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The Intersection of Protein Demands and Plant-based Growth

Guest blog by Susan Schwallie, President, Food & Beverage Consumption, NPD Group, and member of CFI’s Consumer Trust Insights Council.

In the past year and a half, much has changed when it comes to consumption of food.

With restaurant restrictions and shut-downs brought on by COVID-19, consumers were forced to eat at home – scouring the Internet for easy-to-prepare meals and snatching up air fryers, electric grills and other gadgets to make life easier. The snack sector took off as the craving for comfort foods – ice cream, cookies, chips, crackers – increased. Digital ordering and delivery skyrocketed.

But one thing that hasn’t changed, according to our research at NPD Group, is the demand for protein. What is changing is how consumers source protein.

In late August 2021 we published NPD’s “The Future of Plant-Based” study and forecast. Given the rise of retail plant-based meat alternatives and its growth, this is a hot topic. Let’s take a look.

What do meat eaters really want?

In the year ending February 2021, 41 percent of consumers wanted more protein in their diets, which is on par with pre-pandemic levels.

(NPD Group: In-home protein-related behaviors infographic)

Although meats and fish rose in consumption in 2020 with the stay-at-home guidance, so, too, did meat alternatives. Interestingly, plant-based users have a higher rate of protein seeking – 46 percent –  than other consumers. It must be “all those vegetarians and vegans who lack protein” you say! In fact, just under 20 percent of adults say they’re trying to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diets, far outnumbering those who follow vegan and vegetarian diets. It is no surprise that 9 of 10 meat-alternative eaters also consume animal proteins.

This suggests that meat alternatives are being incorporated into omnivore diets as another protein source. But why so much interest and growth? Are meat alternative seekers looking to get more vegetables? Protein? Or both?

Consumer desire to eat more vegetables has softened in the past several years, signaling their satisfaction with the amount of vegetables they eat. When we ask adults why they chose meat alternatives, “getting more vegetables” is tertiary to health and wellness and sustainability drivers. In other words, plant-based is perceived by consumers as a healthier analogue to animal protein without the related health and environmental consequences.

Since protein demands were sustained during the peak COVID-19 period, we can expect these behaviors to last as consumers’ lives normalize in the months ahead. Just as dairy products and plant-based dairy alternatives coexist in consumers’ refrigerators, be prepared for animal proteins and their plant-based alternatives to coexist by understanding what drives consumer choice.

Moving Forward

From a macro perspective, here are my recommendations for you. Call out your good sources of protein. Talk more about your efforts to produce animal protein in a sustainable way. Be sure to focus efforts on Millennials and Gen Zs as they’re expected to drive much of the meat alternative growth and express greater concerns for sustainability and animal welfare. Lastly, if you are grain, legume or vegetable grower, keep up on consumer ingredient preferences for plant-based products. Plant-based users are very health engaged and care what is on the label!

You can use NPD’s food and beverage consumer data to position your products in relation to their plant-based analogues and capitalize on the growth in protein seeking. If you have any questions about this blog, the report or just want to ask my opinion on something related to food, I am happy to help.

Reach Susan at