It's no secret that protein remains top of mind for consumers as they seek to maintain a healthy diet. According to an April 2021 study from IFIC, 52% of consumers "always" or "often" consider protein content as they make choices about what they'll eat each day, with another 25% saying they "sometimes" consider protein1. And protein, was number one on their list, ahead of sugars, fats and fiber among other nutrients. Clearly the protein trend shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.
Of course, plant-based proteins are an increasingly important part of the overall protein discussion as consumers increasingly source their protein from a variety of animal and plant sources. According to IFIC, 76% of consumers identify themselves as omnivores2. And while those eating both plant and animal proteins still account for 37% of all meat buyers, the growth of plant-based proteins is clear3. According to the International Food Information Council, 28% of consumers ate more protein from plant sources in 2020 than they did in 2019; 24% ate more plant-based dairy alternatives and 17% ate more plant-based meat alternatives4. SPINS and IRI tracked 29% growth in domestic dollar sales of plant-based foods from 2017 to 2019, compared with growth of just 4% for retail food sales overall5.
As consumers continue to focus on protein, their knowledge appears to be growing and has potential to shift the focus of how food companies think about protein. According to a 2021 Health Focus International study, 65% of consumers are particular about their source of protein either looking for a specific source or consciously choosing among a set of preferred proteins, up from 46% in 20147. Just as the diet and zero calorie trend led to the avoidance of sugar and a greater interest in what sweeteners are used in food, and low fat trends led to greater attention to saturated and unsaturated fats, the conversation on protein appears primed to shift to the concept of complete protein. A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet.
According to a 2021 study, "quality of protein" was cited almost 30% of consumers as a top three factor driving their protein choice2. And, while quality is a bit vague, other research has looked directly at complete protein. "Complete protein" was the number two reason behind a "natural source" when consumers were asked what makes up a good protein, ahead of clean label and nutrient density concerns7. United Soybean Board has also been tracking this issue and found that two-thirds (67%) of adults believe consuming a complete plant-based protein is important with one in five believing it's very important8.
When it comes to plant-based proteins, soy is unique as a high-quality, complete protein, on par with animal and dairy proteins. The quality of food proteins is often determined by a method called Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). Using this method, soy, along with animal and dairy proteins are considered complete proteins, earning a score of 1.00, the highest score possible. In comparison, the PDCAAS of beans and legumes, for example, is 0.68, while wheat and pea proteins score 0.40 and 0.64, respectively9.
Only time will tell if consumers make choices based on protein quality, but a more immediate implication exists for food manufacturers. As companies seek to highlight the amount of protein in their products, often seeking a "good" or "excellent source of protein" claim, they should understand that both protein content and their associated PDCAAS must be considered when making these claims. Using a protein with a PDCAAS lower than 1.0 may require its use in greater volume to support a "good" or "excellent" source claim, or may require augmenting with other protein sources to improve its PDCAAS, driving cost and complexity to their operation.
- International Food Information Council, 2020 Food & Health Survey.
- SPINSscan Natural and Specialty Gourmet (proprietary), SPINSscan Conventional Multi Outlet (powered by IRI), 104 weeks ending 2019-Dec-29. https://gfi.org/images/uploads/2020/04/GFI-Webinar-Plant-Based-Food-Retail-Market-Overview.pdf?utm_source=webinar&utm_medium=website&utm_campaign=SPINS2019