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An exclusive survey from Harris Interactive for ''Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition'' has revealed that consumers are largely confused about protein

Protein has an image problem. While the bodybuilder's nutrient of choice has also been linked to a wealth of other benefits from weight management to cholesterol reduction, the average consumer, it seems, has not got the message yet.Indeed, as an exclusive survey of UK consumers compiled for FIHN​ by Harris Interactive reveals, most adults aren't even sure which foods actually contain protein, never mind whether it's good for them.

While most consumers in our survey cited red meat (71%), fish (66%) and eggs (67%) as high in protein, they were far less confident about naming other sources, with milk and dairy foods regarded as high in protein by less than half of respondents (45%), and vegetable alternatives such as lentils and soya even further off the radar.

But we should not be overly shocked by consumer ignorance about which foods contain protein, says Gerard Klein Essink from consultant Bridge2Food: "No meat-free company is advertising that its products contain more proteins than meat, so we can't expect consumers to know about the protein content of meat-free foods."

However, educating consumers about the protein content of pulses, soya and lentils could have major implications for the meat-free market, he predicts: "When 16% of the population is thinking of moving its protein source, it could have a massive impact on the market for meat and meat-free. It also has implications for health, as a vegetable protein diet tends to be more healthy."

Protein and the planet

Jackie Tenuta, marketing boss at Pulse Canada, which represents Canadian pulse growers, says the vegetable protein industry could also do more to promote its green credentials. Pulse crops draw nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, so farmers do not have to buy vast quantities of environmentally disastrous nitrogen fertiliser in order to grow them, she says.

They are also an efficient source of protein, requiring less energy and water than animal-based rivals, she argues: "Pulses are foods for healthy people and a healthy planet."

While surprisingly high numbers of those surveyed agreed that protein could assist with weight management, more than a third also cited weight gain as a risk of eating too much protein, highlighting what a schizophrenic bunch consumers are.

Likewise, despite their apparent recognition of protein's many benefits, over half of respondents still claimed protein was primarily for muscle building and 43% feared that consuming too much could cause high cholesterol, despite the fact that some proteins, such as soy, are actually marketed on a cholesterol reduction platform.

All of which suggests suppliers still have some work to do in order to get their message across, says Mark Neville at whey protein supplier Volac International: "There is clearly a further need for education to dispel the myth that protein consumption (regardless of source) can lead to cholesterol and weight increases."

Don't mention the p-word

Of course, none of this means that suppliers plugging the nutritional benefits of proteins should pack up and go home, merely that their marketeers need to focus on specific benefits rather than 'protein' per se, points out Dr Mark Tallon from ingredients consultancy Nutrisciences.

What an ingredient is, is less important than what it does, he says: "Compare the claim 'high fibre' to 'reduces hunger'; the latter will have significantly greater consumer penetration and sales.

"Kellogg did not run with a 'high in protein' claim for its Special K Sustain cereals, but utilised the science behind high protein intake to highlight and substantiate its visual representations of weight loss and diet challenges to connect to consumers emotionally," says Tallon.

"I don't think that protein or any other nutrient will ever gain mass recognition when presented as a standalone claim, it's the branding package surrounding it that helps consumers connect."

Harris consumer protein survey results

Which of the following food items do you think are high in protein?

Red meats 71%

Eggs 67%

Fish 66%

Nuts 57%

Beans 47%

White meats 47%

Milk/dairy products 45%

Pulses 36%

Soya 36%

Lentils 35%

How much protein do you consume?

I eat enough protein 57%

I do not eat enough protein 6%

I don't know if I eat enough protein,

but I'm interested in finding out 29%

I don't know if I eat enough protein,

and I'm not interested in finding out 8%

Are you trying to shift your source of protein from animal to other sources, such as soya, beans, pulses?

Yes 16%

No 69%

Don't know 15%

What, if any, are the risks of eating too much protein?

High cholesterol 43%

Weight gain 35%

Cancer 14%

Diabetes 11%

There are no risks 4%

Not sure 39%

(Respondents could tick multiple answers)

Protein can help people manage their weight and control their appetite.

Agree 37%

Disagree 7%

No view 56%

High protein intake is associated with high fat intake.

Agree 19%

Disagree 28%

No view 53%

Other protein sources are healthier than meat.

Agree 44%

Disagree 9%

No view 47%

Animal sources of protein are higher in protein than vegetable-based sources of protein.

Agree 29%

Disagree 15%

No view 56%

Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass as you get older.

Agree 52%

Disagree 3%

No view 45%

Protein is more beneficial for muscle building than anything else.

Agree 43%

Disagree 7%

No view 50%

I cannot always afford foods that are high in protein.

Agree 19%

Disagree 27%

No view 54%

This UK-wide survey of 2,080 adults was conducted online by Harris Interactive in June 2008. Contact Ioannis Kranitis on +44 208 263 5311 or vxenavgvf@uneevfvagrenpgvir.pbz​.

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