Protein: Consumers Want It, But Don’t Understand It

Protein: Consumers Want It, But Don’t Understand It

As we’ve been reporting over the past year or so, U.S. consumers have a growing appetite for all things protein. In fact, 55% of U.S. households say high protein is now an important attribute to consider when buying food for their households. Across the country, 6% of households include someone who lives on a high-protein diet. That’s more than 5.4 million people.

While the popularity of plant-based proteins is certainly growing, data shows that consumers are still choosing traditional sources of protein such as meat, eggs and dairy as their primary source. They still dominate in sales as well, as these five categories account for $148.7 billion in sales and growth of 1.1%.

Protein can now be found in so many different areas across the store. Alternate sources of protein beyond more traditional options is a fast-growing sector that manufacturers and retailers shouldn’t ignore. Looking around the store outside of the top five sources of protein, we see sales of $22.6 billion for products that are good or excellent source of protein with growth of 1.3%.

With a growing number of protein products appearing on shelves, do consumers know how much protein is in popular foods found across the store?

To find out, Nielsen conducted two surveys: one was fielded in December 2015 and the other in July 2018. Each survey included more than 20,000 respondents who were asked their perspective on how much protein certain items from across the store contain, on a range of high protein content (more than 20 grams per serving), mid-level protein (10-20 grams per serving) or low protein (less than 10 grams per serving).

The results illuminated some interesting knowledge gaps. In fact, American consumer beliefs about protein content in common food items don’t align with reality. For example, 78% of respondents said they believed peanut butter is higher in protein than it actually is. Additionally, only 20% of respondents knew that shrimp is a high-protein food, and a majority of consumers didn’t recognize cottage cheese as a high-protein food, when in actuality, its protein count is quite high.

Perhaps what is most interesting, is that the blockbuster protein sources—beef, chicken and pork—also didn’t score well in the minds of consumers, even though they’re all high-protein products. Notably, between 45% and 64% of consumers didn’t consider beef, chicken or pork to be high in protein in our survey, and that’s an even wider range than in 2015. While 55% of consumers correctly stated how much protein is in beef, that’s still a relatively low percentage for a commonly identified primary source of protein. Chicken did win the award for most improved, as the correct identification increased 4 percentage points (to 42%) from our 2015 survey. The same can’t be said for pork though, as fewer consumers correctly identified it as being a high source of protein, dropping a percentage point to 36% from 37% in 2015.

Who’s Getting it Right

Across categories, Greatest Generation and Millennial consumers were most knowledgeable about protein content in the foods they buy. Across the 10 products included in the surveys, Millennials topped the list with having the highest percent of consumer correctly identifying protein content for five of the products (peanut butter, jerky, protein bar, chicken breast and salmon filet). Greatest Generation were right behind them with highest percent correct in four products (cottage cheese, ribeye steak, pork loin and shrimp).

Overall, protein knowledge among U.S. consumers is fairly low. Of the 10 products included in our surveys, only three items reached a majority of consumers correctly identifying protein content levels—even though more than half of consumers say high protein is an important attribute in their food purchases.

That said, however, consumers still make 60% of their purchase decisions at the shelf. So as consumers continue to hone their specific diets and shopping habits, manufacturers and retailers have a real opportunity to tout protein content right on-pack or with in-store signage, even for products where it seems obvious.


The insights in this article were derived from the following sources:

  • U.S. Homescan Panel Health Care survey, March 2018
  • U.S. Homescan Panel Protein survey, April 2017
  • Nielsen Product Insider, powered by Label Insight, 52 weeks ended June 9, 2018
  • U.S. Homescan Panel survey, July 2018
  • Nielsen Total Food View, Total U.S. xAOC 52 weeks ended Aug. 11, 2018