A Healthy Perspective: Protein Trends and the American Consumer

Originally Published: June 17, 2017
Last Updated: June 23, 2021
A Healthy Perspective: Protein Trends and the American Consumer .

IFIC’s annual survey of consumer food choices indicates that both animal- and plant-based protein consumption should continue to exhibit steady growth as revealed in “A Healthy Perspective: Protein Trends and the American Consumer.”

The good news is that most consumers associate “protein” with positive health benefits. So, protein sales are likely to continue their upward trajectory. The bad news is…most consumers don’t appear to be very clear as to what they mean by “healthy.” However, that’s a longer-term concern: For now, things look good.

These were the principle takeaways from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) annual “2017 Food & Health Survey.” The survey was drawn from on-line interviews of approximately 1,000 consumers weighted to represent the demographic profile of the U.S. IFIC is an industry-supported foundation dedicated to “effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good,” explained Liz Sanders, MPH, RDN, Director, Research and Partnerships, at IFIC.

Protein Consumption Trend

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Confusion about protein’s association with positive health benefits is particularly important, as the FDA’s current focus on “healthy food” definitions could have major implications for how protein is labeled on food and beverage packages, explained Sanders.

Close to 60% of respondents associated “healthy” foods as those high in nutritious ingredients, while about 58% associated them with the absence of undesirable ingredients (artificial ingredients, preservatives, etc.). Forty-eight percent of respondents associated “healthy” with specific food groups. However, at least half of consumer appear to be generally unable to link specific foods to specific health benefits, such as cardiovascular or digestive health.
And, while “weight-loss management” was the most commonly expressed “health benefit” that respondents were interested in getting from foods (30% of those surveyed), “We’ve never seen many respondents really pointing to protein as a source of weight gain,” said Sanders. So, in general, protein’s “health halo” remains rather undefined.

What do consumers perceive as healthy ingredients? The usual suspects (vitamin D, fiber, whole grains) still top the list, but a solid 70% of respondents identified plant proteins as “healthy,” and about 38% of respondents vouched the same for animal proteins.

Interestingly, the Millennial generation (age 18-34) expressed a far more positive health image for animal proteins than did aging Baby Boomers (age 65+): 47% of Millennials surveyed proclaimed animal protein to be healthy, against 27% of Boomer respondents.

The survey did expose a slight bias against meat proteins: 15% of respondents professed to perceive meat protein to be less healthful vs. 12% professing the opposite. For plant proteins, the bias was more in favor of their perceived healthfulness, with 21% perceiving them as being “more healthful,” against 8% perceiving them as less so.
Underscoring the importance of marketing and public relations, these respondents cited media, friends and family as the primary sources for these perceptions. Ironically, Sanders also presented data indicating “media reports” to be among the least-trusted sources for nutritional and dietary information.

The survey highlighted the higher percentage of people trying to increase their protein consumption—from 48 to 64%, between the years 2012-2016. When asked about which specific types of protein they sought to consume more, most respondents (70-76%) identified poultry and eggs.

The greatest number of respondents professing an increased avoidance of any protein was in relation to beef, with 45% actively trying to avoid beef vs. 53% trying to increase their beef consumption. This is still a net positive for the beef industry. For soy, 14% sought to increase their consumption in 2016, while 27% sought to avoid consumption. Significantly, 68% of respondent sought to consume high-protein beans, nuts and seeds.

Is there a ceiling to increased protein consumption? Likely not. Still, barriers to protein consumption remain among some groups. About half (44%) of respondents claimed they were already consuming sufficient protein in their diet, while 21% respondents cited the higher cost of protein as a barrier to higher consumption. Lower income
respondents were more likely to cite cost as a barrier to protein consumption.

“2017 Food & Health Survey,” Liz Sanders, MPH, RDN Director, Research and Partnerships, International Food Information Council Foundation, sanders@ific.org

This presentation was given at the 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar — Business Strategies.

Click here for access to the PowerPoint presentation of “Food Health Survey,” by Liz Sanders, MPH, RDN Director, Research and Partnerships, International Food Information Council Foundation.

Click to see the list of past and future Protein Trends & Technologies Seminars.