The Power of Protein
Protein is a powerful, multi-purpose ingredient with an equally popular product claim
Interest in protein and high-protein products continues to grow across the food and drink markets—despite the fact that most North American and European consumers already may have more than enough in their diets.
Why the protein push? There’s been wider health discussion linking protein intake with satiety, meal replacement and weight management. Still more interest involves protein’s role to aid muscle building, performance and recovery. That accompanies a noticeable mainstream shift involving specialist sports and performance products (drinks, bars, etc.) that once were more narrowly relegated to supplement stores and marketed to athletes and gym work-out enthusiasts.
Innova Market Insights data indicate that 6% of global food and drinks launches in the 12 months to the end of September 2017 were marketed with a high-protein or source-of-protein positioning. That’s up from less than 5% in the same period in 2016 and the number also is more than double the 2.5% penetration level of five years ago. The protein claim trend started in the US and is even more marked there, with penetration of protein content claims rising from 6.4% (of all new launches) five years ago to break the 10% barrier and reach an astonishing high of more than 10.6% in the 12 months to the end of September 2017.
Aside from these large shifts, key claims refer to the use of whole grains, fiber and, more recently, protein. In the US, protein now is the most significant claim of the three areas.
Sports nutrition products always have focused on protein content and more than 40% of US launches—new during the 12 months to the end of September 2017—specifically claim to (1) be a source of protein, (2) be high in protein, or (3) have added protein. These continue to be largely focused in the dominant sports powders subcategory. There also is a high level of protein interest involving sports bar products and in the newer, less developed sector of ready-to-drink protein sports beverages.
Interestingly, US launch numbers for RTD protein sports drinks remain very limited in comparison with other sports nutrition sub-categories. Beverages accounted for less than 4% of launches in the 52 weeks to the end of September 2017, but those numbers have risen by more than 35% during a five-year period.
Looking at recent activity, it is interesting to note how new product developers add appeal by using other on-trend positionings and claims—in addition to protein benefits. For example, CytoSport’s Muscle Milk now offers organic options and most recently moved away from its more usual non-dairy status to launch a Smoothie option made with Greek-style yogurt. Meanwhile, Powerful Men LLC, Miami, extended its Powerful Yogurt Protein Drink line with a new Mocha Double Espresso variety. It offers an on-trend coffee flavor experience as well as energy enhancement from caffeine.
Protein also flexes its muscle as an ingredient across many product categories led by cereals, snacks, ready meals and dairy products. Cereals, in particular, also lead in terms of overall new product penetration, particularly when cereal bars are included.
Within cereal bars, the nutrition bars sub-category focuses specifically on health. Then again, most new products also use health claims. In fact, Innova Market Insights found that more than 83% of global launches—those introduced during the 12 months to the end of June 2017—used at least one health claim of some kind. In the US market, health claims were connected to nearly 95% of new bars introduced during the same period.
A closer look at labeling suggests that whole food nutrition and natural ingredients are leading areas of interest. This relates to consumer interest in “free-from” (clean label) products. Aside from these large shifts, key claims refer to the use of whole grains, fiber and, more recently, protein. In the US, protein now is the most significant claim of the three areas. In fact, those new products either claiming to be a source of protein or high in protein—accounted for 47% of all new bar product launches during the 12 months to the end of June 2017.
Other key ingredient references were fiber (mentioned in 34% of new products during that same tracking period) and whole grains (mentioned in 17% of new product labels during the same time).
Looking even more closely at new bar products, it’s clear that hemp has become a leading ingredient, particularly in the US market. Its success is attributed to a number of factors. It is a source of high quality plant-based protein as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin B, minerals and soluble and insoluble dietary fiber.
Cereals accounted for more than one-quarter of US food and drinks launches that featured hemp during the 12 months leading up to June 2017. Cereal bars alone accounted for more than 21% of those new products. Recent related launches include the Ever Bar Hemp Powered Bar from Livity Foods LLC and organic raw evo hemp bars from Hemp Healthy LLC. Both companies’ lines offer a range of fruit and nut flavors.
Dairy products have had an inherently healthy image and a perception of high protein levels. That’s made it relatively easy and quick for processors to address rising interest in protein—sometimes just by changing market positioning and/or labeling.
Protein content claims initially focused on milk and dairy-based protein drinks. In some cases, this involved specialist sports brands marketing more broadly to the mainstream—while some mainstream brands introduced new products and packaging and embraced “sports recovery” as a new market.
The rise of Greek-style strained yogurt—which is inherently higher in protein than standard lines—also paved the way for wider positioning of yogurt on a high protein platform.
The US, which pioneered the mainstreaming of Greek yogurt outside its home market, also led this interest with nearly 20% of dairy launches positioned on their protein content during the 12 months to the end of September 2017 (compared with 12.5% globally). Yogurt saw the most activity, with spoonable dairy yogurt accounting for nearly 42% of US dairy launches positioned on a protein content platform, equivalent to more than one-third of total yogurt introductions.
Yogurt saw the most activity, with spoonable dairy yogurt accounting for nearly 42% of US dairy launches positioned on a protein content platform.
In addition to Greek yogurts, other traditionally high-protein fermented dairy products are finding more mainstream success. One such product has been the Icelandic fermented dairy product, skyr. This was available on the US market for a number of years before 2013, when brand officials started more aggressively promoting protein.
In the milk drinks market, sports recovery performance was the initial key focus for protein beverages. One competitor was Coca-Cola, which marketed Core Power as a protein-rich, dairy-based sports recovery beverage. Then things shifted in late 2014 when Coca-Cola partnered with Select Milk Producers Inc. to develop fairlife milk. This was a mainstream, national launch of a premium filtered milk with 50% more protein, more calcium and 30% less sugar than regular milk.
Coca-Cola relaunched fairlife in the first half of 2017. New messaging and labeling now focus on sustainability and naturalness, as well as nutritional benefits. The line includes whole, reduced-fat, fat-free and chocolate varieties. Joining the line are new fairlife SuperKids milk drinks and fairlife Milk Shakes.
New Sources, Solutions
Perhaps most interesting is the shift to alternative protein sources. Whereas whey and other dairy proteins were formulation favorites, there are many more products and ingredients now proclaiming a protein message. These include meat and jerky products, eggs and, especially plant-based products. Plant options initially were driven by soy, but now there is a large and growing range of alternatives featuring options from vegetables, potatoes, grains, nuts and seeds.
“Plant Powered Growth” was one of Innova Market Insights’ Top Trends for 2017. Innova finds plant-based foods activity now driven more as an option for those who do not want to commit to a full vegan or even vegetarian lifestyle—but would rather pick and choose to adapt to their lifestyle, social life or health conditions.
There appears to be a rising level of interest in reducing meat intake in ready meals in many markets, particularly in the developed economies. Moreover, the trend towards flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets also has accelerated the move toward the use of plant-based proteins as meat substitutes.
Perhaps most interesting is the shift to alternative protein sources. Whereas whey and other dairy proteins were formulation favorites, there are many more products and ingredients now proclaiming a protein message.
Although many products in the global prepared meals sector are naturally vegetable-based and meat-free (particularly rice, pasta and salads), a significant number also are specifically positioned on vegetarian or vegan platforms, equivalent to nearly 11% of US launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2016, up from just over 7.5% in 2011. Launches featuring the term “vegan” are seeing particularly strong growth, with penetration more than doubling from 2.8% to 7% during the same period.
Non-plant-based protein sources under development—and hyped as “the next big thing”—include microalgae and insects. Marine-sourced proteins are considered have high potential for mass applications, although microalgae remain niche. Still more products, such as duckweed, also are generating attention.
US consumer acceptance of edible insects likely will be the biggest barrier to growth in that area. However, finished cricket protein bars like those from Chapul and Exo are aggressively marketed as rich in protein, healthy and environmentally friendly—all with a small environmental footprint. It’s suggested that they can appeal to Millennial consumers in developed Western markets. They also have the potential to fill the protein gap and address food shortages in other parts of the world.
The protein boom has been in evidence for some years. It started in the US but now impacts other regions. Moreover, it’s moving from a niche positioning to the mainstream with increasing mass appeal of claims about satiety and everyday energy. High-protein foods continue to be one of the most sought-after nutritional choices, particularly in the US where it is now a mainstream trend, becoming more sophisticated with interest now not simply in the amount of protein featuring, but also the type, source and sustainability.
Originally appeared in the January, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Protein Power.