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Protein Revolution: How Consumer Preferences Are Shaping the Future of Food

11 June 2024

The world of protein has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Traditional protein sources, like steak, meatloaf, and whey sports bars, have been joined by soy, pea protein powder, and fortified plant-based products. Brands have had to adjust among changing consumer preferences.

As we look to the future, new trends and ongoing shifts will continue to alter how protein is sold and consumed. Food product developers will, once again, have to respond. How they adapt, though, will determine their success going forward.

In this article, the food experts at Hela Spice dive deep into the protein revolution. We will examine how shifting consumer preferences are changing the future of food and driving innovation (and opportunity).

A New Passion for Global Flavours

In recent years, interest in global flavours and international cuisines has driven the food industry towards new, multicultural horizons. This trend has been accelerating rapidly ever since the pandemic. 

When consumers lost the ability to travel in 2020, they began embarking on flavour exploration at home with greater enthusiasm. They experimented with new flavours, spices, and recipes from every corner of the world.

Additionally, more members of Gen Z have entered the marketplace since 2020, further fuelling the desire for international dishes and flavours. Gen Z is the most diverse generation yet and, as a result, has diverse buying preferences when it comes to food. 

According to Cargill, 58% of Gen Z consumers (and 48% of millennials) have eaten globally-inspired food in the past week. Cargill also found that Gen Z prefers Mexican and Chinese cuisines rather than American cuisine, which was the overwhelming preference of baby boomers and Gen X.

Brands need to expand their protein offerings to capitalize on this trend. For instance, they can highlight traditional Mexican meats with classic Latin ingredients and flavours.

Alternatively, bold spice blends with a global edge can be used to elevate traditional proteins like steak and chicken. There are also opportunities to create protein marinades that help consumers capture global flavours when cooking at home.

Easy Options in a Busy World

Consumers are busy. Beneath the pressure of the unrelenting time crunch, they’re reaching for easy, accessible, and healthy high-protein snacks and meal solutions. 

Since protein assists with feeling full and satiated, a high-protein snack can help busy consumers stay focused and energized between meals. However, convenient protein is just as helpful at home.

Heat-and-eat, deli-prepared meat, and pre-marinated proteins hold the key to low-effort cooking. Cargill found that heat-and-eat dishes make up 15% of all meals, which is a notable increase. These solutions simplify consumers’ lives, making it easier to get the protein required for good health.

In addition to developing quick and easy food products, brands can also highlight protein sources that consumers can build entire meals around. This simplifies the age-old question of “What’s for dinner?”, thus saving them time and mental energy in the process.

Fuelling Active Lifestyles

Athletes have long understood the importance of protein. However, as more consumers adopt an active lifestyle, the demand for sports-nutrition products is becoming increasingly widespread. 

A 2022 survey by Accenture discovered that 42% of respondents were increasing their amount of physical activity. Overall health is a top consumer priority (thus the rising desire for healthy and functional food products), and physical activity is a crucial component of that.

In response, brands should focus on developing protein-fortified products that serve a range of consumers at various physical activity levels. These products can also double as a convenient way for busy consumers to meet their protein goals (see the previous section).

The expansion of the sports nutrition segment of the food industry is full of opportunities for brands. We recommend investing in both animal-based and plant-based protein products to maximize consumer appeal. Whey is no longer the be-all and end-all of protein, especially with lactose intolerance affecting 44% of Canadians!

More Diverse Protein Sources

Where consumers prefer to get their protein varies greatly. Their fitness goals, ethical considerations, concern for the environment, dietary restrictions, and lifestyle choices all shape their protein preferences.

Brands have had to respond by expanding their protein offerings and investing in new product development. As a result, there is more diversity in the types of high-protein products available than ever before. Every year, new protein sources enter the market, particularly within the plant-based segment.

In 2024, consumers have their pick of protein sources. Soy has long been the leading plant-based protein source; however, other plants are stepping into the limelight.

Spirulina, chlorella, hemp, nutritional yeast, legumes, and especially peas are gaining awareness and popularity. These ingredients appear in a range of products, such as protein powders and sports nutrition bars, and fortified products like plant-based milks.

Remember, all plants contain all nine essential amino acids—and without the health-harming high cholesterol.

Of course, animal-based protein also remains popular, especially among athletes, such as whey, casein, and eggs.

Is cultivated meat the future of protein?

Time will tell if cultivated meat is, indeed, the future of protein. Until then, food development companies should watch the progress of this exciting new technology closely. 

Lab-grown meat could be the answer to growing consumer concerns over the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Concern for the environment is a significant driving factor behind the increase in flexitarian and plant-based diets.

So far, the U.S., Singapore, and Israel are the only three countries that have approved the production of cultivated meat. However, some U.S. states are moving to ban lab-grown meat, specifically Florida and Texas. Other European countries, such as Austria, France, and Italy, are similarly opposed. Italy even banned cultivated meat production within its borders.

Still, with the UK, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand all expected to approve cultivated meat for commercial sale this year, the future is anything but clear. Whatever happens with lab-grown meat going forward, consumer perception and demand is sure to have an impact.

Changing Demographics

Consumer demographics are changing, and this impacts the protein segment of the food industry. We already touched on the emergence of Gen Z into the marketplace. The oldest Gen Z consumer is now 27 years old, meaning they are aging into a buying power that food product companies cannot ignore.

Gen Z and millennials are the generations most interested in vegetarian, vegan, and conscious eating options (according to McKinsey research). Furthermore, Gen Zs are the most interested in meat alternatives. Winning over Gen Z consumers, therefore, requires brands to continue to expand their plant-based protein offerings.

However, there are other shifting demographics that food brands should be aware of. Notably, the average household is shrinking in size with 64% of American households being one or two people. Consequently, they want smaller protein packages to avoid food waste.

Contact Hela Spice for a Food Product Development Company in North America

Hela Spice is North America’s leading food product development company. We specialize in creating impactful, market-ready products that consumers love. 

By combining curated consumer insights, custom formulation expertise, and unparalleled processing capabilities, we produce high-quality protein products that stand out. Contact us today to learn how our protein innovations can secure your brand’s place in the future of food.

To learn more about our food product development company, visit our website or contact us here.

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