Consumers Up Their Protein With Quick and Healthy Meat Alternatives

Consumers Up Their Protein With Quick and Healthy Meat Alternatives

Personal health and wellness has begun to take center stage with consumers in recent years, and food plays an important role in this trend. Notably, 63% of Americans say they’re trying to eat healthier, and many are doing so by going back to the basics—opting for natural, simple ingredients.

But this retreat to natural and simple opens even greater doors for proteins, which is still top of mind for consumers. In the 52 weeks ended July 2, 2016, sales of food items with protein claims increased by 4.8% (or $19.6 billion in dollar sales). But despite meat’s place as a protein staple in many Americans’ diets, a new protein player is rising in popularity and accounting for more plate space across the country: pulses, also known as grain legumes.

While the word “pulse” doesn’t come up much around the dinner table, these edible seeds have maintained a significant presence in international diets throughout nearly all of human history. Not sure what a grain legume is? Popular examples experiencing sales growth at U.S. grocery outlets include dried beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas.

So why the sales spike? Turns out it’s not just because pulses don’t break the bank. According to recent Nielsen survey on health matters, 61% of respondents choose foods based on protein content and 59% for high fiber. This is a positive sign for pulses, which are widely regarded for their protein and fiber attributes. In fact, the U.N. declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, indicating these seeds’ growing popularity among Americans as well as consumers around the world.  

Health ranks as one of the top concerns for Americans, encouraging many consumers to reclaim control of their personal health; one way they can do this is by exploring healthier foods with simple ingredients. So when it comes to pulses, who’s eating them, where are they eating them and why are they choosing them?

There isn’t just one consumer group that’s powering up with pulses in the U.S. A wide variety of consumers are fans of the edible seeds–spanning generations, income levels, life stages and dietary preferences. According to Nielsen Homescan Consumer Moments, however, women consume these grainy goods 70% of the time.

Additional data from Homescan Consumer Moments reveals that home is where the pulse is. Consumption of alternative proteins largely centers on occasions tied to the home, supporting the claim that consumers are in more control of their personal health journeys. Eighty-six percent of pulse consumption happens at home, and pulse lovers let creativity lead the way by following their own recipe 48% of the time. And pulses aren’t just side dishes. In fact, consumers eat pulses as a main entree for 60% of meal occasions.

For carnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike, pulses such as lentils and chickpeas can serve as ideal meat substitutes. Other reasons that encourage consumers to indulge in pulses include health and nutritional value, taste and convenience.

Despite the decline in dollar sales of the overall legume category in the year ended May 28, 2016, certain pulses have been  propping up category sales. Lentils and chickpeas are dominating the growth in the category, ringing up higher percentage dollar sale growth than their legume counterparts. Sales of lentils grew 11.1% and sales of chickpeas grew 6.4% over the past year, indicating their rising popularity as go-to resources for alternative protein.

As diet trends continue to broaden to include protein options other than meat, such as eggs and almond milk, retailers should keep an eye on the pulsing demand for grain legumes as an alternative protein growth category to watch.


The insights in this article were derived from the following sources:

  • “Healthy, Happy Home,” a Nielsen survey of 1,176 U.S. consumers on healthy matters influencing their food purchases
  • Nielsen Answers on Demand, 52 weeks ended May 28, 2016
  • Nielsen Answers on Demand, Wellness Track, 52 weeks ended July 2, 2016
  • Nielsen Homescan Consumer Moments, “Year of the Pulses,”  August 2015-March 2016