Protein is the hot consumer trend, but plant-based proteins are trending up in sales and vying for position with meat and poultry in the protein food space.

Protein is the major headline in food trends, though the focus is part of a longer-standing focus on the health, welfare and functionality of food.

Nielsen data presented at the 2016 Annual Meat Conference show the annual sales of food products with labels calling out protein presence have reached $15.3 billion. Dollar growth in products with protein claims versus a year ago is 7 percent and 9 percent CAGR 2012-15.

Slew of plant-based retail food proteins

Chicken, beef, pork and turkey, however, are not growing as fast as the plant-based dietary alternatives, ranging from chickpeas to peanut butter and soy. Examples include:

  • Chickpeas, a potential substitute for meat in salads and other dishes, have registered 290 percent menu growth over the last decade.
  • Cashew butter has shown 998 percent growth on menus in the past four years.
  • Specialty grains are up 25 percent on menus in the past four years.

“There is a giant slew of plant-based retail protein in the product pipeline,” Jack Li of Datassential told conference listeners. Meat and poultry marketers, he said, need to be ready with products and appeals to compete with the plant-based proteins.

“Chicken, which is ubiquitous in the market, is not growing much compared to pulses, which are growing at a much faster rate. Pulses aren’t ubiquitous yet, but they are going to start to get there at some point,” he said.

Pulses – crops harvested for their dried seeds – are showing up more and more often on restaurant menus. Pulses, which include chickpeas, pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas and fava beans, are indexed at 151 versus chicken at 99 in menu growth over the last 10 years.

Coming wave of plant-based eating

A coming wave of plant-based eating is already being driven by marketing these items as “complete” food sources. “Consumers might think these are more important as a food source for protein even though they are not nearly as efficient as meat as a protein source,” Li said.

It’s not just that plant-based protein is the hot consumer trend; there is an undercurrent in consumer preference for “non-animal” protein in the popularity of the plant-based alternatives.

What’s more, meat and poultry do not get due credit for their protein content. Consumers consistently overestimate the protein content of plant-based proteins versus meat and poultry.

Nielsen data presented at the conference show that one-fifth of shoppers think peanut butter has as much protein as fresh meat. Interestingly, more shoppers (55 percent) were able to correctly identify beef’s high protein content, than chicken and pork (only 39 percent and 37 percent, respectively).

“The meat industry needs get ready for this wave of plant-based feeding. The strategy should be to fight back with flavors and applications that can only be done with meat,” he said.

Nielsen’s Sherry Frey, also speaking at the conference, told the meat marketers that more aggressive education on meat health and welfare is necessary to gain health and welfare credentials.

Citing the health-oriented marketing claims on some ice cream products, she said, “Do not assume the consumer knows best. If ice cream can do it, meat can.”