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Survey: Consumers want protein but don’t understand it

Consumers still choosing meat, eggs and dairy as primary source of protein.

Consumers in the U.S. have a growing appetite for all things protein, but they have a hard time understanding it, according to a newly released survey conducted by Nielsen.

The survey showed that 55% of U.S. households say high protein is now an important attribute to consider when buying food for their households. Across the country, 6% of households include someone who is on a high-protein diet. That’s more than 5.4 million people, Nielsen noted.

“While the popularity of plant-based proteins is certainly growing, data show that consumers are still choosing traditional sources of protein such as meat, eggs and dairy as their primary source,” Nielsen said. “They still dominate in sales as well, as these five categories account for $148.7 billion in sales and growth of 1.1%."

However, Nielsen said protein can now be found in many different areas across the store.

“Alternate sources of protein beyond more traditional options is a fast-growing sector that manufacturers and retailers shouldn’t ignore. Looking around the store outside of the top five sources of protein, we see sales of $22.6 billion for products that are good or excellent source of protein with growth of 1.3%,” the firm said.

With a growing number of protein products appearing on shelves, do consumers know how much protein is in popular foods found across the store?

To find out, Nielsen conducted two surveys: one fielded in December 2015 and the other in July 2018. Each survey included more than 20,000 respondents who were asked their perspective on how much protein certain items from across the store contain, in a range of high protein content (more than 20 g per serving), mid-level protein (10-20 g per serving) or low protein (less than 10 g per serving).

The results illuminated some interesting knowledge gaps, Nielsen said. In fact, American consumer beliefs about protein content in common food items don’t align with reality. For example, 78% of respondents believed peanut butter is higher in protein than it actually is. Additionally, only 20% of respondents knew that shrimp is a high-protein food, and a majority of consumers didn’t recognize cottage cheese as a high-protein food when, in actuality, its protein count is quite high.

Perhaps what is most interesting, Nielsen said, is that the blockbuster protein sources — beef, chicken and pork — also didn’t score well in the minds of consumers. Notably, between 45% and 64% of consumers surveyed didn’t consider beef, chicken or pork to be high in protein, and that’s an even wider range than in 2015. While 55% of consumers correctly stated how much protein is in beef, that's still a relatively low percentage for a commonly identified primary source of protein. Chicken did win the award for most improved, as the correct identification increased four points to 42% from the 2015 survey. The same can’t be said for pork, though, as fewer consumers correctly identified it as being a high source of protein, dropping a point to 36% from 37% in 2015.

Who's getting it right?

Across categories, Nielsen said Greatest Generation and Millennial consumers are the most knowledgeable about the protein content of the foods they buy. Across the 10 products included in the surveys, Millennials topped the list for having the highest percentage correctly identify the protein content for five of the products (peanut butter, jerky, protein bar, chicken breast and salmon filet). The Greatest Generation was right behind them with the highest percentage correct in four products (cottage cheese, rib-eye steak, pork loin and shrimp).

Overall, the surveys showed that protein knowledge among U.S. consumers is fairly low. Of the 10 products included in the surveys, a majority of consumers correctly identified protein content levels in only three items, even though more than half of consumers say high protein is an important attribute in their food purchases.

However, Nielsen said consumers still make 60% of their purchase decisions at the shelf.

“So, as consumers continue to hone their specific diets and shopping habits, manufacturers and retailers have a real opportunity to tout protein content right on-pack or with in-store signage, even for products where it seems obvious,” Nielsen said.

TAGS: Business
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