Consumers Want Simple, Affordable Protein

People seek meals, products that prioritize convenience and provide shortcuts, Cargill report says
Image: Shutterstock

Consumers desire and need protein solutions that are right-sized, simple, globally inspired and affordable.

This insight comes from a new report from Wayzata, Minnesota-based Cargill, The Protein Profile: The 2024 Primer for Protein Trends and Tips.

Here’s a deeper look at each of the four trends:

Less is More

The average household is shrinking, and one- and two-person households are growing. In fact, 64% of U.S. households are one or two people, up from 46% in 1970. Because of this, people want smaller packages of protein to avoid waste and control costs. In addition, 76% of people use air fryers to prepare meat and poultry, up from 39% in 2019.

The report, which notes that meals that freeze and reheat easily are key, says single-person households prepare meals with three to four servings, then eat or freeze the leftovers.

“These one-person households sometimes lack motivation to cook and don’t want to bother with major prep or cleanup,” the report says.

In addition, steaks and burgers dominate the grilling scene, but larger cuts, like beef brisket and whole chicken, fit best when smoking.

In addition:

  • 34% of grill owners plan to grill more in the next year
  • 75% use their grill all year long

For retailers, the report says, “It’s not just about ovens and microwaves. Look to include additional cooking instructions and meal inspiration for grills, air fryers and pressure cookers, or as part of recipe content online.”

Simplify My Life

As the time crunch continues, more reach for protein and meal solutions that simplify their lives, with technology streamlining the entire food experience for consumers.

The report shows 15% of all meal occasions today are heat and eat, and there has been a 5 billion increase in orders for digital foodservice since 2019—a 161% increase.

“These one-person households sometimes lack motivation to cook and don’t want to bother with major prep or cleanup.”

The mantra for 2024 is “Simplify my life,” the report says. “As consumers continue to shift to pre-pandemic rhythms—return to in-office-work, school, activities—they are, once again, pressed for time.”

In addition, consumers want meals and protein products that prioritize convenience and provide shortcuts, instead of difficult, time-intensive cooking products.

“This mindset affects every aspect of mealtime: meal planning, grocery shopping, product selection, food storage, meal prep, eating and clean up,” according to the report

Data shows:

  • 86% say case-ready meat is as good or better than meal cut or packaging in a store.
  • 82% of U.S. retailers are increasing space for fresh-prepared grab-and-go meals.
  • 39% of all main meals require 5 to 30 minutes to prepare.
  • 15% of all meal occasions today are heat-and-eat, representing 1 in 7 meals.
  • There has been a 6% increase in frozen meat and poultry purchases since 2022.

Elsewhere, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are speeding order processing, fueling recipe inspiration for marketing and creating a more efficient digital supply chain, the report says. “At retail, chat AI now gives consumers custom recommendations.”

The report also says consumers are demanding more from the plant-based meat category. “They want better taste, value and nutrition. Innovation will be required to address these category hurdles.”

Data shows:

  • 42% of the global population eats both animal and plant-based products.
  • 60% say they choose plant-based meal to be healthier, followed by sustainability reasons.

Retailers should add in-store differentiators that highlight convenience to boost interest and sales, the report says. “Use QR codes to drive consumers to experiences, recipe inspiration or messaging.”

Connecting Cultures, Cuisines

People’s palates increasingly crave more diverse and globally influenced flavors. “As Gen Z steps into the kitchen, they not only seek comfort in the flavors of diverse cultures but are also exploring and mashing up global cuisines and influences in new ways, including protein-centric meals and snacks,” according to the report.

Mexican and Latin cuisines are of particular interest. Data shows 58% of Gen Z and 47% of millennials have eaten globally inspired food in the past week, and 61% of consumers are interested in Latin cuisine for the variety of flavors its recipes inspire.

42% of the global population eats both animal and plant-based products

Global cuisine has become the new comfort food, the report says, with weeknight dinners drawing inspiration from all over the world, from layering spices and chilis together to choosing different marinades and combinations. “For brands and retailers, attracting and connecting with multicultural shoppers has never been more important.”

In addition, “Fusion foods are continuing to trend upward, giving retailers an opportunity to be ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation,” the report says. Retailers should “diversity offerings at the case and in the hot-and-ready meals by leaning into regionality and local flavors.”

Data shows:

  • 53% of consumers are interesting in seeing more globally inspired foods at stores
  • 48% of millennials and 58% of Gen Z consumers have eaten globally inspired foods in the past week

Another trend is “chaos cooking,” which is mashing together two cuisines, like Korean and Mexican, into one dish, the reports says.

Redefining Value

Pricing is impactful enough that it’s another trend on its own—and it’s playing out in interesting ways.

“People are choosing premium items to prepare at home, reframing price on their terms,” according to the report. “But they’re also prioritizing value by choosing simpler meals or smaller sizes while grocery shopping and dining. These shifts reinforce everyone in defining ‘value’ on their own terms.”

The report notes that the meaning of value depends on each consumer’s lifestyle. “Some trade down in foodservice, while others use premium ingredients to recreate a restaurant experience at home. Still others save on groceries with private labels or value retailers.”

“Fusion foods are continuing to trend upward, giving retailers an opportunity to be ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation.”

The report notes there has been a 60% increase in private label preference since 2021, and 60% say they are eating out less often to manage expenses.

In addition, consumers are trading down on proteins due to cost, such as switching from beef muscle to ground beef, or reducing their overall meat purchase.

Data shows:

  • 71% of North American consumers are looking to reduce spend on food and beverages, up from 54% in 2020.

“The more retailers can overtly communicate savings and value, the stronger the proposition is for shoppers (think advertisements and deals),” the report says.

Data for the report is from Statista/U.S. Census Bureau, FMI, Circana, Griffith Foods and Cargill Proprietary Research.

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