Protein Perceptions and Consumption Behaviors

Protein Perceptions and Consumption Behaviors

The popularity of protein among Americans is undeniable. It is our favorite and least demonized macronutrient. Although protein has become increasingly buzzworthy, the main motivation behind consuming it is a familiar one, to eat healthily. In fact, in our Consumer Viewpoints and Purchasing Behaviors Regarding Plant and Animal Protein survey released in January 2021, we found that eating a balanced diet rose to the top of reasons for protein consumption, with over two in five respondents saying so.

Alongside the growing interest in protein is the increasing variety of protein options available to us, particularly among plant-based proteins. The reasons behind why we select the protein foods that we do have also expanded, including motivations not only rooted in our own health and preferences, but also in the wellbeing of the environment. In our 2021 Food and Health Survey, we looked at American protein consumption behaviors and their perceptions of the impact that various protein sources have on the environment.

Protein Consumption Among Americans

The majority of Americans (62%) say they generally try to consume protein. When we drill down deeper to look at who exactly seeks out protein, we find generational differences; Baby Boomers are more likely than Millennials and those in Generation X to say they try to consume protein (70% vs. 55% and 58%, respectively). In addition to age differences, we see that Hispanic/Latinx people are more likely to say that they try to consume protein, compared to African Americans and white people (71% vs. 53% and 61%, respectfully).

Reflecting on changes in eating habits during the past 12 months, we see increases in reported consumption across both animal and plant-based proteins, with seafood and protein from plant sources being among the most popular. Within animal proteins, 23% said they are eating more seafood, 22% report eating more poultry and eggs and 17% say the same about dairy. When looking at plant-based proteins, 24% are eating more protein from plant sources such as nuts and beans, 19% are eating more plant-based meat alternatives, 14% are consuming more fortified soy-based milk and yogurt and 18% are consuming more of other plant-based dairy alternatives such as oat-based milk and cashew-based yogurt. In particular, Millennials were more likely than Baby Boomers and Silent generations to say they are eating more of each of these plant-based options.

Alternatively, when looking at what people reported consuming less of in the past year, red meat (26%) rises to the top, followed by dairy (19%), seafood (13%), fortified soy-based milk and yogurt (12%), and poultry and eggs (12%). Only 10% of respondents said that they are eating less protein from plant sources.

The Perceived Impact of Protein Choices on the Environment

Whether plant-based or animal protein, foods that fall under either category are perceived to have an impact on the environment, and many Americans are aware of the potential weight that their choices carry. When asked about the degree to which their individual choices about food and beverage purchases impact the environment, 42% believe their individual choices can have a moderate or significant impact. Interestingly, those who grocery shop online at least once a month were more likely than those who never grocery shop online to say this.

Of those who believe that their individual food choices can impact the environment, 42% ranked meat and poultry in the top three foods having the greatest negative effect. Other animal proteins were also viewed as harmful, with 27% ranking seafood and 25% ranking dairy as some of the foods with the most negative impact on the environment. When it comes to plant proteins, fewer believed that they have detrimental consequences on the environment; only 13% ranked plant-based dairy alternatives as having a top negative environmental impact, and the same percentage said this for plant-based meat alternatives.

While the number and range of protein choices are ever-growing, it’s clear from our 2021 Food and Health Survey that American behaviors towards certain proteins are also changing. It is evident that many believe their food purchases have environmental implications, and of those with this view, animal proteins are seen as having a greater negative impact than plant proteins. So, the next time you’re shopping for protein foods and contemplating whether it will be an animal or plant-based option, know that you’re not the only one.

Interested in learning more about plant-based meat alternatives production and nutritional attributes? Check out our fact sheet What You Should Know About Plant-Based Alternatives to Meat. Also, if you think you might need more information on dietary protein first, watch our Nutrition 101 Video Series: The Principles of Protein.

Download PDFs of the following infographics:

Protein and Environment

Protein Consumption

This article was written by Marisa Paipongna, with contributions from Tamika Sims, PhD and Kris Sollid, RD.