Consumers Have a Growing Appetite for Protein

Research indicates consumers place high importance on protein when planning meals, shopping and eating, but they may not have accurate knowledge about all protein sources.

September 20, 2018

NEW YORK – Protein is important. According to a report from consumer research firm Nielsen, 55% of U.S. households say protein is a major consideration when buying groceries, and approximately 5.4 million U.S. residents now live on a high-protein diet.

While the demand for plant-based proteins is increasing, research shows that consumers still choose traditional sources as their primary proteins. The top five protein sources are meat (78%), eggs (61%), dairy (58%) and fish/seafood (29%), which dominate the category with $148.7 billion in sales.

However, alternate protein sources can’t be ignored. Outside the top five sources, Nielsen sees sales of $22.6 billion for products that are good or excellent protein providers. With more protein products appearing on shelves, do consumers know how much protein is in popular foods found in different areas of a store?

Nielsen conducted two surveys: one in December 2015 and the other in July 2018. Each survey included 20,000-plus respondents who were asked their opinions on how much protein is contained in certain items from around the store. The results found that American consumer beliefs about protein content in common foods doesn’t always align with reality.

For example, 78% of respondents believed that peanut butter is higher in protein than it actually is. Additionally, only 20% of respondents knew that shrimp is a high-protein food, and a majority of consumers didn’t recognize cottage cheese as a high-protein item, although its protein count is quite high.

Traditional high-protein sources—beef, chicken and pork—also didn’t score well in the minds of consumers. Between 45% and 64% of consumers didn’t consider beef, chicken or pork to be high in protein in Nielsen’s survey, and that’s an even wider range than reported in 2015.

While 55% of consumers correctly stated how much protein is in beef, that’s still a relatively low percentage for a primary source. Chicken won the award for most improved consumer awareness, as the correct identification increased four percentage points (to 42%) from the 2015 survey. The same can’t be said for pork, as fewer consumers correctly identified it as being high in protein, dropping to 36% from 37% in 2015.

It’s interesting to note that across categories, greatest generation and millennial consumers were most knowledgeable about protein content in everyday foods.

Consumers still make 60% of their purchase decisions at the shelf, Nielsen noted. This finding indicates that it’s smart for manufacturers and retailers to tout protein content on the package, and with in-store signage, even when a product’s protein content may seem obvious.