Protein is about more than fulfilling a daily recommended value. Even though humans have historically treated animal-based protein with reverence, as the macronutrient to nourish the body and feed the world, it goes beyond the classic dogma. It transcends weight loss and eating a balanced diet, rebukes food tribe loyalty, and persists onto ethical and environmental battlegrounds. The food system is reframing protein as a way to address global issues, asking questions like “how will we continue to feed the world’s population, while lowering emissions and our environmental footprint?” Consumers are voting with their wallets, and producers and brands are noticing that the attribution of “healthy” has become synonymous with protein content. Protein has become the key hook in an elevator pitch to consumers the second they pick up a product. “Is 5 grams of protein enough, how about 10 grams?” Companies are growing product offerings, reformulating with novel ingredients, and changing to keep pace with consumer preferences.
Eggs used to be a decision of a dozen or half dozen, but they’ve stratified to cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, organic, among a litany of other attributes and farming practices. Cows can now be grass-fed, or grass-fed organic, or grass-fed organic pasture raised. The tide of optionality is not only rising to meet demand for more nutritious foods, it allows consumers to coalesce their protein choices with their social and environmental views.
Each product’s ingredient list has become more than just its content, it’s become the consumers’ ballot. No added sugar. Only ingredients I can pronounce. I need to make sure it’s vegan.
Consumers recognize that products they purchase at the grocery store, online, or at a restaurant have an impact on their health, environmental footprint, and ethical beliefs. What was once a simple purchase, now has deeper considerations in the consumer’s mind. These thoughts materialize as buying behaviors, and are driving forces sculpting the new identity of protein consumption. For the rising demand of humanely raised, organic cattle, it requires farmers to acquire more grazing land. They have to improve each animal’s quality of life. They have to purchase organic grain. It requires a slower process. More physical labor. It affects the broader ecosystem and is not siloed to a single farmer’s farm.
The growth in plant-based alternatives in milk, yogurt, and meat requires the creation of entirely new supply chains for protein. Examining whether a company is using pea, soy, or potato protein is becoming newsworthy. Where do you get your pea protein?
Even the paradigm of what it means to eat animal-based protein is shifting. With the advent of bleeding plant-based burgers and cellular-based meat production, consumers can decide whether they want their animal-based protein sources raised or grown. It requires capital and intellect to fuel innovation. Protein’s future is intricate. It requires a multidisciplinary approach across the supply chain, with everyone weighing in from brands and producers to growers and farmers. The new system being built will have to answer challenging questions like “if we can raise livestock in an environmentally sustainable way, how will the consumer respond to cellular-based meats?” Is it an economic, an ethical, or an environmental question?
The future of protein is agnostic of good or bad, animal- or plant-based, and requires the interconnectedness of previously segregated parties to connect across the farm to the consumer. It will require going beyond the traditional question of feeding the world to address deeper, more intimate topics. Ethics, climate change, changes in culinary culture, and food innovation are being pulled to the forefront. And, as each new product comes to market, the consumer is waiting, ready to cast their ballot to write the future of protein.