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The Future of Protein – 5 Key Trends for 2023
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The Future of Protein – 5 Key Trends for 2023

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As retailers and food service providers look ahead in 2023 and beyond, they are faced with several important questions about the future of the protein category: Do I have the right assortment based on consumer demand? What internet and social food and recipe fads are actually here to stay? Where is plant-based protein heading?

To help answer these questions, Cargill’s protein and consumer research and insights teams have compiled a list of 5 key trends shaping the protein industry in 2023. The research shows that consumer demand for protein of all kinds is at an all-time high and continues to grow – a trend that is expected to continue in 2023. In fact, 29% of consumers in the United States have stated that protein has become more important over the course of the last year.

As the desire for diverse protein offerings continues to rise, the industry is also evolving in response to new and more nuanced consumer demographics and post-pandemic shifts in behavior. This outlook on protein provides a fresh perspective on what’s to come, as well as key opportunities for continued growth.

1. Consumers Continue to Prioritize Value-Added Options that Make Life Easier

Demand for value-added meat and poultry, such as sliced, diced, and shaved meats, continues to grow, due in large part to the increasing number of consumers who “frequently or sometimes” buy these items, which has doubled since 2016. Online shoppers and other important consumer segments such as Gen Z, Millennials, Hispanics, and Black consumers are driving value-added meat’s popularity thanks to its accessibility and ease of use in the kitchen.

2. Back to Office Mandates Shift Protein Purchase Habits

With many consumers across the country returning to the office, they are seeking convenient meals that are easy to purchase and prepare. In fact, 73% of shoppers are seeking meals that can be ready in 30 minutes or less. Return to office requirements are also influencing consumers to identify time-saving grocery shopping tips and new behaviors, such as purchasing fresh meat online via grocery pickup or home delivery. However, consumers say they are most comfortable purchasing familiar protein products like ground beef and chicken breasts as they know what they are getting and reported consistent quality. Cargill’s research found that there is great opportunity to help consumers feel more comfortable and confident in purchasing “new” types of muscle beef like steaks, roasts, and brisket when shopping online, as a general lack of trust persists around store personnel choosing a product that will address their needs and meal and flavor preferences. The growing hybrid shopping occasion that involves curbside pick-up combined with in-store shopping to pick up fresh food including meat is a sign that consumers are open to the idea of evolving shopping habits.

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3. The Plant-Based Meat Category Continues to Evolve, with Flexitarian Consumers Driving Purchase

Flexitarians are consumers whose diets includes both plant-based foods and animal protein. Today, flexitarians are super consumers​ of the growing plant-based meat sector, accounting for 21% of U.S. adults. Over the last year, Cargill saw that more U.S. households are turning to plant-based meat offerings for meals, but consumers are still wanting more when it comes to taste and texture, paving the way for innovation in the space.

4. Seafood Emerges as a Protein Frontrunner for Consumers

Consumers across the U.S. are reaching for seafood as they continue to prioritize health and better-for-you offerings without compromising on taste – 72% of adults are eating seafood at least once a month. Motivation to choose seafood more regularly is largely driven by the high protein and Omega 3 fatty acids, the flavor-forward taste, and the wide variety that seafood offers to their meals. The team at Cargill also found that multicultural consumers, including Black, Hispanic, Latino, Indian, and/or Asian consumers, over-index with eating seafood a few times a week and are consuming varied species on a regular basis.

5. Sustainability Reaches New Heights as a Buying Driver

Consumers are more aware of and personally connected to food and specifically a product’s sustainability story. Increased visibility on the impact of climate change has amplified this over the past two years. This impacts decisions made at the meat case as well, with 63% preferring transparency to understand more behind the protein they are purchasing. Furthermore, an increased number of protein consumers want to better understand how their purchases impact the farmer and/or worker (35%), the plant (35%), and overall animal welfare (31%), providing suppliers and retailers alike with an opportunity for greater education and information sharing to establish credibility and consumer trust.

6924 Food Navigator 2B[6]

The protein category and specifically its diverse offerings are well-positioned to continue its reign as a top dietary trend well into the future. With consumers seeking out convenient and sustainable options that also offer a host of health benefits, it is more important than ever for retailers and food service operators to anticipate and identify shifting consumer behaviors and adjust offerings accordingly. Whether it is through a diverse selection of protein sources or innovative marketing strategies, those who can tap into these protein trends will be poised for success in the year to come.

Insights sourced from several Cargill Proprietary Research Studies conducted in 2021 and 2022