pay as much or more for products offering weight management solutions,” she explains.

Eating the right amount

One of the challenges in eating the correct portion size of meat and poultry products is many consumers don’t know exactly how much protein they eat.

“An overarching trend in mainstream food today is to eat more protein, rather than eating the right amount of protein for one’s lifestyle,” Hartman’s Abbott says. “Consumers may have problems understanding that there is such a thing as too much protein, especially due to messaging from food companies that seems to point to more protein without individual consumer considerations.”

Abbott sees very little currently happening in products with an overt focus on portion control.

“Some food retailers are selling progressive prepared goods in compartmentalized, bento-style packages that inherently add a sense of portion control without overtly referencing it,” she says. “Some products, like Oscar Mayer P3 are interesting through their combination of meat with sources of meatless protein, creating an offering that is perceived as better balanced by consumers. But innovation that combines portion control and higher quality are rare in the market.”

In the frozen meals category, portion control is taking an interesting turn. For example, the Lean Cuisine brand decreased significantly last year, says Emily Balsamo, a research analyst for Euromonitor International, Chicago. In turn, the brand is repositioning itself to align with modern health trends rather than calorie counting, AdvertisingAge reported in June. On the other hand, the Hungry Man brand, which consists of higher calorie meals with larger pieces of meat, increased sales more than 5 percent in 2014, Euromonitor reports.  

Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic Inc., Chicago, says portion-control products tend to be for snack food items, which consumers tend to eat a lot of and not really feel full.

“The overall behavior of eating those three square meals is pretty much gone, and they are pretty much snacking throughout the day,” Weikel says. “It fits in well with having those smaller portions to hold them over or to have just nice in-between meals to satisfy those cravings.”

Protein, though, is a little different, because it is more filling than most snack options. For example, a person could eat a whole bag of potato chips without feeling full. The same doesn’t hold true with a whole bag of beef jerky, which is more filling because it contains protein, Weikel explains. “When you think about portion options for [jerky], it’s more self-controlled,” she says. “The portions are more inherent because you are probably not going to be eating a lot of those because they are more substantial and more fulfilling.”

Retail and foodservice locations are offering more snacking options in general to fulfill consumers’ snacking needs. For foodservice, consumers often choose smaller portions, such as bite-size appetizers such as popcorn chicken or shrimp or other breaded meat and vegetable products, Weikel says.

While Weikel believes health and cost play a factor in the growth of smaller plate items, she also sees customers interested in experimenting. “When you think about restaurants, it’s definitely not about consumers looking at these occasions just as fuel or food,” she says. “They want to have an experience. A lot of times, they might just be going there for a snack because it’s more of that social occasion whether or not they might not be that hungry. They just want something small or they want something that’s smaller that they can share with the other people in their dining party.”

Growing portion control

Portion-control products do have the qualities consumers are looking for to keep growing.

“The 2015 survey makes it clear that consumers are looking at variety of components when making food and beverage purchasing decisions,” IFIC’s Romotsky says. “Whole grains, fiber and protein top the list as the components consumers are trying to get a certain amount or as much as possible. Portion control for weight management/loss is key, but it’s also important to make sure consumers understand how to meet nutrient need within the correct portions and overall calorie budget for optimal health.”

“Awareness and interest in protein remains high, so I think the future is bright for portion-controlled meat and poultry products,” Romotsky adds.

As consumers shift from quantity to quality of protein, companies should focus on sourcing high-quality proteins. “To many consumers this is via not treating animals with antibiotics or hormones at the very least,” Hartman’s Abbott says. “As consumers become more involved with health and wellness and sustainability, they will also become more concerned with enhanced animal welfare. For dairy, this means grass-fed and pastured cows, and perhaps even specific breeds of cow, like Jersey and Guernsey. For chicken, it means free range and organic fed.”

“We believe that the trend in higher quality to become more mainstream, especially around hormone and antibiotic free meats,” she continues. “With larger companies investing in the space — seen in Sara Lee’s acquisition of Aidell’s, and Hormel’s of Applegate Farms — there will likely be more offerings in the space from these more fresh and natural-focused brands.”

Consumers also are starting to move away from the idea that the bigger the portion, the higher the value. “Today’s consumers really do recognize that American restaurants especially tend to give you too much and that a larger portion of the food typically means that the quality is not as good,” Weikel says. “It’s thinking more and rationalizing more about if I want something that’s really high in quality, it’s OK that’s it’s a small portion. With proteins, particularly beef because the commodity prices have been higher, that’s the reason we’re seeing those bite-sized or smaller cuts, because they don’t want to use a lot of the protein just for food-cost reasons.”

Not to be forgotten, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed update to the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods will mean big changes in the way manufacturers represent portions, Euromonitor’s Balsamo says.

“They are trying to be more realistic as far as what people eat and this has a lot of implications, because, first of all, things are going to be much higher calorie on the nutrition label,” she explains. “But also at the same time, a lot of things will also be high in this and high in that only because the portion is so big. Any normal portion of meat would end up being a super-high-protein meal as opposed to previously what they determined to be a portion, which was pretty small. If and when [the proposed update] passes, that would be a big deal.”  NP