The Allure of Protein
Protein is a macronutrient critical to the body’s well-being and is required continually as a building block for every cell, as well as for the enzymes, hormones and molecules important to the general health of the human system. Science demonstrates that spreading out protein consumption across a day maximizes muscle maintenance benefits; it is more effective to consume about 30g of quality protein several times a day than to devour the day’s protein ration in just one or two meals.
Not all proteins are alike. In fact, no two proteins, even from the same source, are alike. These differences are responsible for the various textures, tastes and functionalities of practically every protein-based food. These unique properties form the foundation of protein ingredients that netted the industry $2.8 billion in the U.S. in 2011. That number is predicted to continue growing, due to the strong competition animal-derived proteins face from plant-derived protein ingredients.
The soaring price of animal proteins, along with other market forces, will only further advance market prospects for plant-derived proteins. Plant proteins and other new proteins emerging to meet this growing global demand are forecasted to net $2.5 billion within the decade.
The “2010 Food & Health Survey,” sponsored by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), reported that 49% of Americans are reaching for more protein and for a variety of reasons—ranging from building muscle (68%), satiety (40%) and weight loss (37%). The biggest disconnect, however, was the number of Americans who don’t really know how to get more protein. Of those surveyed, more than half—56%— believed protein was derived only from animals, while only 28% knew protein is a component of plants. Clearly, the American mind-set needs to be adjusted to consider plant-based proteins on par with, if not better (in some ways) than, meat-derived proteins.
Various consumer groups have been driving the push for more protein. Athletes and body builders, for example, reach for specific proteins to support muscle catabolism. Peptides and protein hydrolysates, such as milk protein hydrolysate, offer the biological benefits of natural milk protein without the side effects associated with consumption of lactose. Their small size allows for rapid uptake—ideal in sports—and formulators like the clean label moniker. Athletes particularly value predigested peptides and protein hydrolysates for accelerated recovery from exercise; enhanced endurance during times of strenuous activity; delayed onset of fatigue during exercise; and better performance.
In formulations, a major challenge with small proteins is their bitter (and sometimes “beer-like”), sour taste in aqueous solution. Formulators typically try to mask these off-flavors with sweeteners and fruit juices. On the other hand, the advantage of small proteins is that they dissolve and are generally transparent; therefore, they do not mar the visual appearance of the application in water.
Consumers desire tasty foods that are effective without too much involvement in deciphering the label. Clarity refers not just to the physical disappearance of the protein in a beverage by being 100% soluble and transparent in low-pH solutions. It also means being invisible on the label by being non-allergenic and non-GMO, with clean/neutral flavor characteristics.
Cytosport Inc., a manufacturer of the Muscle Milk line of sports-oriented nutritional products, uses a custom protein peptide and amino acid matrix in its Muscle Milk ‘n Oats. The ingredient is designed to closely reflect the nitrogen components and ratios found in human milk (micellar alpha- and beta-caseins and caseinates; whey concentrates, rich in alpha-lactalbumin; whey isolates; whey peptides; and the amino acids L-glutamine and taurine). Muscle Milk ‘n Oats is promoted as a nutritious, convenient and portable protein “meal-on-the-go.”
Taste-neutral whey protein isolate is used to make high-protein, high-acid, transparent ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, such as Fahrenheit 212 LLC’s WH2OLE and PepsiCo’s Gatorade Recover. However, potato and soy proteins are increasingly viable ingredients for this application.
Whey proteins are by far the most popular with athletes. Their solubility accounts for viscosity, as well as their ability to form gels, emulsify, bind fat, and facilitate whipping, foaming and aeration. These properties also are useful in replacing or supplementing meat proteins, soy proteins, modified starches and hydrocolloids gums in processed and comminuted meats. In their native state, whey proteins have no flavor of their own and can easily take on the flavor of cooked meats and spice/seasoning blends. Their water-binding capacity makes it possible to retain moisture, help improve cook-yield, and offer positive economics for both producer and consumer.
A new technology that can extract high-quality native proteins from fresh milk, without denaturing, enables fluidity with a light texture and mouthfeel in high-protein beverages. These proteins lack the bitterness associated with denaturing and, in addition to being low-fat, low-lactose or lactose-free, also are certified-organic. While infant nutrition is the logical target for this hypoallergenic class of ingredients, the more easily digestible hydrolysates also are better absorbed than non-hydrolyzed proteins.
Yogurts are the new target for protein fortification. They join beverages and bars to take advantage of the sports nutrition products that have evolved from catering to only two functions—hydration, and pre-, during and post-exercise—to a more tailored approach. This approach includes products to aid in building muscle, to fight sarcopenia and to assist in weight-loss efforts.
Jason Cohen, founder of Mamma Says Inc. and World Gourmet Inc., and Michael Sands, former CEO of Balance Bar Co., together founded Rickland Orchards. They converted currently trendy Greek yogurt into a coating for protein bars to further the high-protein profile of nutrition bars. The result delivers 7g protein, along with 5g fiber and probiotics, in one 40g bar.
Boomers on Board
Baby Boomers reach for proteins as a way to combat sarcopenia, an age-related condition of muscle wasting, and to support bone health and prevent osteoporosis.
Gelatin is an easy, economical and nutritious protein boost for many. Former Hershey food scientist Malathy Nair, Ph.D., couldn’t find a low- /no-sugar, low-sodium dessert for her elderly mother, who was recovering from a heart attack. So, she created Better Bowls LLC (www.betterbowls.com) to combine the nutritional support of proteins without sugar, artificial colors or artificial flavors.
With mass-appeal flavors—strawberry and orange—Better Bowls offers 7g digestible fiber (from inulin) and reduced sodium in an easily digestible protein matrix that appeals to the bridge generation of parents taking care of their children and their elderly relatives.
Those consumers age 65 and up—the fastest growing demographic in the world—represent a massive market potential for protein alternates. Easily digestible proteins can help fight sarcopenia, a condition predicted to affect more than 100 million people by 2050. Fortifying mainstream consumer products, such as RTD beverages, breakfast cereals and soups, with protein would be better than promoting bars and protein supplements to a target consumer that did not grow up in that market.
Soy protein, like whey, is nutritionally complete. It offers a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) comparable to that of animal-derived proteins, such as beef, milk and eggs. The PDCAAS rates both whey and soy protein with perfect scores of 1.0. But, soy has historically been second to whey protein in high-acid RTD beverages, because of its poor solubility and its inherent beany flavor and gritty texture. Today’s soy isolates have sophisticated functionality as a result of alcohol washing and improved milling technologies. Soy trumps whey in cost and vegan appeal, and there is a new soluble soy protein for transparent beverages that have a pH of less than 4.0.
The use of soy protein in meat applications is nothing new, nor is the creation of meat alternatives based on soy. What is highly on trend, however, is a new consumer group—known as “flexitarians,” the “flexible vegetarians” who enjoy meat only occasionally, just less of it, due to concerns about health and the environmental impact of heavy meat consumption. A number of emerging processing technologies and macro-trends are driving this unprecedented growth.
First, awareness of the role of food as part of a healthy lifestyle is changing dietary choices, especially among the younger generations. Second, social responsibility is influencing people’s attention to their food choices and their subsequent impact on the environment and sustainability. Third, processors cannot pass their ingredient costs on easily to consumers; plant-based alternatives represent fewer cost increases and can help maintain a certain amount of price stability.
Until recently, high-protein nutritional bars and beverages held niche appeal, with setbacks due to poor taste and texture, and gastric discomfort limitations. New proteins are an improvement and make smoothies, waters, drinks, tea, coffee and bars more palatable and indulgent products. In addition to their functionality, new proteins also are positioned to counter allergenicity.
Allergenicity is a growing global consumer concern; the market for allergen-free foods has never been bigger. “Free-from” foods have become so sophisticated and integral to people’s pantry staples that these products have replaced the traditional version for just about every member of the family. It is important, however, not to trade one allergenic protein for another. This is particularly an issue in the baked goods sector, where declarable allergens soy, milk, wheat and eggs have important functionality.
Potato protein has the lowest allergen status compared to soy, egg, dairy, fish gelatin, wheat or lupin. The gluten-free segment often has allergens like eggs or soy in many gluten-free products, such as breads, to compensate for the visco-elastic properties of gluten. Those properties are responsible for the texture, structure and volume of baked goods.
A potato-derived protein ingredient is now available with unique features and benefits to take the place of not only the egg, but also milk, wheat and soy in baked goods. It has good foam-retention properties; can act as a texturizer in cake batters and bread dough for better volume and softer crumb; and also serves as a functional protein in frequently protein-depleted bakery products.
In dairy-free ice creams and frozen desserts, potato-derived proteins can create a comparable, cream-like melt profile while allowing a clean label for fruit sorbets that avoid the use of glyceride emulsifiers. Its emulsion properties help deliver foaming, whipping and gelling functionalities to egg-free dressings, sauces and mayonnaise analogs. Potato protein also can be used as an emulsifier for clear protein beverages, powdered shakes and nutritionally enhanced cereal bars. A technical drawback is potato protein cannot be subjected to ultra-high temperature and, therefore, cannot be used in extruded snacks and baked products.
Fight the Hunger
Breakfast, traditionally a carbohydrate-rich meal, is a primary meal occasion poised for protein-enriched foods, such as Kay’s Naturals Inc.’s Protein Cereal, which lists soy protein isolate as the first ingredient, followed by yellow corn flour, rice flour, tapioca starch, inulin, pea fiber and others. The gluten-free cereal offers 9g of protein in each 28g serving for satiety and day-long stamina.
A proprietary, potato-based protein extract made up of low molecular weight (LMW) proteins and a line of alfalfa-derived protein concentrates are new entries in the marketplace and also appear to help boost satiety. Consumers seeking to shed a few (or many) pounds are discovering the satiety boost protein can provide. The interest in plant-derived proteins and proteins for special health benefits is a significant and emerging trend slated to soar higher.
A specialty potato protein-containing protease inhibitor PI-2, which stimulates the release of appetite-suppressing gut hormone cholecystokinin, was granted GRAS status for bars and beverages in 2008. It since has gained momentum in the market in a number of weight-loss products, including TwinLab Corp.’s Metabolife brand of protein shakes, IdealShape LLC’s weight-management shakes and Fullbar LLC’s range of products developed by bariatric surgeon Michael Snyder, M.D.
Another emerging trend is the use of protein combinations. Blending proteins with differing digestion rates and amino acid ratios, in addition to satiety, also yields sensory, nutritional and, importantly, economic advantages over single-protein formulations. Blending a number of proteins is a way not only to manage economics, but also to optimize the flavor of the finished product. Dairy proteins offer clean taste and can blunt the bean flavor of soy proteins, and offer lower cost implications.
Consumer tastes and demands have become so sophisticated that formulating protein products requires superb orchestration of a number of elements, all of which are equally important to the consumer. One has to juggle appearance, taste, texture, shelflife, cost, availability, nutrition, consumer perception and, most of all, interaction with the other ingredients—without negatively affecting the ultimate quality or the safety of the product.
Ingredient suppliers are learning to articulate ingredient functionality in a lucid manner so that formulators can discern their offering from the rest of the pack. Savvy suppliers also are creating incubator-like learning environments to help product developers optimize results and, most of all, reduce the risk of guesswork and development time.
One thing is clear: The future never looked brighter for the protein business. Consumers look for soy and whey protein in prepared foods and beyond—to other plant-based proteins for their natural, clean-label, “free-from” cachet and the additional bounty of nutrients and health benefits. This invitation to introduce new proteins that are not only label-friendly, but also offer new functionalities, comes with the technical challenge of retaining traditional and sensory qualities at a given price point.
Emerging Plant Proteins
Rice bran protein is an abundant and cheap agricultural by-product. The protein content in rice bran is about 10-15% total weight and consists of 37% water-soluble, 31% salt-soluble, 2% alcohol-soluble and 30% alkali-soluble storage proteins. It is hypoallergenic and offers functional attributes not met by proteins from other grains and legumes.
Brassica proteins, from commercially cultivated Brassica (cruciferous) plants, such as broccoli, canola and mustard, have been primarily diverted to livestock feeding for their nutritional value. Growing understanding of their protein structure, biochemical characteristics, nutritive value and commercial viability are positioning cruciferin and napin from canola/rapeseed as healthy and affordable alternatives to animal proteins. Rapeseed proteins have high gelling and emulsification capabilities in various food systems. Canola proteins, in conjunction with being non-allergenic, vegetarian and competitively priced, offer a high-cysteine protein with a compelling proposition for high-end nutritional applications. Also, not being one of the big eight allergens gives them an immediate advantage over soy, milk, eggs and whey.
Protein from peas (Pisum sativum) is rapidly gaining popularity in different food applications for gelling, binding and nutritional purposes. It is used in meats, prepared meals, dairy products (such as smoothies), and in protein-enriched and nutraceutical finished products. Pulse proteins are becoming popular, because they are non-allergenic, non-GMO and “greener” than soy beans (by locking in nitrogen from the air and because their amino acid profile is well-balanced, high in lysine and low in sulphur amino acids.)
Peanut flour, although not new, has recently become a mainstream source of protein. With 40-50% protein by weight, peanut flour can enhance taste and texture of food products that cannot use soy, whey or caseinates. The baking industry is challenged by the growing consumer perception that bread, cakes, crackers and cookies are high in carbohydrates and low in protein and, therefore, “not good for you.” Peanut flour can enhance the protein level, and, at a fraction of the original formulation cost, roasting can enhance color and flavor, and help eliminate a number of flavor and color ingredients. The contraction of the ingredient list is appealing to discerning consumers.
Notable New High-protein Products
Protein cookie: Mathew Richardson of UK-based Applied Nutritional Research created (with rapidly absorbable milk and soy proteins) a 50%-protein soft cookie called Probake50. Originally designed for elderly consumers who don’t like protein shakes and snack bars, it targets sarcopenia, or muscle wastage, an aging-related inevitability that puts the elderly at a greater risk of falling and breaking bones and is threatening to reach epidemic proportions in developed nations where people are increasingly living longer.
While sarcopenia is caused by several factors, including a lack of exercise, it can be aggravated by a low intake of dietary protein. Protein supplementation is difficult for the elderly, for several reasons: They eat less; meats and protein-rich foods are not easily digested; and shakes and bars don’t traditionally appeal to them. But, they are always open to a 75g cookie with 37.5g of protein with their tea or coffee.
Protein coffee: Protein is also showing up in the morning coffee cup. Coffee, an essential part of the daily routine for many, often is the only thing consumed before noon by many women. ClickCo LLC’s Click beverage is a powdered weight-loss mix that combines espresso coffee with protein and a range of vitamins and minerals targeted to gym-going women who often are less than keen on supplementation to help increase their protein consumption.
The product is especially designed with taste as a priority, because women’s sensitivity to taste makes them hesitant towards protein products. If the taste of a product doesn’t appeal to a woman, then it doesn’t matter how good it is in terms of functionality—they’re just not going to purchase it. Click also was created with flexibility in mind—it not only can be made with water, but also with soy milk, almond milk or blended with a banana and yogurt.
Vegetable protein foods are of interest not only to the health conscious, but also people following Jewish (kosher) and Islamic (halal) dietary guidelines. Americans—who consume more meat than any other developed nation—are increasingly cognizant that a lifestyle choice can take a toll on health and the environment. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future survey of purchasing trends, sales and customer satisfaction showed that Sodexo USA Inc.’s Meatless Monday initiative—education combined with great-tasting, plant-based menu options—launched in January 2011, is helping reduce the intake of saturated fats by this nation of serious meat lovers.
According to the survey of 245 sites, 71% of respondents found the vegetarian options more appealing; 49% of foodservice directors who implemented the Meatless Monday program saw an increase in purchases of vegetables during the promotion; and 30% saw a decrease in meat purchases. The survey also found that the program was simple to start and had staying power.
Of the 74% who offered Meatless Monday, the majority of providers, 76%, said the campaign was “easy” or “very easy” to implement, and 65% said they will continue to promote the campaign (with an additional 24% noting they “may continue.”) Linda McCartney Foods Inc. recently launched a new shrimp-free shrimp joining the meat-free meat and fish-free fish line up. The product is cleverly crafted from whey protein, potato starch, and natural colorings and flavorings. They are similar in texture to real shrimp and, along with the plant protein, also are a good source of fiber. pf