U.S. Consumer Protein Dollar Spending

Originally Published: December 2, 2019
Last Updated: February 4, 2021

MORE THAN HALF OF U.S. CONSUMERS say that they have protein at every meal. That equates to over 300 billion meals with protein per year in the U.S. and Canada. “Of these consumers, 31% say that the source of their protein does matter, and 20% are actively monitoring their protein intake on a daily basis,” said Meagan Nelson, MBA, Associate Director, Nielsen, in her presentation titled “Protein Proliferation: Understanding the Consumers’ Total Protein Landscape,” where she delves into U.S. consumer protein dollar spending.

The primary sources of proteins for U.S. consumers are meat (in 78% of households); dairy (58%); eggs (61%); fish/seafood (29%); and legumes/nuts/seeds (19%). Consumers are planning to consume more fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, according to Nelson. Interestingly, 14% of U.S. consumers plan to consume more meat, while 22% want to consume less meat. In the U.S., 5% of house-holds have someone on a high-protein diet.

Despite their interest in protein, an amazing number of consumers cannot readily identify protein levels in common foods. Only 22% of consumers correctly identified peanut butter as falling into the category of a low (< 10g per serving) source of protein. And only 12% of consumers correctly identified cottage cheese as a high (>20g per serving) source of protein. At the same time, 55% of consumers correctly stated that beef was a high-protein food.

Most consumers incorrectly believe that meat is the costliest protein. In actuality, nutrition bars (at 20 cents/gram on average) and jerky (25 cents/gram on average) are among the most expensive sources of protein. The least expensive protein sources are chicken, pork and turkey, at 2 cents per gram.

When consumers have money, they are willing to pay a premium for groceries and, more specifically, for dairy and meat/seafood in the protein space. The deli department is driving the growth of the meat category, as today’s consumers find convenience in prepared main courses, salads and appetizers, and lunchmeat and sandwiches. Almost all seafood products are showing growth in both dollars and units. Sushi, which is a unique category, continues to show rapid growth, with $1.3 billion in total annual sales.

Elsewhere in the protein space, in the dairy aisle, milk and yogurt are struggling. However, pockets of growth include specialty cheeses. Overall egg dollar growth has been driven by inflationary pressure, but there is huge growth in cage-free and free-range eggs.

Despite the plant-based movement, the category of legumes/ nuts/seeds is not showing significant growth. Some exceptions include pistachios, black beans, sesame seeds, sunflower butter and low-salt products.

Excluding the five primary categories of protein foods, sales of other foods that qualify as a good or excellent source of protein by FDA guidelines account for another $21.6 billion in sales. Grocery and frozen accounted for the most sales in this category. Interesting “up-and-coming” products include grocery broth (bone broth), ice cream and pancake mix.

Roughly 40% of U.S. and Canadian households are trying to increase their consumption of plant foods, and much of this growth is driven by young consumers. Among plant-based foods that are a good or excellent source of protein, there has been significant growth in the frozen prepared foods category.

Despite all the buzz about meat alternatives, meat industry total sales were $95 billion dollars, while meat alternatives sales were less than $1 billion. While 21.6% of households purchase meat alternatives, only 27% of meat alternative buyers are purchasing five or more times a year. Sales of plant-based dairy alternatives increased slightly, to total sales of $4 billion.

Consumers are also willing to consider altering their diet for factors outside of health. When consumers were asked what they were willing to do to alter livestock’s impact on climate change, only 16% of consumers said they had any awareness of this issue, 61% were willing to reduce meat consumption, and 43% were willing to replace meat-based protein with plant alternatives. Just 12% of consumers would try cultured meat grown in a lab, and 8% would try insect protein.

Most consumers feel it is important to have a healthy balance of plant and animal protein. Actually, 98% of meat alternative buyers also purchase meat. Only 5% of consumers are vegetarian or vegan.

Protein foods account for nearly $190 billion in sales across the U.S. grocery business, and this is a very competitive space. Growth is happening in very divergent ways. Ultimately, innovation and unique applications of protein will continue to drive U.S. consumer protein dollar spending growth.

“Protein Proliferation: Understanding the Consumers Total Protein Landscape,” Meagan Nelson, MBA, Associate Director, Nielsen
[Editor’s Note: All data was derived from Nielsen surveys from the 2017-2019 time period in the U.S. and/or Canada. Certain data was obtained from Nielsen Product Insider, powered by Label Insight]

This presentation was given at the 2019 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. To download presentations from this event, go to https://foodproteins.globalfoodforums.com/category/food-protein-rd-academy/

See past and future Protein Trends & Technologies Seminars at https://foodproteins.globalfoodforums.com/food-protein-events/