The want of more protein in diets have US consumers seeking the macronutrient from a variety sources, reports The NPD Group. Protein, the nutritional counterpart to fat and carbohydrates, is considered the body’s building blocks, and can be found in a long list of foods, like seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, and vegetables. In order to get more protein into their diets, consumers are availing themselves to all of these types of foods in addition to whatever might be the trendy protein of the day, like fungi, according to NPD’s Eating Patterns in America, an annual compilation of the company’s daily tracking US consumers’ eating behaviors away from and in home.
Historically, animal proteins, like beef, chicken, and pork, were the primary source of protein in the American diet. A well-balanced diet for decades meant a main entrée, usually meat or poultry, vegetables or fruit, and a carbohydrate, like potatoes. Animal proteins still represent a large share of eating occasions in US households, although slightly lower than a decade ago, but consumers are more informed about other protein sources and are taking full advantage of their knowledge.
For example, chicken is the top animal protein consumed as a main entrée in-home, but consumers are also increasingly upping their protein game by replacing their chicken main entrée with a mixed dish that might include a variety of protein sources, like chicken, beans, quinoa or other ancient grains, mushrooms, and a high protein vegetable, like spinach. Mixed dishes now represent a 9.6% share of in-home eating occasions — a share that represents billions of “eatings” a year — a comparable share to animal protein main entrées, which represent 10.3% of all eating occasions. The hunt for protein isn’t just relegated to meals, protein snacks, like nuts, yogurt, and cheese, are the second most popular snacks consumed after fruit.
Consumers also seek out protein when they dine at or order from restaurants and other foodservice outlets. Beef burgers have been the top animal meat protein ordered at US restaurants for decades. Burgers are included in 10% of all restaurant orders, which translates to several billion orders a year. Pizza, another long-time protein-packed restaurant favorite, is included in 7% of all restaurant orders.
Breaded chicken sandwiches are relatively new to menus compared to burgers and pizza, but are quickly gaining popularity as more restaurants, particularly quick service restaurant chains, offer and promote them. Although the volume of breaded chicken sandwiches ordered do not reach the level of burgers and pizza, they hold a respectable 3% share of all restaurant orders, or 2.6 billion servings ordered in 2020. Plant-based burgers stirred up a lot of buzz when restaurants began offering them, but the category represents less than 1% of all restaurant orders, reports NPD.
“Consumers got the message loud and clear that protein is important for their wellness, and, for the most part, subscribe to the theory that more is better,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “With this in mind, any callout a food marketer or restaurant operator can make in terms of protein content in a product or menu item will be considered a plus by consumers.”