Marks & Spencer is the prime example. Few retailers went as hard on protein as M&S this January. It launched a wide range of protein-rich breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacking options, including several new high-protein meals such as Chicken Shawarma (37g of protein) and Thai Green Salmon (30g).
While protein isn't the only healthy eating message you'll find at M&S (thanks to its high-profile collaboration with Tim Spector's ZOE, gut health also features heavily), the sheer breadth of its new protein range sends a clear message. This is supported by prominent point-of-sale materials promoting the health benefits of protein ("keeps you fuelled for the day") and eye-catching packaging that draws the eye to each product's protein content.
Other retailers are also backing the protein trend. 'Super keen on protein' declared one of Lidl's January leaflets, which promoted the discounter's protein yoghurts, desserts, drinks and a new range of high-protein ready meals. It's a similar story at Aldi, which has also launched high-protein meals.
Tesco, meanwhile, has listed high-protein food-to-go products from The Gym Kitchen, while Asda and Sainsbury's are stocking the brand's ready meals. Iceland – a longtime backer of the protein trend, not least through its partnership with MyProtein – has added high-protein ice cream sticks and a higher-protein milk from Wheyhey to its range.
Protein, of course, isn't a new trend, so why did it suddenly become such a focus this January?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that protein lends itself to positive health messaging. We've seen a shift in recent years away from health messages that focus on taking things out of our diets (less meat, dairy, alcohol, sugar etc) towards those that encourage us to add something positive and nutritious. Protein is a great fit for that.
Protein also has cross-category appeal, making it attractive to retailers looking for messaging that will resonate across the store. Crucially, its versatility allows it to complement other, existing trends. For example, high-protein meals can be plant as well as animal-based.
Above all, retailers and suppliers have adapted their protein ranges to reflect changing consumer priorities.
Although you can still find plenty of heavily processed high-protein products, more recent launches have focused on simpler ingredient decks. The M&S protein lunch and dinner boxes speak to this. They're not just high in protein but also contain simple, quality carbs and veg – a smart move at a time when consumers are asking more questions about ultra-processing.
There are some useful lessons in this for other categories including plant-based, which appears to have been less of a priority for retailer activations this January.
A few years ago the protein trend looked to have peaked. 'Is a key food trend about to end?' The Grocer asked in October 2020 amid reports that Brits were getting tired of endless protein marketing claims.
Fast forward to 2024 and protein is once again taking centre stage. What's more, it feels fresh and relevant.
This not only goes to show that health trends wax and wane; if brands and retailers pay close attention to consumer sentiment, 'stale' health trends can be reimagined and come back stronger.
The plant-based sector, which has experienced difficult times of late, should look at this year's protein revival and take comfort – as well as inspiration.