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Strength in Numbers


Among the current health-and-wellness food trends, protein is coming on strong.

A recent Nielsen global health report found that 30 percent of North American consumers rate a “high in protein” attribute as very important in their purchasing decisions, and 23 percent are willing to pay a premium for products that are high in protein. As a result, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen reports, products with protein claims grew about 3 percent in dollars over the past year.

“Interest in protein will continue to drive consumption,” affirms Sherry Frey, SVP at the Nielsen Perishables Group. “More than half the U.S. population is seeking out foods high in protein, with a significantly higher percentage (73 percent) reportedly consuming high-protein food and beverages in the past year. The accelerant behind protein growth is consumer understanding of the relationship between protein and its role in weight management, muscle development, strength and energy.”

Americans also demonstrate an understanding of how to manage their diets for optimal health. More than 70 percent of U.S. adults stress the importance of protein, healthy fat, whole grains, and calories when contemplating how to manage their diets and weight.

Further, there’s an increased awareness of the health benefits of protein, and through exposure to global cuisines, consumers are trying alternative protein sources such as quinoa, chickpeas and even edamame. These types of alternative proteins are now more readily available in consumers’ local grocery stores.

“Recognizing this increased consumer interest is an opportunity for retailers,” Frey says. “With products with protein claims appearing all over the store — from milk, cereal and yogurt, to snacks and even candy — retailers shouldn’t automatically assume those products will cannibalize each other.”

In Nielsen’s initial research around the protein craze, Frey reveals, “we’re finding protein-hungry consumers want all types, products with claims as well as meat. In the meat case, there are opportunities to leverage nutrition information to showcase protein content/educate consumers. Another opportunity is to pay attention to global cuisines gaining interest with consumers, to identify new and upcoming alternative proteins.”

Shifting Behaviors

To be sure, nutritional, environmental, animal welfare and economic issues are conspiring to topple meat from its historic center-of-plate dominance.

“While fresh meat is still a vital component of retail store health, accounting for 11 percent of store sales, consumers are shifting their purchasing behaviors and attitudes about meat as they assess the thickness of their wallets in light of these challenges,” Nielsen reported on April 30 of this year in “Where’s the Beef? Why Consumers are Buying Less Fresh Meat.”

“A sobering 41 percent of respondents to a recent Nielsen survey said they are purchasing fresh meat less often because of higher prices, and 37 percent are buying less-expensive cuts of meat to offset rising costs,” the April report noted.

Average retail prices of fresh beef and pork increased 15.5 percent and 14.1 percent, respectively, while corresponding volume sales for each dipped 6 percent during the 52 weeks ending Feb. 28, 2015, according to Nielsen data. Rather than switching to less-expensive cuts of meat, consumers are simply buying less meat, or not visiting the meat department at all.

To beef up meat sales, Nielsen recommends correcting everyday pricing without over-relying on promotions, managing price gaps between substitutable cuts, and cross-merchandising meat with other categories across the store to create meal solutions.

Meat also faces a challenge from the USDA, whose latest proposed dietary guidelines recommend a diet higher in plant-based foods than animal-based ones, because it’s “associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet.” The draft guidelines advise reduced consumption of red and processed meats, for reasons of health as well as the carbon footprint.

Meat industry trade groups are lobbying for the guidelines to retain lean meat as a recommended dietary component, urging the agency to focus on nutrition rather than the environment. Meat stalwarts among grocers also support animal proteins and defend modern agricultural practices.

“We are so lucky to have the best and safest animal agricultural production system in the world,” declares Kelly Mortensen, meat director for Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores. “We do and should be feeding the world with our great agricultural products. There is very little commerce that we as a nation are participating in that is more sustainable than agriculture at all levels. Our producers’ productivity is of the charts. They are producing more and better protein products with fewer natural resources than ever before, and they seem to get better each year.”

Reinforcing Meat’s Value

Suppliers are stepping up to reinforce meat’s value as a primary protein source.

“Consumers want and need guidance on protein, so the Beef Checkoff works with suppliers and retailers to ensure they have the latest protein science and the tools to use in their sales and marketing efforts to meet this demand for information on complete high-quality protein foods,” says Cheryl Hendricks, strategic account manager and registered dietitian for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor for the Beef Checkoff. “Lean meat is key to the retailer’s basket ring and overall retail performance.”

Educating shoppers about high-quality protein sources and helping them make informed purchasing decisions, along with empowering health-minded shoppers to feel more confident in the meat department, “are key ways they can build customer loyalty and drive sales,” Hendricks says.

Among the group’s initiatives is the 30-day Protein Challenge, which offers guidance for consumers looking to boost their protein intake, and the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” campaign, which has been reinvented using digital marketing tactics to reach Millennial consumers.

“Consumer interest in protein has skyrocketed,” Hendricks observes. “Retailers have a unique opportunity to be a source for knowledge and resources for these inquiring shoppers, to drive loyalty and also boost sales of protein-rich foods like beef.”

She cites data indicating that 91 percent of consumers eat beef monthly, asserting, “Nothing satisfies like beef.”

Mintel research would seem to support that contention. “Consumers do not perceive the current crop of meatless products as healthy; 42 percent of all consumers say they are too processed, and more than a third (36 percent) regard them as too high in sodium,” says William Roberts Jr., senior food and drink analyst at the Chicago-based market researcher, in the executive summary of its “Protein Report — Meat Alternatives — U.S. — January 2015.”

Hendricks also points to functional benefits of animal-based proteins, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. “Although soy and quinoa are complete proteins, most plant-based proteins found in vegetables and grains are considered lower-quality or incomplete proteins because they are less digestible and deficient in one or more essential amino acids,” she explains.

Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef takes an active role in sharing nutrition information with consumers.

“We work hand-in-hand with retailers to bring nutritional information to shoppers, first by connecting with nutrition and meat science experts to better understand the science of beef nutrition, and then to help retailers best communicate this information to consumers,” says Tracey Erickson, the brand’s VP of marketing.

The increased competition for protein dollars has led Tyson Fresh Meats to develop strong promotions during seasonal time periods to make sure fresh meat is top of mind for shoppers. “We’re also offering more variety to meet the needs of busy consumers,” says Kent Harrison, VP of marketing and premium programs for the Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based company. “We are developing products that help make it easier for consumers to get flavorful meals on the table by cutting cooking and preparation times, and providing packaging that is convenient and easy to clean up.”

For example, Tyson’s Crafted Creations line combines high-quality cuts with flavors and applications that best complement the specific attributes of that cut. In addition, the company works with retailers to most effectively reach targeted consumers through promotions such as summer grilling initiatives for its Star Ranch Angus and Chairman’s Reserve Certified Premium Beef brands.

The new consumer focus on nontraditional proteins also has spurred companies like Creekstone Farms Premium Beef to adopt a different strategy by expanding its variety, such as its ABF Duroc pork program, launched in June 2014.

Further, Creekstone Farms soon will soon launch a non-GMO beef program, explains Jim Rogers, VP of sales and marketing for the Arkansas City, Kan.-based company. “Much like our pork program, we believe that consumer demand for high-quality, protein-rich beef will be a contributing factor to this program’s success and growth,” he says. “We work with our retail partners to ensure they are aware of these trends and are communicating the message to their shoppers that animal-sourced proteins meet their protein needs, and are also a great source of additional vitamins and minerals that may not be in nontraditional protein sources.”

With an an increase in pork supply and moderating prices, “we hope retailers will capitalize on this opportunity by featuring pork consistently throughout the summer,” notes Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board.

“As an industry, we need to own the protein category,” Fleming says. “Consumers are looking for good sources of natural protein, and they love the taste of fresh pork. This is the focus of our promotional campaigns and point-of-sale materials.” Also crucial, he adds, is educating consumers on preparation to create positive experiences that “ensure repeat purchases and long-term loyalty.”

Playing Both Sides

For suppliers that play in multiple protein categories, retailers face additional opportunities.

“As consumers’ awareness and desire to include protein in their diets expands, Organic Valley and Organic Prairie have seen expanded interest from our retail partners to carry a broader portfolio of our dairy, egg, meat and soy products that all provide high-quality unrefined proteins,” says Tripp Hughes, director of brand management for La Farge, Wis.-based farming cooperative CROPP/Organic Valley.

Leveraging the combined trends of protein and organics, Organic Valley provides its retailer partners with a robust program of POS, in-store demos, staff training and shopper marketing campaigns that all highlight protein content and functionality, and are designed to drive trial.

“We’re also working to understand where the consumer is shopping for protein in-store, whether it’s the dairy case, the snack aisle or the grab-and-go cooler, depending on the product, and seeking primary or secondary placements accordingly,” says Kelly Gibson, the co-op’s director of relationship marketing.

Broomfield, Colo.-based White Wave Foods, once part of dairy giant Dean Foods, sees growing demand for plant-based proteins such as its Silk brand of soy beverages and yogurts.

“We also continue to see demand for dairy-based products,” notes Rebekah Lyle, White Wave’s director of marketing and innovation, who offers as an example its Australian-style yogurt, Yulu, which delivers 10 grams of protein per serving “without the too-sour flavor some people find in Greek yogurt.”

To be sure, the dairy industry is climbing aboard the protein train, aiming to shore up traditionally flat milk sales by promoting its products’ protein richness. But dairy promoters have their marketing work cut out for them.

“Consumer awareness of dairy as a source of protein is very low,” admits Cindy Sorensen, VP of business development for the Midwest Dairy Association, citing research indicating that just 12 percent to 16 percent of adults know that cheese, milk and yogurt are sources of protein.

“The good news,” Sorensen continues, “is that consumer awareness is increasing about the benefits of protein consumption. These benefits include lean muscle building, muscle recovery after exercise, satiety and weight loss, healthy aging, and benefits to joints and bones. These benefits target growing demographic groups such as Baby Boomers, athletes and weight-conscious consumers.”

Midwest Dairy, with three offices in the region, provides social media content, recipes and protein messages for retailers to use as communication tools, and also provides training and educational materials for retail dietitians to employ when communicating with shoppers.

“Currently, intake is the lowest at breakfast,” Sorensen says. This presents an opportunity for both manufacturers and retailers to offer high-protein foods in breakfast offerings. In addition, grocers may consider offering high-dairy protein foods through increased product offerings on the shelf or through breakfast-on-the-go opportunities, perhaps utilizing the salad bar [as] a breakfast bar during the morning hours.”

Sorensen suggests that offerings could include yogurt or smoothies, with whey protein to boost protein content; cottage cheese; and Coca-Cola’s new Fairlife milk, which contains 50 percent more protein than most fluid milk.

On a broader scale, the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) has been pursuing its Milk Life campaign, designed to “help consumers understand that starting the day with milk’s protein can help everyone accomplish what’s important to them,” explains Victor Zaborsky, VP of the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. “This robust and innovative program has shown consumers that milk is an easy and affordable way to get high-quality protein.”

According to Zaborsky, recent Milk Life advertising has positively shifted campaign-specific attitudes toward protein at breakfast.

With turnkey tools and resources that retailers can activate to engage shoppers on a local level to effectively remind consumers of the high-quality protein found in milk, grocers “can support the growing awareness and perceptions of milk’s nutritional benefits,” he says.

Additionally, branded dairy products are pushing their protein power. For example, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based ProYo frozen yogurt, launched three years ago, delivers 20 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving, “the highest concentration of protein of any other frozen treat on the market,” says Nathan Carey, ProYo’s president and founder. And Boston-based Luminate Nutrition LLC has launched Zig Portable Protein Shakes, a whey-based, just-add-water product designed to make it easier for consumers to use protein powder while on the go or away from home. Designed as a snack or pre-/post-workout shake, Zig offers 20 grams per serving of premium whey protein powder freshly sealed inside a pouch.

Cracking the Code

Eggs and egg substitutes comprise considerably more than half of the protein alternative category, with $4.8 billion in sales accounting for a 61 percent share, compared with beans’ $2.3 billion worth of sales for a 30 percent share of the category, according to the executive summary of Mintel’s aforementioned January 2015 “Protein Report.”

“Eggs resonate with the vast majority of consumers (92 percent report any consumption), and more than half of all consumers (53 percent) eat them at least a few times a week,” Mintel reports. “Millennials lead in terms of high-frequency consumption (61 percent), but half of Generation X and nearly as many Baby Boomers and the Swing Generation X (45 percent and 48 percent, respectively) likewise consume the products at least a few times a week.”

According to Mintel, more than a quarter (28 percent) of Millennials said they’re eating less red meat, as are almost a third (32 percent) of Baby Boomers, yet they have yet to turn to meat alternatives in its place.

Per capita egg consumption and egg sales have been growing steadily, affirms Kevin Burkum, SVP at the Chicago-based American Egg Board (AEB). “In fact, 2014 marked the fifth consecutive year that egg consumption has increased, reaching a 30-year high of 263 eggs per person,” he notes. “There’s no question in our mind that protein has been one of the primary drivers behind that growth.”

Recognizing, like MilkPEP, opportunities in the morning, Burkum says many consumers are shifting beyond dinner “to spread out their protein consumption into different dayparts like breakfast. We also believe this protein megatrend has staying power and will continue to be a force behind increased egg consumption in the coming years.”

To educate people about the health benefits of eggs, Burkum says, “our partnerships at retail tend to focus on the importance of starting the day right with a protein-filled breakfast and will typically showcase an on-the-go, protein-rich recipe that accommodates today’s hectic lifestyles. We’re also looking at different ways we can weave eggs into meals beyond breakfast to fulfill protein needs at other dayparts,” including snack opportunities with hard-boiled eggs.

Soy, Grains and Beans

Other alternative proteins, such as soy and grains, continue to gain momentum as vegetarians, vegans and so-called “flexitarians” banish or reduce meat from their diets.

According to Mintel, meat alternatives (frozen, refrigerated and entrées combined) account for barely more than 7 percent of the category, a portion that declined by half a percentage point over the past two years as tofu, tempeh and seitan sales grew nearly 4 percent.

“With consumer interest growing for protein, especially sustainable plant-based proteins with no cholesterol, we have seen a shift in retail offerings,” says Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Soyfoods Association of North America. “Certain categories of soy-based foods and beverages have shown significant growth in recent years, including the consumption of cereal, nutrition and energy bars, and beverages with added soy protein.”

The association reports these statistics:

  • ➤ Sales were led by the food bar category ($1.6 billion), which experienced rapid growth (17 percent CAGR since 2011), as did the overall snack bar category. Increased sales of bars with soy protein reflect the current national fascination with protein and meal replacements.
  • Cereals (mostly cold) with soy protein found breakout success in 2013, with a climb of 20.5 percent CAGR between 2011 and 2013 to $201 million, and soy-containing snacks experienced similar growth (24 percent CAGR since 2011) to $85 million on the back of the same trend.
  • Beverages including soy, such as packaged coffee drinks, smoothies and juices, are a bright spot, increasing by 12.5 percent CAGR in the two years since 2011 to a 2013 total of $210.5 million.

According to Chapman, the association is expanding its retailer outreach efforts beyond National Soyfoods Month in April to take place year-round, encouraging product sampling, cooking classes, recipes and social media promotions.

“Vegans and vegetarians are seeking protein from a variety of sources,” notes Tebbie Chuchla, director of marketing for Lake Success, N.Y.-based Hain Celestial Group Inc. “Soy has traditionally been the optimal source of protein for vegans and vegetarians, as it is the only complete plant protein.”

Hain’s WestSoy brand offers traditional tofu as well as flavored varieties. Wheat and pea proteins are also gaining in popularity, and in response Hain recently launched Yves Veggie Cuisine, a line that includes Garden Ground Round, Slices, Hot Dogs and Burgers. Not ignoring meat eaters, Hain also offers antibiotic-free poultry, including Plainville Farms turkey, FreeBird chicken, and Empire and Kosher Valley chicken and turkey offerings.

“Consumers are evolving and looking for more choices,” Chuchla observes. “Millennials are driving much of this change.”

Lewiston, Idaho-based 13 Foods is leveraging a growing demand for simple, clean and natural food to create a new category: cooked, ready-to-use frozen beans.

“Plant protein with the additional benefits of fiber in an easy-to-prepare format is driving retail grocery chains to expand their frozen vegetable category to include our simple and versatile products,” says Mike Anderson, president of 13 Foods, which offers black and red beans, chickpeas, and lentils. “We are working with our retail partners on in-store advertisements, sampling and temporary price reductions. It’s important to let consumers know of the availability of ready-to-use beans outside of the canned aisle. As awareness grows, it will drive new customers to the frozen category.”

“The accelerant behind protein growth is consumer understanding of the relationship between protein and its role in weight management, muscle development, strength and energy.”
—Sherry Frey, Nielsen Perishables Group

“Consumer interest in protein has skyrocketed. Retailers have a unique opportunity to be a source for knowledge and resources for these inquiring shoppers.”
—Cheryl Hendricks, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

“With consumer interest growing for protein, especially sustainable plant-based proteins with no cholesterol, we have seen a shift in retail offerings.”
—Nancy Chapman, Soyfoods Association of North America

“Grocers may consider offering high-protein dairy foods through increased product offerings on the shelf or through breakfast on-the-go opportunities.”
—Cindy Sorensen, Midwest Dairy Association

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