The Progress of Protein
Consumers seek proteins to meet specific dietary preferences and lifestyles
People are continuing to include more protein in their diets — at every consumption occasion and in higher gram-per-serving formulations. As the protein trend has moved upward, the last year or two saw it explode into the “plant-based” trend that focused heavily, although not exclusively, on plant proteins. In fact, sales of plant proteins have jumped to more than $1.6B annually.
While protein products made from soy and whey have long been — and remain — the most commonly used protein ingredients, manufacturers and consumers alike are increasingly reaching for alternatives to soy and whey protein to meet emerging lifestyle choices. These include proteins that are plant-based, such as from nuts, seeds, and grains, as well as animal-derived proteins, such as from eggs, meat, and poultry.
Check out our December 2019 issue for more food & beverage predictions!
Functional protein powders that are used to create shelf-stable snacks and easy-to-eat, on-the-go foods come in both concentrated (80% protein) and isolate (89–95% protein) formats. The higher the percentage of protein (i.e., the closer the ingredient is to an isolate), the easier it is for developers to create products that have as much protein and as few carbohydrates as possible. That’s because isolates have less carbohydrate within their nutritional makeup than concentrates do.
Soy protein still accounts for about two-thirds of the hydrolyzed protein market and its sales continue to grow. But other plant proteins have been gaining ground rapidly. Leading the way in plant-derived, non-soy protein isolates are those derived from peas, rice, or potatoes. All three are available in 90%+ protein powder blends and can easily be incorporated into nutrition bars, chips, shakes, meat analogs, and baked goods. All three also have the nine “essential” amino acids (the ones our bodies don’t make) and provide the nutrition consumers expect from protein.
While pea, rice, and potato isolates have an earthy taste, most consumers don’t mind as long as the finished product performs as it should: If it looks like an energy bar, is packaged like an energy bar, has all the right macronutrients, and delivers more protein than any other bar they can find, it passes the test. Rice, pea, and potato protein powders (typically at 85–90% protein) also work well in all food applications, but they tend to taste better when they’re cooked into baked goods.
The New Plant-Based Proteins
Most plants, especially nuts and seeds, contain protein, but extracting that protein to an 80–90% concentration typically involves non-natural techniques, such as solvent extraction. Those types of extractions can yield unpleasant flavors and also “kill” a clean-label goal. Extraction technologies are improving, however, with some non-solvent extraction methods for non-soy proteins, especially pea and rice proteins, now boasting 80% or better final protein content. This is only expected to expand in the coming year and beyond.
One plant protein rapidly expanding in use recently is that from peanuts. However, in any formats higher than 40–50% protein, the peanut flavor is lost. Once mostly used as a cheap source of protein for dog biscuits, peanut protein powders are suddenly showing up in flavorful shakes and bars, highlighting the inherent natural goodness of vegan peanut protein. Despite allergen concerns, peanut flour is extremely functional (compared with full-fat peanut butter) and a great way to boost protein in baked goods, snack chips, ice cream, and nutrition bars, as well as dog treats.
Peanut protein, with the bulk of the peanut fat pushed out, works well in baked goods where consumers want the flavor and protein they’d get from peanut butter, but not the fat. Overall, peanut flour has more protein, more carbohydrate, and less fat than peanut butter. High-protein peanut flour has recently become more popular in applications such as flavored nut-butter powders.
Soy, chickpeas, and peanuts are not the only legume sources of protein gaining significant attention from ingredient makers. Lentil protein continues to trend upward, as does protein derived from lupin beans, fava beans, and mung beans. And protein isolates from more common domestic legumes, such as red beans, pinto beans, navy beans, and black beans continue to increase their footprint in the protein stream.
Protein from tree nuts, too, is on the rise. Almond, cashew, hazelnut, and coconut all are now recognized as viable sources for ingredients that can boost the protein and fiber content of foods and beverages. The functionality of this group of nuts seems to work well for food scientists, who want to use the nut protein powder to boost protein and fiber without the fat. It also suits consumers, who can use the powder in home recipes such as baked goods or post-workout smoothies, or simply reconstitute it with water to make a spread.
What can be done to a nut can also be done to a seed, so there has been growing application of protein derived from hemp, flax, chia, quinoa, watermelon, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, plus an old standby, wheat germ. Plant seeds typically have a protein content ranging from around 20% to 60%.
From Lab-Grown Meat to Insects: Are Consumers Ready to Rethink Protein?
by The Hartman Group (from the Hartman Group Newsletter, 15 October, 2019)
Scientific advancements in startups and laboratories are enabling innovation and disruption throughout the food and beverage industry. In the protein category, the quest to develop alternative proteins is being undertaken under the guise of sustainability (as an effort to combat global greenhouse gases or the effects of factory farming) or under the rubric of health and wellness (to assist consumers in their goals to eat more healthfully both for themselves and the planet). A wide range of protein possibilities is emerging, including those [proteins] in the increasingly popular plant-based category but also those that are genetically modified, derived from cell-cultured meats, or derived from insects.
Some of the specifics of consumer reactions to each innovative protein concept include:
• AquAdvantage salmon (genetically modified, faster-growing salmon): Consumers generally share similar opinions on GMO salmon – it might be better ethically, but they want to know more about taste and health and wellness first. While not top of mind, concerns include unknown risks to human and environmental health and additional concerns for animal welfare.
• Cellular dairy (milk made without cows, via fermentation): Cellular dairy is conceptually challenging for consumers, and many – especially users of alternative milks – struggle to see the point of it. At the same time, tech-forward consumers are more positive about cellular dairy and have more faith in its health and wellness and ethical benefits.
• Cellular meat (meat made without animals, grown in a lab): Like cellular dairy, cellular meat is also a conceptual challenge, but the problem it aims to solve is easier to grasp. However, many consumers are unwilling to be part of that solution. Nevertheless, tech-forward consumers are more positive about lab-grown meat, as are consumers who already buy plant-based proteins despite lower levels of understanding.
• Cricket protein (snacks made with insect protein): For most consumers, eating insects has a high disgust factor and is viewed as simply taboo because insects are associated with contamination, even if consumers rationally know better. Culture-based aversion to eating insects is still strong in the US and for many consumers, the idea of “eating bugs” conjures up apocalyptic imagery.
To read the full Hartman Group article and study, go to www.hartman-group.com/newsletters/2126875112
Protein powder functionality is important because food scientists want to ensure the powder disperses in hot or cold water, or that it can add viscosity or texture to beverages and baked goods. Companies have long been marketing whey and soy protein and, more recently, pea protein powders, for use in beverages. But more companies are touting chia, hemp, and other plant-based proteins for their unique gelling or thickening capabilities as well as the protein content they bring.
While consumers may indicate that they desire the health benefits of protein, trends show that in many cases it’s quantity, not quality, that sells. Although inaccurate, the consumer perception is that more is better. For example, this is driving processors to attempt to see how many grams of protein can be squeezed into a bar or shake while ensuring the end product tastes great and performs as expected.
To analyze bioavailable protein content from food-product labels, a consumer currently must calculate the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which is based on the amount of essential amino acids within the protein that the food product contains. The needed data are shown on the nutritional panel, and some manufacturers include the PDCAAS score as a marketing tool. But the percent daily value (DV) can be displayed only if it is calculated — and it must be displayed if the protein is called out in any way on the food item’s marketing material, including its website and packaging.
Protein powders have long been used in energy bars, protein shakes, smoothies, beverages, and baked goods that promise high protein to consumers who seek it. However, of late we are seeing unique applications like peanut protein powders designed to work like a powdered nut butter (add water and rehydrate).
Also on the market are collagen protein beverages that can include a very high percentage of soluble protein without precipitating. Recently, carbonated beverages have been enhanced with protein to give them added fizz. And, of course, the meat and dairy analog explosion has brought plant proteins front and center.
For example, mushroom protein and chickpea protein have been used in place of textured vegetable proteins and dairy proteins, respectively. Chickpea protein has been found to work especially well to make imitation cheddar cheese and increase its protein content relative to that in traditional dairy cheese. In recent years, protein from algae and duckweed have gained more serious notice and suppliers of these ingredients are hurrying to bring production in line with demand.
Protein powders based on whey and soy are still the most researched and functional options for food scientists to use in product development. However, increased usage of plant-based proteins from nuts and seeds are cropping up in applications formerly restricted to those animal-derived proteins. This new generation of products is slowly becoming more mainstream and will continue to grow.
Recently, suppliers have introduced plant proteins from less common sources, for example cucumber, sunflower seeds, and Brazil nuts. And each year, dozens of plant-based proteins that are traditional sources commonly used in Africa, South America, and Asia — such as teff, Inca nuts, and melon seeds — catch the eye of ingredient makers. Any one of these could be the next soy, pea, or chickpea.
Although plant-based everything continues to be the major food trend, the majority of consumers still take advantage of eggs, meat, and fish and so readily accept protein derived from those sources. Protein powders, typically in the form of egg-white isolates; pure and complete meat powders (such as chicken and beef powder); and collagen (fish, pork, or bovine) are experiencing high demand. That is especially true of collagen, as it figures significantly in the “beauty from within” category for its support of skin health.
Both collagen and egg powders can be included in formulas made in FDA-approved facilities, although complete meat powder can be used only in small amounts in FDA facilities and formulations. Larger amounts of meat powders must be manufactured and used in USDA-approved facilities. Egg-white isolate is a complete protein and therefore can deliver high-quality protein content. The texture, unfortunately, can be sticky and chewy in raw form, so it must be dissolved or baked into the product.
Collagen is extremely functional, particularly in beverages, where it is soluble and dissolves quickly and easily. But unlike gelatin, collagen does not contribute viscosity. Given the earthy taste of collagen, it must be combined with stronger, more flavorful ingredients like high-intensity sweeteners, honey or sugar. When hydrolyzed, it is termed “collagen peptides” or gelatin and consists of the protein fractions called peptides. In this form, it is colorless and flavorless and makes an excellent gelling agent.