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As America’s love affair with protein continues, plant proteins specifically are playing an increasingly important role. Key drivers associated with the growing interest in plant protein, sustainability and health of the planet, are starting to be emphasized over personal health, athletic performance or muscle building. This trend can be found both at retail and in foodservice.
Proprietary research conducted by Packaged Facts indicates that the U.S. adults most likely to specifically seek out plant proteins are those ages 25 to 39 (37%) while consumers ages 55+ are least likely to do so (8%). Overall, men and consumers holding advanced college degrees are more likely to seek out food and beverage products containing plant protein ingredients, and Hispanic and Asian consumers show a higher rate of seeking out plant protein than white consumers.
One of the biggest changes associated with recent interest in plant proteins is that categories once thought to appeal almost exclusively to vegetarians and vegans are now targeting mainstream meat eaters. While the percentage of vegans in the United States has been estimated at 6%, a recent study determined that 36% of all consumers use meat alternatives. Major Wall Street investors are betting big on the abilities of biotech startups to master the art and science of making meatless, plant-based meat substitutes to deliver the taste, texture and appearance of real meat to an extent not tried before. At retail, the healthy snacking trend has taken hold with SPINS data indicating that the bean, lentil and pea snacks subcategory grew three times faster than overall salty snack category sales, while typically providing more protein per serving.
According to research conducted by Datassential on behalf of an initiative resulting from collaboration between the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consumer demand for alternatives to meat protein appears to be outpacing restaurant operator offerings. There is growing recognition that the foodservice industry must play a role in relation to public health and the environment, with the primary contribution it can make being to reduce meat consumption. Half (50%) of consumers surveyed support cutting back on meat, favoring its use as a condiment, and the same percentage responded well to replacing meat or adding nonmeat to menus. Restaurant concepts ahead of the curve when it comes to offering plant proteins and addressing sustainability include Beefsteak, Sweetgreen, Native Foods Cafe and Veggie Grill.
Underpinning the success of plant protein expansion efforts is assuring a highly acceptable offering of plant protein ingredients. The popularity of pulses, already bolstered in recent years as a result of rising hummus sales, increased use of pea protein as an industrial protein ingredient, both for nutritional value and functional properties, and the fast-paced sales of the relatively new bean snack subcategory, will be increasingly important as new ingredients and more sophisticated application knowledge are developed. Pulses can also be expected to be highlighted more as a result of the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Emerging plant protein ingredients getting more attention include hemp, aquatic plants and sacha inchi. While soy continues to be the dominant plant protein, rice protein is becoming better established, and seeds, nuts and ancient grains function as dependable workhorses.
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