To better understand the shifting marketplace, Cargill partnered with Decision Analysists to gauge consumer perceptions and use of plant-based proteins. We surveyed more than 1,900 American shoppers, delving into their awareness and purchasing behavior as it relates to plant-based eating trends.
The Quest for Protein is Real
It’s no surprise that protein is important to consumers. We found nearly half of respondents indicated they are trying to get more protein in their diets. One in four American shoppers contend more protein is always better, while six in 10 were at least somewhat likely to check the ingredient list for protein.
Protein’s strong health halo is clearly driving those responses. Consumers told us they seek protein for energy, satiety, muscle maintenance, and overall health benefits. However, despite linking protein with a host of nutritional advantages, roughly two in 10 said they don’t get as much protein as they should, and few respondents reported following a high-protein diet.
For many consumers, balancing their animal protein intake with foods and beverages that provide plant-based proteins is a more acceptable option than eliminating animal protein altogether. After all, just 6% of Americans are true vegetarians and even fewer are vegan.1 They see plants and plant-based proteins as a means to control their weight, reduce sugar intake, plus boost their energy. Even if they still enjoy eating meat, more consumers view a flexitarian-style diet as good for their health and a way to support their values.
Pea Protein Taps into Consumer Desires
For all the benefits consumers value in plant proteins, there remains a knowledge gap. We found that while consumers are generally positive about plant-based proteins, they are still relatively unfamiliar with these ingredients. Interest in plant protein sources generally corresponds with ingredients consumers have previously tried, with corn and peas topping the list. Others that yield higher interest in trial included chickpea, soy, quinoa, and flax.
That marks a bit of a shift in attitudes. After all, for years, soy was the most popular plant-based protein in product development. There’s still plenty to like about this time-tested option—from affordability to its status as one of the few “complete” plant proteins. Still, in recent years, it’s the humble pea that has emerged as the category’s shining star.
Peas have a lot going for them, which is why Cargill partnered with pea protein manufacturer PURIS to expand the availability of this increasingly sought-after ingredient. They are protein-packed, and PURIS pea protein is available in non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Certified Organic versions for label-friendly formulations. The PURIS range of protein products is exceptionally versatile, adding functionality to applications ranging from gluten-free bakery to high-protein beverages and beyond. Sensory testing consistently gives PURIS pea protein high marks for taste.
Then there’s its environmental appeal. Yellow peas are often grown as cover crops, helping farmers minimize soil erosion, and naturally return nitrogen to the soil. PURIS takes the sustainability story one step further, raising and manufacturing 100% of its yellow peas in North America—local sourcing that resonates with many consumers.
This unique combination of nutritional benefits, functional attributes, and environmental credentials is fueling plenty of demand for pea protein. As a result, Cargill recently stepped up its commitment to the PURIS joint venture with an additional investment of $75 million, enabling PURIS to more than double its pea protein production.
Consumer Appetite Fuels Product Innovation
Ingredient suppliers like Cargill are investing in improved plant protein options and increased capacity, as consumers’ growing appetite for plant-based eating is sparking continued innovation worldwide.
According to data from Mordor Intelligence, the global plant-based protein market reached $6.37 billion in 2018. The market research firm estimated that it will grow to $9.5 billion by 2025 on a compound annual growth rate of 7%.2 This shift toward plant-based eating is taking place globally, and what is particularly interesting is that a significant majority of consumers (70+%) in countries worldwide have made this change in the last two years, and almost as many (60%) call it a permanent shift in their diets.3
From our research, we know Americans are looking for easy, convenient ways to boost protein intake. The majority (60%) aren’t seeking a particular amount of protein in products, but they do tend to say they are looking to increase their protein intake throughout the day and for a variety of eating occasions. All this spells opportunity for savvy brands.
The dairy alternative aisle has long been a leader in this space. Initially, it was plant-based milks that forged the trail, but the plant-based trend has spread to yogurts, cheese, and ice cream. The entire segment has reached $2.2 billion, with projected growth for these latter categories at 19.8%.4
Snacks represent plenty of opportunity, too. Product developers can address consumer desires for protein and vegetables in a convenient, accessible format. In our research, we found one third of respondents said they were very to extremely likely to look for protein in the snacks they buy. However, concerns related to taste are more of a barrier than in the other application categories we reviewed. More than any other segment, consumers expect their snacks to deliver it all.
While most pronounced in the snack category, our research found lingering concerns surrounding plant proteins’ ability to deliver on sensory qualities and satisfaction in many segments. This reality amplifies the importance of product prototypes and testing during the product development process to ensure that attributes surrounding taste and texture live up to consumer expectations. Partnering with knowledgeable ingredient suppliers can help, speeding development and resulting in products that better reflect consumers’ sensory desires.
Plant Protein has Plenty of Potential
Product development, however, can only take a brand so far. Brand marketers still need to educate consumers about the benefits of plant proteins. After all, plant proteins provide plenty of value beyond their protein boost: they offer health and nutrition advantages, lower calories and fat, yet have the versatility to work in a wide range of foods and beverages. They also can tap into consumer desires for products that align with their priorities.
Demand for more protein and plants in the diet will only grow as consumers come to better understand the value these ingredients bring. Brands have an opportunity to take advantage of these shifting attitudes with new plant-protein ingredients that improve both the nutritional profile and also environmental footprint of their products, while still meeting consumer taste and texture expectations.
- Nielsen. “Plant-Based Food Options are Sprouting Growth for Retailers.” June 13, 2018. https://www.nielsen.com/us/ en/insights/news/2018/plant-based-food-options-are-sprouting-growth-for-retailers.html
- Mordor Intelligence. “Plant Protein Market Growth Trends and Forecast 2019-2024.” https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/plant-protein-market
- Health Focus International. International Plant Study. Consumer Entry Points in Eating and Drinking. August 2017.
- Nielsen Retail Sales Data for Plant-Based Foods. https://plantbasedfoods.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/ NeilsenOne-PagerResults-1.pdf
Pam Stauffer is a global marketing programs manager at Cargill, where she’s responsible for developing strategic marketing programs for sweeteners, texturizers, and specialty food ingredient brands. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.cargill.com.