In the study, which questioned individuals on preferences and perceptions, the scientists found many participants, particularly older consumers from Romania and Finland, believed it was healthier to get extra protein from inherently rich products rather than fortified foods, which were seen as “unnatural”.
Older individuals were also more sceptical of foods with an increased protein content than younger participants.
“Conventional protein foods were seen as more natural and healthier products," they write. "Therefore, those products that are found [to be] intrinsically healthy and that naturally contain proteins, such as yogurts, could be those foods that are credible carriers of protein, as an ingredient.”
The researchers concluded that choosing well-matched ingredients and carrier foods could overcome this.
“The results from our study suggest that the scepticism and negative beliefs toward protein enriched foods in general could be remedied by the ‘right’ functional ingredient and carrier type. Indeed, our result indicate that different ‘functional ingredient’ and ‘product carrier’ types and especially their interaction can have varying effects on perceptions of foods with increased protein content.”
Under EU regulations, foods that are labelled “a source of protein’ must have at least 12% of the energy value delivered by protein while foods with increased protein content must have at least 20% compared to a similar food.
They recruited 52 men and women from Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Romania who took part in discussion groups and completed questionnaires.
Participants most commonly associated certain food categories with plant-based protein enrichment: bread (60%), legumes (42%), protein bars (42%), cereals (40%), and yoghurts (31%). For animal proteins, yoghurts (75%), meat and sausages (46%) and milk products (33%) came out top.
Consumers in all four countries linked protein intake with feeling healthier, as a healthy source of energy and its usefulness in satiety and weight management.
Protein: trend or necessity?
However, European's protein demand is based more on trends than necessity.
The World Health Organisation recommends that adult women consume around 48 g of protein a day, and adult men about 56 g. However, average protein consumption in Europe sits at around 100 g per day, and according to the WHO, Europe has not suffered from a protein deficiency since the Second World War.
Several participants associated high protein foods with special diets. “Enriched protein products are not meant for ‘normal’ people only vegetarians,” said a 68-year-old Danish woman. “In my opinion these products have no benefits, unless a doctor advises otherwise,” added a 68-year-old Finnish man.
Danish and Finnish individuals preferred plant proteins, seeing these products as ‘healthier’, more environmentally friendly and sustainable compared to animal proteins.
Danes and Finns were more likely to cite sustainability as a reason for choosing plant proteins. “If we as a country really want to reduce our use of CO2, then we need more vegans and the rest of us have to take action on a daily basis,” said a Danish woman.
Data from market research firm Mintel suggests a stronger interest in high protein food and drink in Finland and Denmark than in Germany and Romania, reflected in the number of new product launches from the 2011 to 2016 period.
The study received funding from European research project Oatpro, which looks to develop oats as a sustainable protein.
Source: Appetite Journal
“Foods with increased protein content: A qualitative study on European consumer preferences and perceptions”
Available online ahead of print, doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.01.034
Authors: Marija Banovic, Liisa Lähteenmäki, Anne Arvola et al.