Andrew P. Crofts
FMCG Gurus, London, United Kingdom

Protein has long been seen as a vital building block of people’s diet, essential for muscle growth and beloved of gym-goers and athletes. Despite this, there are changing attitudes to protein: as nutritional science and awareness improves, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the effect that diet can have on their health and well-being, and this includes the role of protein as an integral factor for healthy living. Not only is awareness of the effect of protein increasing, but also the ways in which people consume it is changing, with consumers increasingly influenced by the idea of meat free or flexitarian – reduced meat – diets. Changing consumer attitudes to protein could significantly affect purchasing habits, and it is important to understand this going forward.

As consumers have become more aware of the links between nutrition and health, purchasing and consumption habits have changed. Increasingly, consumers are moving away from certain ingredients and towards others. In particular, consumers are switching to high-protein options, as can be seen in recent research from FMCG Gurus. Looking at insights into active nutrition (1) it can be seen that, of the 89% of consumers who say that they snack during a typical day, more than half say that they have made an effort to switch consumption from products like chocolate and confectionary to high protein/low sugar offerings.

Consumers have made strong links between protein and health as well, with almost half of consumers saying that they had made changes to their diet for general health and wellness, and 47% saying that they had done it to improve their heart health. Looking at a meta-analysis into consumer attitudes towards health and wellness (2) we can see that more consumers associate protein with heart health than any other ingredient, with garlic and vitamin D coming in second and third place. Only 16% who had made a change said that they had increased protein to build lean muscle, suggesting that there has been a significant shift away from protein as simply being a muscle-building ingredient for athletes.

Despite this interest in protein for snacking, consumers still have some concerns about the idea of high protein snacks. 53% say that they are somewhat or very concerned about the aftertaste of high protein products, with only 12% saying that they have no concerns. Almost half are also worried about the texture, suggesting that those selling products positioned to the high protein market need to be aware of the stigma surrounding the ingredient, and be effective at communicating with consumers. Another major concern is cost, with 43% saying that the higher price of healthy snacks in general can prevent them from purchasing healthier or high protein snacks.

As well as consumers trying to increase their protein intake, many are also moving away from animal proteins. Although only 25% of consumers say that they have embarked on a high protein diet in the last year, 39% say that they have worked to reduce meat consumption or adopted a flexitarian diet. Over the last two years, one in ten consumers say that they have adopted a fully vegan diet, cutting animal proteins entirely. This suggests a significant shift in the way that people consume protein, towards plant-based sources. This coincides with movements like Veganuary, or the increase in fast-food locations offering vegan options in response to greater consumer interest.

Research into UK consumer attitudes towards protein (3) suggests strong ethical concerns behind the move away from meat, as well as health reasons. 65% of consumers cite concerns over animal welfare as a reason to stop eating meat – significantly higher than the 48% who mentioned health reasons – and 35% say that they are worried over the environmental impact. With awareness of the climate crisis growing, it is possible that this attitude will only increase, and it may have a significant effect on purchasing patterns. It suggests that if brands wish to retain consumers as meat eaters, they need to be as clear and transparent as possible about their efforts with regards to good animal welfare and a positive attitude to the environment.

With changes to protein consumption including the source of the protein, the amount consumed, and the reasons for consumption, the market is currently in the process of changing. It is important for companies and manufacturers to be aware of these changes so as to better adapt to them, following trends in consumption and purchasing and understanding both how they are progressing and the thought process behind this.

Changing consumer attitudes to protein