Have you yet enjoyed some antibiotic-free chicken in a protein bowl? If so, well done, trendy eater. That dish pretty much encapsulates all of the hot trends in food right now: a free-from, low-fat protein that offers plenty of energy in an unconventional format. Consumers still want protein, but are more willing to experiment with healthy, preservative-free choices.

According to the Hartman Group’s Diners’ Changing Behaviors 2015 report, 60 percent of consumers say they are actively trying to increase their protein intake. They value protein’s nutrient density and satiety, but they are also consciously exploring plant-based proteins and focusing more on food quality and smaller portions, according to the Bellevue, Wash.-based research firm.

“Health is the leading driver of decreased animal protein consumption,” notes Brett Dworski, associate editor, Consumer Insights, at Chicago-based Technomic, pointing to Technomic’s 2017 Poultry Consumer Trend Report and 2017 Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. “Patrons look for protein dishes made without antibiotics and GMOs and that are humanely raised. Availability and affordability are also key qualities.”

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Talking about my generation

In general, chicken, bacon and steak round out the top three proteins that Americans say they love the most, says Joe Garber, marketing coordinator, Datassential, based in Chicago.

“Meat and poultry make up the top 10 most loved, with the exception of shrimp and eggs,” Garber says. “We do expect to see more consumers order more fish and poultry – around one in five consumers are trying to limit their consumption of red meat.”

Beef and chicken remain the most commonly consumed animal proteins, with at least 94 percent of consumers ages 18 and older occasionally indulging in both, says Dworski.

“Seafood, on the other hand, isn’t as popular among this same group, as only 62 percent of consumers occasionally indulge,” Dworski says.

All generations are receptive to choosing proteins, but the proteins selected are different based on their generation.

“Both Millennials and Boomers love bacon the most, while Gen X and Gen Z put chicken first,” Garber says.


Embracing better-for-you options

Shoppers definitely expect more from their food today — namely, health and energy.

“Consumers are currently seeking out both ‘healthy 2.0’ feel-good foods — organic, sustainable, humanely raised, antibiotic-free — and ‘healthy 3.0’ foods that do something for them, i.e., give them enough energy, protein, keep them full, etc.,” says Garber.

Meats, poultry and seafood can fulfill both areas, such as the aforementioned antibiotic-free chicken in a protein bowl.

“Our Keynote Report: The New Healthy reported that fresh meats are a hot button for consumers looking for better-for-you options — burgers, poultry and deli meats fall in line with consumers seeking higher quality, cleaner entrée proteins,” says Garber.

In fact, 42 percent of consumers surveyed say they want to see healthier options for beef, pork and lamb, Garber says.

The industry is listening, as half of 2016’s new red meat launches contained low-, no- or reduced-allergen or gluten-free claims — the most popular claim in new red meat products, noted Chicago-based Mintel’s Packaged Red Meat - US - February 2017 report.

Free-from claims resonate most with Millennial parents, according to the report.

Consumers are certainly seeking allergen-free (11 percent) and gluten-free (14 percent) foods, noted Mintel’s Better-for-You Eating Trends — US, September 2016 report.

But more shoppers also want to avoid saturated fat (43 percent), artificial preservatives (38 percent) and artificial flavors (35 percent), reported Mintel.

“According to the New Healthy keynote, clean foods — those that are natural and free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and GMOs — have a premium price perception with more than a quarter of consumers who would pay more for these products,” says Garber.

In particular, 30 percent of consumers would pay more for local foods and ingredients, 29 percent would pay more for hormone- or antibiotic-free, and 27 percent would pay more for organic and natural ingredients, Garber says.


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Delivering unique flavors

Growing up, Millennials had a lot more travel and dining experiences than Boomers, and their meal choices reflect that.

“Millennials are looking for increased variety, flavor and exotic flavors from around the world,” says Michael Uetz, principal, Midan Marketing, based in Chicago. “They want a different taste and eating experience every night.”

Top-growing protein options on menus are premium or specialized options, Garber says.

“So instead of bacon, you see maple-glazed bacon, or instead of general terms you see specific varieties like branzino or Wagyu,” he says.

Seafood is certainly key to one of the top trends on menus today — poke.

New seafood dishes with ethnic flavors will arise, as half of consumers demand a wider variety of seafood on restaurant menus, and 37 percent want to see more ethnic seafood dishes in general, says Dworski, citing Technomic’s 2017 Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report.

Armed with $1.7 trillion in purchasing power, Hispanic consumers consume a large amount of pork and ham, due to recipes specific to their culture, noted Mintel’s report. But they also are more willing to try lamb, buffalo/bison and ostrich, compared with non-Hispanics.

It’s not just Hispanics, however, who are interested in spicy cuisine, as 90 percent of weekly meat eaters consumed Mexican food in the past three months (58 percent of whom cooked at home).

“Customization is now an expectation at restaurants, so many concepts are looking to the next big trend, which seems to be increased personalization,” says Dworski. “Consumers want a personalized experience every time they enter a restaurant, and they’re looking for eateries to step outside the box regarding how and what they serve — this relates to the menu, the service and tech enhancements all driven by data.”

Dworski says chains may also create unique combinations of spicy flavors and dishes that are visually appealing, or “Instagrammable.”

“Varieties that may have once been a little too forward-thinking for consumers are also growing on menus with options like octopus, bone marrow, bison and venison,” says Garber.

Consumers are still frequent restaurant-goers, with 51 percent ordering food or beverages from fast food restaurants once a week or more and 40 percent visiting fast casual establishments, Dworski says.

“However, patronage at fast-food restaurants has decreased [from 60 percent in 2014], while patronage at fast-casual restaurants has increased [from 38 percent in 2014],” Dworski says. “Thus, while consumers are more often visiting quick service, that may change in the coming years.”

Shoppers are more time-pressed than ever, so anything that offers convenience is a good thing.

“Retailers are offering more online ordering, delivery, meal kit programs and food courts,” Uetz says. “To get consumers to come into their store, they also offer entertainment factors, which are more about increasing engagement — such as holding classes, selling wine, grilling meat and fish that can be eaten in the store.”


Going green

Going forward, consumers will expect full disclosure of where their food comes from, what’s in it and what’s not in the product or dish.

“Companies will continue to increase transparency to appeal to consumers’ desires for more candid conversations about where food is coming from,” Dworski says.

Consumers want to know where their product came from, see the look and feel of the operation, hear about the company’s good stewardship and see the animals being produced, Uetz says.

“Millennials have strong values and want to connect with companies that produce their products,” Uetz says.

Transparency is useless, though, if consumers don’t understand what is being communicated.

“A challenge the industry has is communicating what is in and what is not in their food, and educating consumers on what terminology actually means,” says Uetz. “With grass-fed beef, the industry has not come together with one definition, for example.”

Sustainability is another area receiving consumer interest (and packaging claims), but is also not fully explained, he says.

Mintel’s red meat report points out that many brands are trying to promote themselves by touting product integrity and animal and environmental welfare qualities, such as Smithfield’s MBGro progam to “advance on-farm conservation practices and food supply chain sustainability” by reducing fertilizer runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.

“And plant-based foods [aka meat substitutes] are also increasing, as consumers continue to ask for more vegetables at the center of the plate,” says Dworski.

Meat-substitute programs — such as Beyond Meat, which has gotten attention for its plant-based Beyond Burger — are becoming more prominent as they look and taste similar enough to burgers to show up in the meat case.

“Our research shows that Millennials are looking for better-for-you foods,” says Uetz. “They know they need to have protein, but they are not discriminatory about where they get it. In fact, they don’t even see meat as the best source of protein.”

The last few years have shown the meat and poultry industries don’t own messaging on protein, as products as diverse as yogurt and nutritional bars claim it.

“Beyond Meat is taking sales from the meat department,” Uetz says. “The meat case needs to take back the protein message.” NP