What shoppers want: Protein perceptions revealed

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Ridofranz
Getty | Ridofranz

Related tags Protein protein bar Consumer

New consumer research into shoppers' perceptions of protein bars and shakes reveals some of the main drivers of the category and the trends shaping sales.

Shopper research and insights firm HIM has unveiled its consumer research (commissioned by The Grocer​) revealing the large and diverse potential of this once niche product category. 

HIM's survey of 1,000 consumers (conducted in August 2019) reveals a clear gender and age divide in terms of the number of consumers buying into these products and the reasons for buying them as well as providing some insight into the types of ingredients they want to see on ingredients lists.

Here, we outline the key themes of the data and provide further expert opinions from sports nutrition insight professionals.

Who's eating them?

The data shows that around 50% of consumers say they eat protein bars with a fifth of respondents saying they eat these at least once a week.

But the popularity of these products varies greatly depending on the age group questioned. In fact, more than half of consumers aged between 25 and 34 told HIM they eat protein bars once a week and more than a fifth of this age group say they eat one daily. This is compared to the 55 to 64-year-old age group, where only 10% will consume a protein bar weekly and 66% never buy into the market at all.

However Nick Morgan, director of the sports, performance and lifestyle nutrition consultancy Sports Integrated, points out that it is important to recognise that protein is now a 'surrogate measure of health' in the eyes of consumers so respondents will have different ideas of what constitutes a 'protein bar'.

He explains: "It is not just classical ‘sport/20g’ protein bars but many nutrition (fruit/nut/date paste) bars and cereal bars are also launching high protein variations. Across all functional bars, protein is the number one claim in 45% of all bars in the EU market, not just protein bars per se."

The gender divide

HIM's data shows that men are far more likely to drink protein shakes with 75% of women never buying these, compared to 58% of male respondents.

They also chow down on protein bars more regularly than women - according to HIM, a third of men will consume bars at least once a week, compared to just 14% of women.

HIM’s data suggests that women are more interested in the experience they’re purchasing while men are more concerned by functionality - Taste was found to be more important to women (66%) than to men (52%) while men were more likely to be persuaded by a convenient format and protein content.

Why do they buy it?

Once again signifying there is growing range of consumers buying into the protein bar offering, HIM discovered that only a fifth of protein consumers say they consume bars and shakes exclusively for exercise purposes. In fact, a sizeable proportion of respondents (36%) says their consumption is rarely or never connected to a workout. What's more, only a fifth of consumers believe bars and shakes improve their sports performance according to HIM's data.

Nick Morgan’s own protein bar research is in-keeping with these findings. His data shows that often even the most protein-rich bars are not bought for sports performance at all.

"This is such an important point – so much so we removed 'sport' as a positioning from the bar database. It is not just not possible to characterise bars in this sense as although bars might be from traditional sports nutrition brands, increasingly they are branded differently, make nutrition claims rather than health claims and, of course, are in mass retail channels." 

The stats show that women and the older generation are the least likely to consume protein products for exercise purposes - a quarter of female consumers and half of consumers aged 55-plus never choose protein for exercise purposes.

Tom Morgan, senior market analyst for the e-commerce insight firm Lumina, notes that online customer review data suggests that some brands may actually find they benefit from avoiding health claims altogether.

He explains: “As 57% of sports nutrition products make some health claim or other, this is will be a fun point for marketers to deal with. Sports nutrition products which don’t make a health claim on packaging on average get 17% more reviews online than products which do make a claim. Consumers are super wary about the marketing of sports nutrition products, and sometimes saying nothing is better than saying anything at all.”

The ingredients

Even in the functional world of sports nutrition, HIM's research reveals that taste is a primary concern for shoppers. Protein content – arguably the main selling point of these products – comes a mere third in importance after taste and price.

Not far behind in the leaderboard of important attributes, are 'sugar content' and 'natural ingredients', cited as important by a third of protein consumers. 

Nick Morgan points out that the word 'natural' is very ambiguous.

"It all depends on what the definition or perception of a natural protein source is. In protein bars, soy protein and milk protein are the most frequent protein sources used."

He suggests that 'vegan' protein sources such as pea, rice and hemp tend to be viewed as 'natural'. He says the more fruit and nut based bars tend to use vegan sources of nutrition while the low sugar/high (20g) protein bars classically use milk protein, combined with soy, whey and collagen.

His research has shown that the top health claim for protein bars is ‘protein’, but second to this is ‘gluten free’, followed by ‘vegan’, ‘energy’, ‘organic’, ‘fiber’ and ‘no added sugar’.

'Natural' and low sugar

Tom Morgan adds that Lumina’s online sales data reveals a very similar story.

“Between September 2018 and March 2019, online engagement with sports nutrition products holding a natural claim grew +5%​ more than for products without one, and products with less sugar tended to both get better star ratings and more reviews. But, this raises an interesting challenge for formulators, as the two consumer wants juxtapose.

“The vast majority of sugar replacers are decidedly not natural. Protein bars which use stevia, one of the few ‘natural’ sweeteners available, score 0.15 stars worse off in consumer reviews, so do you sacrifice scores for naturalness in the end?”

Health concerns

HIM's research reveals that protein bars are still seen as healthier than confectionery but women are less certain of this than men, with 31% of men agreeing they are much healthier than chocolate, compared to just 16% of women.

Older consumers are also a little warier of the health credentials of protein bars - Only 8% of over-55s agree protein bars are much healthier than their sweet counterparts, compared with 48% of the under-35 age group.

Nick Morgan adds that 'health' is another very ambiguous term which is viewed differently by all consumers, with some concerned about their macros and other concerned about the use of nutritious plant-based ingredients.

"Health is an ambiguous term and the bar market takes diametrically apposed approaches. One is the traditional protein bar which is all about “if it fits your macro’s” – talking about nutrients, not food. The other is all about food first – bars based on foods you can pronounce (dates, fruits, nuts). The nutritional make up of these bars differs significantly and as such offer consumers different propositions."

Brand loyalty

Overall, only 12% of consumers are loyal to a particular brand of protein product, according to HIM, which is fairly low considering it's such a brand-heavy market.

This is where the gender divide rears its head again though - Nearly a fifth of men said they were loyal to a particular name, compared to just 7% of women.

That stands to reason given the gender bias in the protein market. Because HIM reports that the groups most engaged with the market were the most likely to show loyalty. An encouraging 25% of the 25 to 34-year-old age group – the group most likely to buy protein products – had a preference for one brand.

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