Protein is, and will continue to be, the leading food-industry buzz word in 2014. From retail-packaged products to fine dining to sports nutrition, all types of food marketers are promoting the protein content of their products. Meat and poultry processors are uniquely poised as their products are a concentrated source of high-quality protein. Innovative ingredients and some good R&D could make these animal proteins even more appealing.

Protein is hot

According to The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, DC, 2013 Food & Health Survey conducted earlier this past year, approximately six in 10 Americans indicated they actively make an effort to consume fiber, whole grains and protein. Specifically, 57 percent of respondents stated that they are trying to get a certain amount of protein or as much protein as possible.

What really confirms that protein is “hot” is the fact that this figure was 48 percent just a year ago. This is an amazing nine percentage point jump. Of all the nutrients in IFIC’s survey, protein experienced the greatest increase in interest. This is not a fad. Consumer interest in protein is not expected to change.

Why, you may ask? Well, of all the macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrate – protein is the only one that has no negative implications associated with over-consumption. That’s right, humans need fat – even saturated fat, which often gets a bad rap – as well as carbohydrates, but too much of either is associated with short- and long-term health implications ranging from diabetes to heart disease.

Right now, the worst that we know about too much protein is that your body will have a higher lean muscle-to-fat tissue ratio. This is actually a highly desirable trait for many.

There’s more good news. Survey respondents indicated that they believe protein is beneficial for people of all ages, though they consider protein to be most valuable to tweens and teens. In fact, adult respondents came right out and said that those under 18 years of age need more protein.

This data presents an opportunity for meat and poultry processors to develop products targeted to this demographic, as well as the group in college and just entering the work force. Many of these consumers fall into the demographic known as the Millennial. And Millennials are all about experimenting with food and flavors.

Convenience and flavor

Looking to the New Year, processors should make it a priority to develop convenience meat and poultry offerings for consumers under the age of 30. The operable word here is convenience, which translates to offerings such as heat-and-eat meats, pre-seasoned/marinated, whole-muscle cuts, upscale deli offerings and more.

Convenience foods have unique formulation requirements to ensure that product appearance, texture, flavor, color and nutritive value is maintained throughout the shelf-life of products. This is because in addition to the desire for convenience, today’s demanding consumers also want minimally processed food and clean label products.

Ethnic influence

Innovative flavors and seasonings should be pursued in the coming year. Today’s consumers, the Millennials, in particular, are increasingly experiencing less-familiar ethnic cuisines as they explore offerings available through the still-growing food truck business. Many of these foods rely on meat and poultry as a carrier for layers of flavors. Because what is tasted out of the home is often soon sought after for in-home enjoyment, these consumers expect their supermarket to provide meal solutions to recreate the food-truck experience at their own kitchen table.

According to research from Chicago-based Mintel, some nine in 10 adults aged 25-to-34-years-old say they prepared ethnic food at home in the past month versus only 68 percent of those 65-plus years of age. In addition, 91 percent of Americans with children under the age of 18 in the home cooked ethnic food compared to 78 percent of those without children. As mentioned, many of these ethnic foods are animal-protein based.

The National Restaurant Association, Washington, DC, recently published its “What’s Hot 2014 Culinary Forecast.” This is a great resource to track what is trending outside the home to assist in developing packaged and prepared foods sold through retail, or even convenience items for foodservice.

According to the 1,300 culinary professionals surveyed, the top-five flavor concepts for 2014 will be: Peruvian, Korean, Southeast Asian, Regional Ethnic (e.g., Tex-Mex, St. Louis barbecue, Louisiana Cajun, etc.) and Ethnic Fusion. The latter is the layering of flavors from two different ethnic cuisines, for example, Asian lemongrass with Italian basil.

The survey also indicates that the No. 1 appetizer concept for 2014 will be “house-cured meats/charcuterie.” No. 3 is ethnic/street food-inspired finger food. There are a lot of opportunities for meat and poultry processors to innovate and offer products that complement these trends.

When it comes to what is trending in main dishes, “locally sourced meats and seafood” ranked first. Interestingly, the No. 3 item is “new cuts of meat (e.g., Denver steak, pork flat iron, tri-tip, etc.). With upscale pressure cookers being one of the hottest holiday presents this season, consumers will be more willing to explore these new cuts of meat for cooking at home, as this is one of the pressure cookers’ claims to fame.

For meat and poultry processors willing to think out of the box to develop meal solutions for the changing consumer landscape, 2014 is going to be an exciting year. The industry has many trends in its favor – from consumer obsession with increasing protein intake to their cravings for flavor. This can all be accomplished through innovative ingredient selection.