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When protein is not the 'hero' of the plate, that's big trouble for seafood

Among GenZ consumers protein is more of a supporting character or "condiment' of sorts. The value of protein in a meal is also changing. It is not imperative to GenZers that protein be animal-based.

The days of dividing food  by ethnicity -- Chinese, Mexican, Indian, etc. -- are coming to a close, and that will have ramifications for seafood companies and other protein suppliers.

"They are no longer calling it ethnic cuisine. They just call it food," Colleen McClellan of menu research firm Datassential told a crowd of protein suppliers and buyers at the MainCourse 1on1 conference Wednesday in St. Augustine, Florida.

The "they" McClellan is referring to is Generation Z -- sometimes called the iGeneration -- those consumers that follow the much-talked-about Millennials. While there are no precise dates for when this consumer group begins and ends, most researchers typically use starting birth years between the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

These post-Millennials now make up 20 percent of the US population, but within four years will account for 40 percent of the population. So understanding the food philosophies of this group, she said, is critical to how companies will create and sell their products in the future.

Gen Z consumers are similar to Millennials in some ways, but their outlook on food and how it is consumed is perhaps the most flexible of any current consumer demographic.

"For example, they go out for tacos, not Mexican," said McClellan.

And this is having an impact on how they consume seafood, meat and poultry. Protein, which has traditionally been the "hero" of the plate, the center-of-the-plate focal point, is quickly losing that standing, she said.

Among GenZ consumers, protein is more of a supporting character or "condiment' of sorts. The value of protein in a meal is also changing. It is not imperative to GenZers that protein be animal-based.

In fact, said McClellan, plant-based protein, or so-called pulses, are experiencing rapid growth as a protein source and even as an ingredient for making protein-rich foods that mimic burgers and other animal-based menu mainstays.

The United Nations, in fact, declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. This protein-rich food category is commonly referred to as legumes. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognizes 11 types of pulses: dry beans, dry broad beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cow peas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, lupins and non-categorized pulses.

Although the market is in the early stages of a potential reshaping of the protein component of consumer diets, there are indicators that animal protein could be in for some challenging times ahead.

Beef consumption is down 25.6 percent since 1990. Pork consumption is off 18.9 percent since 1960 and flat since 1990, and seafood consumption has been flat for the last 25 years. Chicken is the only animal protein that is seeing rising sales, with consumption up roughly 40 percent since 1990.

Food manufacturers and others are taking note of the shift in GenZ's idea of protein.

Poultry giant Tyson Foods recently acquired a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, a maker of meat-free meal replacements using plant protein.

The number of plant-based restaurant concepts in the United States -- those that offer contemporary vegan and vegetarian food -- is growing, according to market analysts Technomic.

Restaurants are showcasing more veggies as a main attraction to attract vegans and vegetarians and those who avoid meat on occasion for health or environmental concerns -- diners also known as “flexitarians.”

While it's clear Millennials and GenZers alike want their protein, it's not clear yet if they will one day soon be ambivalent about a choice between real chicken or a plant-based facsimile.

To put it in seafood terms: Will the choice be between shrimp or perhaps a shrimp product made of red algae and other plant-based ingredients?

By the way, this product is already being produced by New Wave Foods, a San Francisco biotech startup.

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