Consumer Market Opportunities in Protein

Originally Published: December 13, 2016
Last Updated: February 28, 2021
While consumer demand for plant-based products, partly fueled by vegetarian and vegan diets, is on the rise, meat consumption holds its own.

December 9, 2016—CONSUMER MARKET OPPORTUNITIES IN PROTEIN seemingly abound, even though consumer trends in protein have become a bit polarized. On the one hand, there are drivers pointing to alternative plant proteins as having huge growth potential—what with more interest in vegan and vegetarian diets, greater affordability, and heightened awareness of clean label and sustainability factors in meat production.

“At the same time, there’s also this big, beefy burger trend,” countered David Sprinkle, MBA, Research Director, Packaged Facts, who pointed to brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches, meat jerky, chocolate- covered bacon and pet food sectors that are “taking meat to its most extreme and primal”—and are doing quite well.

There is increased demand for dietary proteins, in general, he reported in his 2016 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar presentation titled “Consumer Market Opportunities in Protein.” Data compiled by Packaged Facts from Fall 2015 Simmons NCS, Experian Marketing Services, found the share of U.S. adults specifically purchasing high-protein foods in relation to watching their diet has increased steadily, from 11.9% in 2012 to 14.9% in 2015.

If there was an even longer trend line, “I think it would show more growth, as protein has entered the spotlight for weight management and weight control. It’s one of the drivers creating opportunities in this market,” he said.

When Packaged Facts analyzed the demographic information on who was most likely to purchase protein products, a few indicators rose to the top: those with college degrees; who live in condos or co-ops; have household incomes over $100K; or are under age 35. Millennials are statistically more likely to seek protein and are more often cutting back on meat consumption to seek out vegetarian alternatives.

“Millennials are setting the tone and trends in the marketplace,” Sprinkle said. “They’re very conscious of their protein options and choices—and the implication of those choices.”

Americans’ attitudes toward meat proteins are complicated, Sprinkle said, referring to their data. “In terms of America’s love affair with meat, you can see it starting to crack at the edges, but it’s certainly not going away. Meat hasn’t been pushed off center plate; it’s just being critiqued and reconsidered, to a degree.”

Emblematic of the continued demand for traditional, even retro, proteins are the top gainers as seen in menu penetration, when it comes to sandwich proteins. Datassential MenuTrends shows egg (often in the form of egg white) is among the highest gainers in this arena, along with pork and sausage, each with more than 5% growth in sandwich menu penetration over the past decade. Plant proteins, meanwhile, haven’t yet gained robust presence on menus, with less than 10% including menu items with lentils, edamame, chickpeas, flax, chia or pumpkin seeds.

Many categories are generating new products making high-protein claims—frozen yogurt, ice cream, smoothies, dairy/soy drinks, cereals and soups among them—as individual companies increasingly morph to take advantage of the heightened demand for protein of all types. Sprinkle pointed to Muscle Milk moving from sports products to the dairy beverage aisle, and Quest spreading from protein powder into indulgent bars.

Even straightforward products take news twists and turns to hook the protein-seeking consumer, such as Hummus Plus’s addition of chicken to become more center plate than on-the-go snack, and peanut butters expanding into more dessert-like flavors. “Everyone is ending up competing with each other for the protein dollar,” he said.

Gender has long been one of the cards to play in differentiating protein products, but even those boundaries blur with the rising tide of protein demand across demographic groups. Powerful Yogurt, with its masculine coloring, bull logo and macho marketing, has moved into indulgent flavors and even pink-colored yogurt cups for breast cancer awareness. While this could create dissonance and brand identity issues, Sprinkle pointed to statistics showing men and women have almost identical responses when it comes to what’s most important in their food choices. The greatest difference between the two sexes comes in the 50+ age group, while Millennials cut that already small difference in half.

“So what does make sense in the future, as it relates to differentiation among protein products?” Sprinkle asked.

He pointed to opportunities such as clean label, locally made/ sourced, and international or exotic flavors. Meat substitutes are starting to make waves, as well, Sprinkle added, especially in overseas markets. “As with dairy alternatives, such as almond, coconut and other plant milks, that have established themselves in their own right and are not simply substitutes, so it will be with meat substitutes.”

For more information on Packaged Facts’ report, “Food Formulation and Ingredient Trends: Plant Proteins” (February 2016), see

“Consumer Market Opportunities in Protein,” David Sprinkle, MBA, Research Director, Packaged Facts,

The summary above is an excerpt from the “2016 Protein Trends & Technology Magazine: Formulating with Proteins.”