Keith Nunes 2019

Consumer interest in protein remains robust, and it may be one of the most remarkable food ingredient stories of the past decade. In the minds of a growing number of consumers, protein and health are nearly synonymous. The number of consumers trying to incorporate more protein into their diet has risen over the past two years at a remarkable rate.

The latter point was evident in the recently released 2024 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council. When the 3,000 survey participants were asked, “Do you generally try to consume or avoid the following?,” a commanding 71% said they are trying to consume protein, up from 67% in 2023 and 56% in 2022.

Reinforcing the consumer’s special regard for protein is perception of the macronutrient. When asked, “Which of the following best define a healthy food to you?,” “fresh” ranked No. 1 at 39%, followed closely by a “good source of protein” at 37%. Rounding out the top five were “low in sugar” (35%), a “good source of nutrients (e.g., potassium, vitamin D)” (32%) and “contains fruit and vegetables” (27%).

The Food and Health Survey also shows protein has migrated into the healthy eating pattern/diet category. In response to the question, “Have you followed any specific eating pattern or diet at any time in the past year?,” 20% identified a high protein diet — the highest-ranking eating pattern/diet listed — ahead of “mindful eating” at 18%, intermittent fasting (13%), “calorie counting” (12%) and “clean eating” (11%).

The health halo firmly in place over protein is important because the IFIC survey shows that while taste and price are the No. 1 and No. 2 food and beverage purchase drivers for consumers, respondents to this year’s survey ranked health No. 3, followed by convenience at No. 4. The link between the consumer’s perception of protein as healthy is driving many manufacturers to add it to products and emphasize on the front-of-pack how much protein the product contains.

To better understand how consumer perceptions of protein have evolved, it’s helpful to look back. The International Food Information Council has been conducting the Food and Health Survey since 2006, and the 2014 edition contained specific sections focused on dietary components like protein, fats, sugars and salt.

The 2014 survey shows protein did not have the profile that it does today. For example, when the more than 1,000 respondents to IFIC’s 2014 Food and Health Survey were asked, “Over the past year what of the following have you made an effort to do?,” consuming protein or trying to consume more protein did not even make the list. A decade ago, consumers said they were trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, cut calories by drinking water, eat more foods with whole grains and cut back on foods higher in added sugars. When asked more specifically about what ingredients they were trying to consume, respondents ranked protein No. 3 behind fiber and whole grains and ahead of calcium and omega-3s.

Within a decade, protein has raised its status among consumers in a remarkable fashion. That status means it will remain a focal point in food and beverage product development and a source of potential growth for companies able to capitalize on the macronutrient’s trending popularity.