Comment: What do people know about protein?

Here’s a funny thing: for all the media and social media buzz around protein these days, it turns out people might not know a lot about it.

That’s according to survey results released by Nielsen last year. It’s not a new report, but with the spotlight on alternate protein products these days, it’s worth looking at what consumers want, and where there are knowledge gaps.

In 2018, Nielsen surveyed over 20,000 U.S. consumers about their views on how much protein 10 different food products contain. High protein content was more than 20 grams per serving, mid-level was 10 to 20 grams per serving and low protein was less than 10 grams per serving. The food products Nielsen asked about included peanut butter, jerky, Greek yogurt, protein bars, salmon, cottage cheese, chicken breast, ribeye steak, pork loin and shrimp.

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I think the vast majority of Cattlemen readers would rank meat products as high protein. But only 55 per cent of consumers correctly ranked beef as high protein, 42 per cent ranked chicken as high protein, and only 36 per cent of people recognized pork as high protein. Nielsen ran a similar survey three years earlier, and protein recognition for pork had actually slipped a percentage point since that earlier survey, while chicken improved four percentage points.

It wasn’t just meat that suffered from protein ignorance. The vast majority of consumers didn’t recognize cottage cheese as high protein (which it is). Shrimp was also a big loser, with only 20 per cent recognizing it as high protein. And for some reason, 78 per cent of people surveyed thought peanut butter was high-protein, which is not true.

I confess that I used to think peanut butter was high protein, too. Then one day I actually looked at the label on the jar, and felt kind of disappointed.

Millennials tops at protein knowledge

In the Nielsen survey, the Millennials were not fooled by the peanut butter myth. This demographic had the highest percentage of consumers correctly identify protein content in five products (salmon, chicken, protein bar, peanut bar, and jerky), which was better than any other generation. The Greatest Generation was right behind them, tending to get four products right (ribeye, pork loin, shrimp and cottage cheese).

I personally found it quite interesting that the oldest and youngest demographics had the most protein knowledge, at least in this survey, although in different food products. Perhaps we really are circling back to a more food-savvy population. It certainly backs up the idea that consumers are increasingly interested in how their food was produced. And it squares with what I know about my slightly younger Millennial-age friends, who are generally interested in what’s on their plate (personally, I am never sure if I’m a young Gen X or an elder Millennial, based on my birth year). Five out of 10 is not a super impressive score, but it’s a start, and it actually signals some opportunity to producers of the high-protein foods that Millennials missed.

Strange food culture

This week I’ve been prepping breakfast and side dishes for potlucks at an upcoming multi-day event. As I’ve been chopping and cooking and baking, I’ve been mulling over how we talk about food in our culture.

Personally, there is not much that I won’t eat. Veggies, meat, seafood, pulses, dairy, fruit and grains are all welcome on my plate. I feel very lucky to have access to such a wide variety of good food where I live. Most Canadians are in the same boat, although not everyone. Strangely, when we talk about problems with food, we don’t spend much time talking about remote communities which don’t have the same access, or those who struggle to afford nutritious food.

There are people who genuinely want to know about how their food is produced and it’s worth the ag industry’s time to talk with them. Sure, some of them are misinformed, but aren’t we all ignorant about something? And they might not always see eye-to-eye with producers, but that’s fine, too. I think it’s reasonable to want farmers and ranchers to treat animals well and be good environmental stewards — most farmers and ranchers would share the same values, I think. It’s also worth listening to people to find out what exactly they want on their plates.

I’m a little tired of the self-righteous people who seem to view their dietary choices as a type of religion, and have made it their mission to convert the rest of us. They are the minority, and they’re not representative of the majority, but they are upping other people’s food anxieties. Why have they been allowed to dominate the conversation? And who are they to tell everyone else what they shouldn’t eat, for any reason at all?

I really don’t care if someone is vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, into raw food, paleo, or whatever, unless we’re sharing a meal. It amazes me that I live in a society with a food system that accommodates so many dietary preferences, allergies and health issues. I wish, as a culture, we could approach meals with more enjoyment instead of with so much worry and guilt.

About the author

Editor

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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