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Protein Is King of the Hill Can It Last?

For the past few years, almost nothing in the food or beverage world has been as hot as protein. But can it continue? And is there such a thing as too much protein?

Tom Vierhile

September 1, 2015

6 Min Read
Protein Is King of the Hill  Can It Last?

“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades" are famous song lyrics that protein aficionados can identify with. For the past few years, almost nothing in the food or beverage world has been as hot as protein. But can it continue? And is there such a thing as too much protein?

At a time when nutrients can go from “hero" to “zero" practically overnight, protein has been king of the hill for longer than one might expect. But protein enjoys a healthy halo for a good reason—it’s associated with heart health, healthy aging, satiety and exercise recovery. That link with exercise has helped burnish protein’s positive health image with younger consumers. According to Datamonitor Consumer’s 2013 global consumer survey, 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they consume “as much protein as possible," double the percentage of  consumers ages 65+ who said the same thing.

Protein also enjoys a “get out of jail free" card when it comes to weight and obesity issues. Fat, carbohydrates and cholesterol are all perceived by consumers to be much more likely to contribute to weight gain than protein.

If that is not enough, protein is also getting a boost from changes in weight management preferences. Interest in formal diets is waning. Instead, consumers would rather manage weight on more of an ad-hoc basis. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, 75 percent of American consumers ranked eating smaller portions of the foods they eat now as the weight management method they would be “likely" to follow in the next year—the top choice. In contrast, just 54 percent said they would be likely to track their diet in order to limit the number of calories in the food they eat.

But getting on top and staying on top are two different things. Can protein really be king of the hill when animal-based protein is coming under increasing scrutiny? Animal-based proteins have huge natural resource demands and growing sustainability issues, but that is only part of the story. Younger consumers are increasingly steering clear of animal-based protein by following vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. According to a 2014 global survey from Datamonitor Consumer, 12 percent of Americans in the 25-to-34-year-old age group say they are vegan or vegetarian, four times the 3 percent of consumers in the 55-to-64-year-old age group who said the same thing. But older consumers are also going easy on meat. The same survey found that 31 percent of Americans age 65 and older said they followed a “low meat diet" versus 16 percent of consumers in the 35-to-44-year-old age group. Meat is getting squeezed at both ends of the demographic spectrum.

Protein producers will say that plant proteins are picking up the slack and new product innovation is picking up. Indeed, consumers are bullish on a broad range of plant-based protein sources from brown rice and almonds to seaweed, pulses and more. Datamonitor Consumer’s 2015 ingredient survey found broad support for these and other proteins. If there is a surprise on the plant protein front, it may be the glowing reception for sprouted grains and seeds. Globally, 70 percent of consumers say sprouted grains or seeds have a positive impact on health (compared to a neutral or negative impact on health). This easily outpaces the positive sentiment for oat protein, soy protein, milk protein, tofu, pea protein and even ancient grains.

As bullish as consumers are on plant-based proteins, they are just as bearish on insects as a protein and food source. Just 26.5 percent of consumers globally thought insects would have a positive impact on health as insects ranked 91st among 100 ingredients ordered by the percentage of consumers globally believing the ingredient would have a positive impact on health. If insects were a presidential candidate, they wouldn’t make it out of the New Hampshire primaries.

But this tepid consumer reaction hasn’t necessarily thrown a red flag on insect-based product innovation. Cricket flour has become something of a “go to" insect ingredient in the U.S. market with innovations like the Exo protein bar and the Chapul snack bar. Buffalo worms—an ingredient that sounds somewhat less appetizing than Buffalo wings—have popped up in a new line of high protein vegetable burger and meat-free nugget products from the Netherlands. Damhert Nutrition’s new Insecta line isn’t shy about touting its insect origins. The line blends Buffalo worms with more conventional ingredients including wheat gluten and wheat flour for an insect protein-based alternative to meat-based hamburgers, chicken patties and chicken fingers.

The big question for protein going forward is—can it last? When protein is added to products like lager (Canada’s Lean Machine Functional Lager has 7 g of protein per can), salad dressing (America’s Tru Table Protein Dressing & Dip is enriched with whey protein isolate for 9 g to 10 g of protein per serving) and coconut water (the UK’s Coco Pro High Protein Coconut Water has 20 g of whey protein per package), it gives the sense that the protein trend is getting a bit overextended.

Protein consumption is already running well ahead of government recommendations, according to measurements made prior to the recent protein boom. According to USDA, the recommended daily intake of protein for healthy adults ages 31 to 50 is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. Actual protein consumption in 2012 by consumers age 20 and over was 68 grams per day for women and 99 grams per day for men—roughly 50 percent to 75 percent higher than recommended.

With protein fortification on the new product front more than doubling since 2012, it’s possible that protein consumption today could be twice as high as current recommendations. Overconsumption of protein comes with potential negative health consequences including added stress on the kidneys, digestive health issues and higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) if the protein source is red meat-based. Does this mean a protein backlash is inevitable? Perhaps. The sky is probably not the limit for protein and the food industry may be setting itself up for a course correction in the not-too-distant future.

Tom Vierhile is the innovation insights director for Datamonitor Consumer, a unit of UK-based Informa plc. He has more than 20 years of experience in consumer packaged goods reporting and analysis. An internationally recognized expert on new product marketing, Vierhile has authored many new product articles for a variety of trade publications, including Natural Products INSIDER. He holds a bachelor's of business administration degree in marketing from St. Bonaventure University and a master's of business administration from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Looking for more on Protein?

Tom Vierhile will speak on “Consumer Attitudes and Trends in New Product Innovation" as part of the Protein: Market Potential, Sourcing and Quality Assessment panel discussion at SupplySide West. The two-hour session will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 7, from 9 to 11 a.m. at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Visit west.supplysideshow.com/panel-discussions.aspx  for the complete agenda and to get registered.

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