The Rise of Protein: A Trend Not to Be Ignored

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

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There has been a focus on and interest in high-protein diets for years, despite the reported health risks associated with them. The trend’s birth “parent” is a Morph, which is characterized by “cousins” all vying for the spotlight.

With this particular birth, the first cousin was the Atkins diet, with its rise to fame in 2004. The first disruptive cousin on the block was the South Beach diet, which took over in 2005. Fast forward to 2011, the Dukan diet stole the thunder, but was ousted in 2012 by the Paleo diet when it decided to stand on the table, put a lampshade on its head, and start dancing (much to the horror of the other cousins).

The telltale sign of a Morph is that the current cousin in the spotlight does not kill off the previous cousin; it just steals the focus. With a Morph, one can play with all the cousins since they are all still on the playground together. For example, Atkins is still available, along with Paleo and other high-protein diets. You are simply changing allegiances as the cousins push and pull at each other.

But not all consumers are following a high-protein diet; some are just attracted to the protein category because they (mistakenly) believe high-protein foods have a health halo. While there is evidence that protein contributes to weight loss, it is not without consequences:

  • According to a study at McMaster University: Among overweight subjects, higher dietary protein intake during dieting with intense exercise stimulated greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss.

  • According to a study at the University of Würzburg: People who consumed the most red meat had a 47 percent higher risk of ischemic stroke (caused by blockages in blood vessels supplying the brain) than those who ate the smallest amount of red meat.

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There are two sides to the high-protein trend: the meat and the meatless.

The animal protein trend is moving laterally into the snack realm and is also exhibiting extremes. Some of the poster children for animal protein include jerky, insects, heritage breeds, and trash fish.

Jerky can be made from bacon, salmon, buffalo, and duck. And the flavor combos are just as exhilarating with Caribbean jerk, Sriracha, pale ale, and ginger sprinkling the mix. Insects have government support as a healthy protein source and are eaten by millions worldwide. Heritage animal breeds lend a sense of place and history, and trash fish have ties to sustainability.

Also fitting here is dairy. Cheese, yogurt, milk, and dairy-based smoothies are more complex than they used to bel. Cheese is now peppered with herbs, fennel, truffles, chili, garlic, and other delicious add-ins. Yogurt is becoming more savory with cucumber, basil, and olives. And smoothies are a grain’s best friend right now, as they have been seen mixing it up with chia, oats, and quinoa.

  • According to NPD: Consumption of meat snacks increased 18 percent since 2010; 24 percent of consumers look for protein on nutrition labels; and 50 percent think the best protein source is animal protein.

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Vegetables Go Pro

Vegetables started moving more center of the plate during the Recession, partly because of their lower cost compared to animal protein. But its lateral move into the protein category is more recent and has both economic and clinical health backing.

Beans, legumes, and pulses are the poster children for vegetable protein. Hummus has been in the spotlight for more than a year now. The vegetable proteins also move easily amongst global dishes since many international cuisines, such as Indian, African, Middle Eastern, and some Asian, feature meatless main dishes. In this sense, vegetables are acting as a competitor to meat in the protein category.

The vegetable protein trend has a stronger grip on the younger generations, but its life cycle is lengthened due to its cross ties to health and flavor trends. Just as animal protein is moving laterally into snacks, so too is vegetable protein. Vegetable proteins are showing up in chips, bars, and smoothies.

  • According to the University of Utah: A diet with a higher proportion of protein from plant sources is associated with lower mortality.

  • According to Packaged Facts: Thirty-seven percent of consumers ages 25 to 39 are likely to seek out plant proteins, the highest of any age group, followed by 22 percent of adults under age 25. Forty-seven percent of consumers younger than 39 agree that the lower cost of vegetarian protein is a factor in using it, compared to 44 percent of consumers 40 and older who strongly disagreed.

For a macro trend like protein to have internal, competing factions actually prolongs its lifespan as a trend because each rival will continue to try to upstage one another and form new alliances.

The vegetable proteins’ strongest alliances are with grains and the snack and beverage category, where they can sport different personalities. The animal proteins have been cozying up to travel trends, the snack category, and greens — if they don’t mind taking a back seat in the dish. If the protein trend really wanted to shine, the two competing factions should align with each other instead of sitting across from each other with a snitty look on their face.