The good news? Consumers say protein content is important. The bad news? They aren’t always aware that meat, chicken and seafood are good sources of protein. So processors have some catching up to do capitalizing on the popular high-protein trend.

In fact, 45 percent to 64 percent of consumers say they actually don’t consider beef, chicken or pork to be high in protein, Nielsen found. Let that sink in.

Grocery shoppers certainly look for high protein content when buying food — up to 55 percent of U.S. households, in fact, Nielsen reports. In fact, a variety of manufacturers are promoting protein content in products such as peanut butter, eggs and dairy. 

According to Nielsen, products that are good or excellent sources of protein reached sales of $22.6 billion as of June 9, 2018, an increase of 1.3 percent. Plant-based proteins are also growing in popularity, as consumers look for healthy, ethnic and environmentally conscious meals.

For now, traditional sources of protein such as meat, eggs and dairy remain category leaders, as these segments along with seafood and legumes/ nuts/ seeds account for $148.7 billion in sales and growth of 1.1 percent, noted Nielsen. But more work can be done to appeal to high-protein shoppers with nature’s largest source of protein.


Appealing to taste, versatility

Last year, chicken was the most popular protein at retail, selling 5.3 billion pounds — a slight 0.4 percent decrease from the previous year, reports Midan Marketing’s Power of Meat in 2018. 

“Beef is close on chicken’s heels with 5.2 billion pounds purchased by consumers in 2017, with a 0.9 percent increase from the prior year,” says Danette Amstein, principal of Midan Marketing. “While pork, veal and lamb all saw decreases in pounds sold in 2017, pork remains a solid retail seller with 2.5 billion pounds.”

Beef and chicken were the most common varieties eaten, according to Midan’s 2018 Meat and Poultry SNAP! Keynote report. “Both proteins appeal for a wide variety of reasons, from great taste and versatility to family appeal and protein content,” says Amstein.

In fact, the term “protein“ is mentioned on 9 percent of menus, up 77 percent over the past four years, says Joe Garber, marketing coordinator at Datassential, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm.

“Operators view chicken as the protein most likely to fulfill their menu objectives,” Garber says. “Chicken was chosen by two to three times as many operators as beef or pork for best performing on versatility, low food cost and a dozen other operational goals.”  

Chicken is popular with restaurant-goers, as well, and is still the most widely consumed protein at foodservice. 

“Beef is second, though it’s been losing some share in dining habits,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters. “Pork has definitely been growing the most significantly over the past few years thanks to effective consumer and operator marketing by the Pork Board, as well as a great deal of innovation among operators around the protein.”

Fish and seafood are far less commonly consumed than chicken, beef and pork. “American consumers have just not embraced these proteins [nationally — regionally, there is some variation for specific types of fish/seafood] as much as in other cultures,” Webster says. 

Consumers who eat proteins at least occasionally (once every 90 days) favor chicken (83 percent), beef (78 percent), seafood (65 percent) and pork (55 percent), says Lizzy Freier, managing editor at Technomic, a Winsight Co. 

Older consumers are more likely to consume animal proteins than younger consumers, although younger consumers have embraced pork in a way other generations have not, Webster says.

“Grouping beef, pork and chicken together as general ‘meat,’ actually more older consumers than younger ones eat both meat and seafood, Freier says. “Eighty percent of 18- to 34-year-olds eat meat at least occasionally, while 88 percent of 35 and ups say the same.” 

In addition, 56 percent of 18- to 34-year olds eat seafood at least occasionally, while 71 percent of 35 and ups say the same.


Embracing transparency

What qualities are consumers looking for in their protein picks? Premium quality and all natural. Midan Marketing recently conducted two research studies for Tyson Fresh Meats on consumers who eat beef or pork at home at least once a week to learn more about their eating habits. 

“In the retail space, we are finding upward trends in purchasing for mindful and humanely raised beef and pork,” Amstein says. “More specifically, all-natural beef is the leading trend in red meat, with nearly one quarter of beef purchasers (22 percent) seeking it out in the case. Similarly, in pork, all-natural continues to trend upward, with 15 percent of pork-consuming retail customers choosing all-natural product at least monthly.”

Midan’s research also showed that consumers who purchase meat at least monthly choose premium products (19 percent of beef consumers), beef raised with no added hormones (18 percent), USDA organic beef (17 percent of beef-consuming purchasers) and grass-fed beef or beef raised with no antibiotics ever (15 percent), says Amstein. 

Consumers who purchase pork at least monthly want all-natural pork (15 percent), are motivated to buy USDA certified organic or no-added-hormone pork products (11 percent), antibiotic-free pork (10 percent) and prime pork cuts (8 percent), Amstein says.

“Natural and clean labeling is probably one of the most important things that consumers are looking for when it comes to their proteins, whether they be meat, poultry or fish,” Freier says. This encompasses a wide range of things: transparency, sourcing, animal welfare, etc. 

“Consumers appear to see value in meat and poultry production methods that convey premium or ‘clean label’ qualities, including antibiotic-free, organic and free-range,” Garber says. “They also say they are more likely to buy proteins with traditional premium descriptors like tenderness and all-white meat.” 


Moving beyond burgers

Although bacon and barbecue are still star attractions at restaurants, pork is witnessing an Old World revival of sorts within the sausage category. “Charcuterie mentions on menus are up 60 percent over the past four years, and regional European varieties such as prosciutto, capicola and even ‘nduja [a spicy, spreadable Italian sausage] are growing,” Garber says. “Link sausages like kielbasa and boudin are coming up behind the New Orleans favorite andouille.” 

Poultry sausages also are among the fastest growing varieties, including turkey (up 24 percent) and chicken apple (up 26 percent), Garber says.

“Since the majority of mentions do not call out a specific variety, there is room to promote sausage more effectively around its origin or recipe, or to highlight a better-for-you profile,” Garber says.

Certainly, world cuisines continue to play an enormous role with innovation in foodservice, which trickles down to retail. “With Korean continuing to be a big player, though Israeli, Middle Eastern, African — broadly, it’s too early for a lot of country or regional specificity — and Filipino are growing in influence,” says Webster.

While nearly half of consumers say they have tried or are interested in plant-based alternatives such as crumbles or sausages, 68 percent have no interest in lab meat and among those, half say efforts such as sampling or low prices would not change their minds, Garber says.

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“The biggest emerging trend, likely much to the animal protein industry’s dismay, is the pulling back on portion sizes of meat either as a [center of the plate] or an ingredient in more plant-based dishes,” Webster says. “That’s not to say Americans are becoming vegetarians. Far from it. Rather, they are trying to have a better balance of a broader range of foods.” 

Beyond Burgers are doing well, she says, particularly at the college level. “Ethical and environmental issues are absolutely a concern among younger consumers, though their activism is a bit dispersed and has yet to have effectively coalesced around a specific issue beyond free-range eggs or general humane treatment,” Webster says.


Paying for quality

Consumers appear to be willing to pay more for better quality and ethical considerations. 

“Based on the findings listed above, we believe that consumers are willing to pay more for trending attributes,” Amstein says. “Many of the more natural and humanely raised cuts of beef and pork carry a higher price tag, and all areas continue to grow with consumers who purchase beef and pork at least once a week.”

Further, Midan’s research shows that 47 percent of retail pork purchasers choose higher-priced natural product “at least most of the time.” 

“Similarly, 50 percent of retail beef customers choose natural cuts ‘at least most of the time,’ while 45 percent choose no added hormone and 46 percent pick no antibiotics ‘at least most of the time’ during their shopping trips,” Amstein says.

Consumers truly committed to an ethical or environmental cause have proven they are willing to pay more, though how much will vary widely. “If not, Whole Foods wouldn’t have been as successful as it had been,” Webster says. 

“The degree to which consumers are willing to pay more for other trends — world cuisines, better-for-you, etc. — is far more difficult to determine,” Webster says. “As for the Beyond Meats and similar technology-based options, I think they are willing to pay more to a point though it will be interesting to see how that plays out in market dynamics as that category becomes more common-place or more familiar/available to consumers.”

Women, for example, are significantly more likely than men to say they are willing to pay more for all-natural, antibiotic-free and organic meat and poultry products (38 percent vs. 26 percent, 38 percent vs. 27 percent and 32 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively), Garber says. “Men are more likely to say that those attributes make no difference to them,” he says.

At restaurants, 58 percent of consumers say they’d be more likely to buy and are willing to pay more for seafood that is fresh, Freier says. “Forty-six percent of consumers are willing to pay more for white-meat chicken,” she says. “Forty-one percent would be willing to pay more for beef that is premium. There are a lot of other attributes that consumers would be willing to pay more for, many of which are health halo terms.”  NP