Balancing Traditional and Alternative Protein Sources

Balancing Traditional and Alternative Protein Sources

February 12, 2020
Shari Steinbach

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA, Contributing Editor

With growing consumer interest in plant-based food options, more shoppers may be looking to add alternative protein products to their eating habits. However, 2018 research from Mintel indicates that many of these individuals still want to prepare and enjoy meals with a variety of protein sources. As plant-based burgers hit retail stores, your customers and internal team members may have questions about these products. Here are some important considerations as you provide customer guidance and assist your store(s) with driving sales across all departments.

  • Know the Market Research. USDA data (USDA WASDE, June, 2019), shows that meat and poultry consumption continue to grow and retail beef demand is up by 16% since 2012.1 In 2019, the market share for animal proteins was 99.7% vs. 0.3% for animal protein substitutes. Although the sale of alternative protein products is increasing, they represent only a tiny fraction of protein market share and dollars sold. In addition, the value of the overall shopping cart is higher when beef or chicken are purchased.2
  • Help consumers accurately compare products. If shoppers are interested in trying alternative protein products it’s important to communicate how they are produced and the nutritional value they bring.  The protein in a pea-based burger, for example, comes from rice, peas and mung bean, and the fat comes from canola oil, coconut oil and cocoa butter. An additive called methylcellulose is used as a binding agent and they also fortify the product with several vitamins and minerals. These plant-based, processed products are about equal in calories and saturated fat as 80/20 ground beef, but higher in carbohydrates and sodium. Higher lean point grinds have lower amounts of calories and saturated fat than plant-based alternatives.
  • Understand your customer needs: More millennials are consuming alternative protein sources but many continue to eat animal protein on a regular basis.3 Offer recipes, cooking classes or demos highlighting healthful recipes with lean meat, poultry and seafood and perhaps a class on how to create your own veggie burgers.
  • Discuss product placement. Currently stores seem split on this issue. While some retailers place alternative protein products in the meat department, others house them in the frozen or vegetarian aisle. In September of this year, Kroger teamed up with the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) to conduct an experiment in some stores where it will house plant-based meat in the conventional meat department for 20 weeks to see if there's any impact to sales of either product. They hope that research results will help guide merchandising and marketing decisions. 
  • Clarify sustainability issues if needed. Many consumers may avoid the meat department due to misguided environmental concerns. Provide science-based resources such as the sustainability information on beef, and share local supplier stories to help clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Understand the industry perspective. Organizations representing parts of the beef and meat industries, using non-Checkoff funds, are working to ensure that all protein sources, including existing plant-based proteins and future cell-based proteins, are produced and marketed using the same standards as animal-based proteins.

Shari is a member of the Beef Expert Bureau through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.


  1. Tonsor, Schroeder, Creating and Assessing Candidate Food Service and Retail Beef Demand Indices, January 2017. IRI/Freshlook, Total US MULO ending 4/28/19; Categorized by VMMeat System
  2. IRI Panel Data, Market Basket Study, February 2019
  3. Based on June 2019–April 2019 Consumer Beef Tracker Data