Protein has powerful appeal. Interest in dietary protein intake and the protein content in a range of foods and drinks continues to develop. Consider too that more consumers are aware of different protein sources and their potential benefits.

These facts certainly aren’t lost on manufacturers and their product development teams. Innova Market Insights data indicate that in 2019, 7% of global new foods and drinks were marketed with a “high protein” or source of protein positioning. That level of penetration more than doubled during a seven-year period, dating back to 2012.

For the record, rising demand for protein really started in the US and is even more marked there, with penetration of protein content claims rising from less than 7% to just under 12% during the same seven-year period. The greatest numbers of protein-related claims are found in specialist areas such as pet foods and sports nutrition, with 15% and 14% shares, but there also are rising levels of interest in more mainstream areas such as dairy, cereals and snacks. Most specifically, there are particularly high levels of interest in protein in markets such as yogurt and fermented drinks, cereal bars and meat snacks.


Game On! Sports Nutrition

Sports nutrition always has had a strong focus on protein content and around one-third of US launches in 2019 used high or source of protein claims. These continue to be largely focused in the dominant sports powders subcategory, which accounted for nearly 69% of the total. Viewing category protein claims from another angle—by level of penetration—it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the much smaller and less developed RTD protein sports drinks sector that leads. Protein claims are used for virtually all introductions at a 90% rate, even ahead of sports bars.

Rising interest in plant-based nutrition also has influenced the sports nutrition category with a corresponding shift from animal-based ingredients (particularly dairy) to new plant-based sources. Pea and rice protein are the leading plant proteins in sports nutrition, well ahead of more traditional soy. 

Innova Market Insights research indicates that 31.5% of global sports nutrition launches tracked in 2019 featured pea protein, with 21.3% using rice protein and just 5.4% using soy. Moreover, consumers appear to be open to a variety of other alternatives. Tracking data suggest US consumers choose potato, oat and rice as their top three plant protein alternatives. Meanwhile, UK consumers choose potato, rice and bean options. In China, the most plant-based protein options are peanut, corn and soy.  Other more unusual growth areas for plant proteins include pumpkin and fava bean.

Prepared Foods has showcased several recent example of new sports nutrition products featuring plant-based proteins. They include new protein bars and powders from Tone It Up LLC, Manhattan Beach, Calif.; an Organic MCT Protein powders line from Nutiva Inc., Richmond, Calif.; and a complete line of Organic Sport powders line (performance, energy, recovery) from Orgain Inc., Irvine, Calif.


Still more interesting new products included Buddha Brands’ Hungry Buddha Keto Bars, which use pea protein. Meanwhile, Ground Based Nutrition’s new Plant Based Keto Fit powder uses a combination of pea, pumpkin and quinoa proteins.


Great Grains: Cereals & Bars

Moving into the mainstream food and drinks market, cereals took fourth place among US launches with protein claims in 2019. Specifically, more than 38% of all new cereals chose to use protein claims. That figure rises to more than 50% in the wider cereal and energy bars subcategory, which has found considerable success with “high protein” descriptions.

The US has a large and highly developed cereal and energy bars market, which Innova values at more than US$8 billion per year. With a generally healthy image—and despite concerns about sugar content in some instances—it has proved an ideal portable and easily accessible source of protein snacks or meal replacements for a wide range of consumers with different requirements. With a wide range of ingredients (including the healthy and the indulgent) bars can offer high protein and high fiber options, as well as cater to special diets such as vegan, keto, etc.

With plant proteins particularly in demand, nuts, such as peanuts, almonds and walnuts, have seen ongoing popularity as bar ingredients. Nuts boost protein content and help facilitate a range of other on-trend claims such as high fiber, clean label and free-from. Almond was the second most popular flavor for global cereal and energy bar launches in 2019, with particular popularity in North America and Asia, while nuts overall came in in fifth place.

In 2019, more than 40% of US cereal and energy bar launches featured almonds and more than 63% of those featured protein content claims. In the first half of 2020, protein bars featuring almond included an Almond Butter Dark Chocolate Nut Butter Bar with 12g of protein from KIND Healthy Snacks; a Dark Chocolate and Almond Butter Plant-Based Protein Bar with 20g of protein from Rawr Organics; Trubar Saltylicious Almond Love Plant-Fueled Protein Bars with 12g of protein from TRU Brands Inc.; and Nature Valley Coconut Almond Protein Chewy Bar with 10g of protein, from General Mills.


Dairy Delivers

Dairy remains a popular category for protein development. Dairy products have had an inherently healthy image and perception in regard to high protein levels. Not surprisingly, manufacturers here were able to simply change labeling or product positioning and able to adapt relatively quickly to rising interest in protein.

Protein content claims initially focused on milk and dairy-based protein drinks, particularly as they shifted from the specialized sports nutrition arena into the mainstream. More recently, protein claim activity has focused more on fermented beverages and yogurt (both spoonable and drinkable). The rise of Greek-style strained yogurt, which is inherently higher in protein than standard yogurt, particularly paved the way for the wider positioning of yogurt on a “high protein” platform.

Again for the record, the US pioneered the mainstreaming of Greek yogurt. This product type—combined with growing interest in protein—brought about a meteoric rise in yogurt overall and yogurts using high/source of protein positionings. By 2019, nearly half (50%) of spoonable dairy yogurt launches used this type of positioning, compared with 26% in the dairy category as a whole. Drinking yogurt/fermented beverages was not far behind on 49%, but from a much lower base.

In addition to Greek yogurts, other traditionally high-protein fermented dairy products are finding more mainstream success. These include the Icelandic fermented dairy product skyr, as well as traditional fermented beverages such as kefir, lassi and ayran. Strained yogurts with a higher protein content also are debuting without being identified as Greek or Greek-style options.

Greek yogurt is now strongly associated with a high protein content, however, and with a maturing market, some companies have turned to new concepts to maintain interest.

Greek yogurt specialist Chobani, having had limited success with its first non-Greek-style line, Chobani Smooth, turned back to Greek yogurt for its next innovation. However, it focused on a new concept where it combined yogurt with nut butters for a thick, creamy texture with more protein and less sugar than other competitive products. The line, launched in mid-2019 included Vanilla Greek yogurt, Plain Greek yogurt and Honey Greek yogurt, all with almond butter; as well as Chocolate Greek yogurt with hazelnut butter and Vanilla Greek yogurt with cashew butter.

Rival Danone responded in early 2020 with its own range of Oikos Nut Butter Blends yogurts. These products are marketed as satisfying protein-rich snacks. With both Greek yogurt and nut butter known as snacks that are good source of protein, the new product offered a blend of both with 13g of protein per serving, compared with Oikos Whole Milk Greek yogurt with 11g and Oikos Triple Zero protein yogurt with 15g.

Back in late 2019, Danone also launched a new concept, Oikos Pro Fuel, a caffeinated, cultured dairy drink with 25g of protein per bottle. It blurs the line between ready-to-drink coffee and energy drinks, building on the demand for high protein products in the wake of its previous launch of Triple Zero yogurt.

More recently, Chobani came back in the middle of 2020 another new concept of its own.  Its Chobani Complete is a high protein probiotic yogurt with no added sugar, positioned as a balanced option for a busy day or post-workout. It comes in spoonable and drinkable formats, with 15g to 25g of protein per serving and the full set of 20 nutritionally important amino acids.

Dairy alternative drinks also are seeing high levels of interest in protein content claims, endeavoring to reflect the perceived nutritional properties of dairy drinks. In 2019, more than 41% of dairy alternative drinks launches used high protein or source of protein claims. These products featured a growing range of plant-based proteins, including the original soy, as well as nuts, grains and seeds. In the US, almond milk has been particularly popular as an alternative, as has coconut milk. However, a wider range of other ingredients also now are called out—either by themselves or in blends.

One interesting arrival in early 2020 was Danone’s Silk Pea Oat and Almond Milk, with 6g of plant-based protein per serving. It also was marketed as high in DHA/Omega-3 for brain health and comes with added calcium. A more unusual plant-based milk arriving in the US in mid-2020 was Take Two Barley Milk from Take Two Foods, Portland, Ore. It claims a flavor and functionality similar to dairy milk and debuted in four varieties: Original, Vanilla, Chocolate and Chef’s Blend (designed specifically for use in cooking).

Despite the challenges of its commodity status and competition from dairy alternative drinks, milk itself is focusing on its nutritional value and the category is evolving with new high protein options. This is particularly true in the area of filtered milks.

Fairlife LLC, Chicago, has championed the value-added milk market and has seen strong sales in recent years with its ultra-filtered milks, as well as its Core Power Protein Shakes. For the record, it faces rising competition from other major players brands such as Darigold, Horizon (Danone North America) and Organic Valley.

CROPP Cooperative’s Organic Valley business launched its Ultra range of ultra-filtered organic milk with 50% more protein and 50% less sugar. It also relaunched the brand’s Fuel protein shakes with 20g of organic protein and 50% less sugar. Rival Danone joined the trend with the launch of its Horizon Organic High Protein brand. Elsewhere, Darigold created a Darigold Fit line with 75% more protein and 40% less sugar than regular 2% milk. It also launched a Fit Chocolate line with more protein, less sugar and fewer ingredients.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Powerful Appeal.