The protein trend has promised to continue at a steady pace, with interest in, and consumption of, plant proteins increasing at record levels. This is due in large part to the rapid expansion in consumer demand for meat, dairy, and seafood analogs. But alongside the growth in protein as a whole ingredient, the various parts that make up a protein molecule are not being ignored.
Hydrolyzed proteins, amino acids, enzymes, peptides, and nucleotides—each part of protein has a role to play in either improving health directly, or helping make better-for-you products, well, better. And some do both. Enzymes, for example, act as catalysts in biochemical processes inside the body and in processing. Enzymes are specialized proteins that work like specific tools to effect certain chemical reactions
In bakery processing, for example, enzymes are used as leaveners, conditioners, and reactive agents. But in the body, they are responsible for virtually every biochemical reaction. Enzymes are critical to digestion and products such as supplemental health shakes often contain enzymes to help with digestion and metabolism. Supplemental digestive enzymes also are available as edible wafers.
Enzymes have become key players in the meat analog industry, used in a number of such products for their importance in creating the savory umami flavor and the deep, rich flavor notes known as kokumi. Such enzymes are often used in place of monosodium glutamate (MSG)—itself a derivative of a protein fraction, being the salt of the key amino needed for protein synthesis in the body and neurotransmission.
Plant-based ingredient systems of high glutamate and cysteine confer a less bitter flavor in proteins, some of which (for example, pea and soy) can develop off notes. In this way, they help developers of meat analogs reach the full, savory flavors in meat replacers while maintaining a vegan, clean-label status.
From a quality standpoint, protein is scored based on bioavailability and its profile of its amino acid “building blocks.” An animal-derived protein source is considered a complete protein because it has the required amount of all nine essential amino acids. When compared to plant-based sources, animal sources score higher on the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) compared to plant sources because, individually, most plant-based sources lack one or two of the nine essential amino acids that make up whole proteins.
For athletes and active consumers, recovery and performance both depend on adequate protein consumption. Hydrolyzed protein — a protein enzymatically broken down into peptides for faster absorption — is an all-star player in this category. Hydrolysates can be created from any protein source, but common ones include whey, casein, soy, and pea.
A number of studies have shown that whey hydrolysate, when taken between workouts, improved performance during the second workout, whereas unhydrolyzed whey did not. Whey hydrolysates also have great softening properties and can help extend shelf life within a baked product or a product such as a protein bar.
Micellar casein has a high concentration of amino acids, particularly leucine, and is favored for its gradual absorption. The market for this relatively recent addition to the protein toolbox is expected to hit seven figures annually by the end of 2026. Similar to whey, casein protein is perfectly safe for human consumption. Still, it is a milk-derived ingredient, so consumers who are allergic to or sensitive to dairy proteins could experience digestive discomfort.
An up-and-coming plant-based protein source is corn. It has a high leucine content, similar to whey, and is an important source of bioactive peptides. It is a particularly good option for products geared toward athletes or active individuals who don’t consume animal-based protein.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They typically are made by enzymatic action in the same way that hydrolyzed proteins are made. While amino acids are commonly used in sports products and supplements, they also have found a strong market as hydrolysates in liquid form as a substitute for soy sauce. These products typically contain a full complement of amino acids, both essential land nonessential versus soy sauce, which typically contains mostly glutamate and aspartate with smaller amounts of other amino acids such as leucine.
Attaching an amino acid group to a sugar molecule (usually ribose) yields a nucleoside, then adding a phosphate group gets you a nucleotide. Nucleotides happen to make great enhancers of flavors, imparting umami notes that add savory depth. Nucleotide-based flavor enhancers have been boosting better-for-you products such as plant-based meat analogs by helping to build depth of meaty flavor without increasing sodium levels.
Nucleotides can be derived from plant sources via fermentation, making them a sustainable, clean-label solution. As primary components in flavoring compounds, nucleotides help impart a fresh, clean flavors suitable for vegan/vegetarian products, and bring flavor enhancement to low-sodium products, boosting inherent salty flavors without increasing sodium.
In addition to nucleotides, popular complete nucleotide flavor-enrichment systems also contain organic acids, amino acids, and other flavoring compounds that can provide lingering, full-body flavor in foods. In addition to meat analogs, they add body and layered flavor to sauces, soups and dry soup mixes, seasonings, and dressings.
According to an analysis conducted by the research firm Frost & Sullivan, the market for collagen peptides is already growing at about 8% a year at least through 2024. It also is estimated that sales have not peaked. The research notes high and untapped potential for peptides to expand into new markets, applications, and products and continue to accelerate growth.
While amino acids are the building blocks of protein, peptides are the in-between stage of small molecular chains of amino acids ranging from three to fifty units. As with enzymes, there are a number of peptides tied to certain functions and metabolic actions in the body. Research has identified specific peptide structures that demonstrate positive benefits for physical energy, improved cognitive function, raised testosterone levels, and better sexual performance.
Collagen peptides (including bioactive dipeptides such as proline-hydroxyproline and hydroxyproline-glycine) and gelatin (hydrolyzed collagen) have a long tradition of use for health, especially skin, hair, nail, bone, and joint health. Oral collagen peptides have been shown to aid in collagen production in the skin, increase hyaluronic acid, needed for skin structure, and boost moisture within the skin matrix and density of the skin layer, while decreasing the breakdown of skin collagen. Collagen also helps protect against cell damage from ultraviolet light.
Collagen peptides have also been shown to benefit health in other ways. While joint health and bone density are associated with intake of gelatin and collagen peptides, other actions range from acting as an antioxidant to counter DNA damage from oxygen free radicals. Recent studies have indicated wound-healing benefits, immunity help, and even digestive health.
Jennifer Seyler, MBA, MS, RD is the founder of Business Strategy and Operation Consulting, LLC. She has more than 15 years’ experience working with CPGs, commodity groups, and non-profits, and can be reached at email@example.com.
In order to create a complete protein, combinations of plant proteins often are needed. While this can be accomplished through a variety of different ingredient combinations, one of the more popular blends is pea and wheat protein.
The trend today is to focus on those plant sources that contain all nine essential amino acids and are therefore considered “complete proteins” — soy, hemp, quinoa, and chia being popular examples However, there’s no reason to ignore those sources with limiting amino acids. (A limiting amino acid is defined as the amino acid that is present in the least amount relative to human nutritional requirements.)
Some of the plant sources with complete amino acid profiles might be limited in other ways for manufacturing. Cost is one consideration, but another is the allergen factor. Protein derived from certain nuts and legumes — tree nuts, peanuts, and soy, for example — are considered allergens.
Among the plant protein sources without complete amino acid profiles, many can be combined to create a complete protein source. This can happen through the manufacturer creating a product with ingredients containing complementary amino acid profiles, such as a combination of rice and bean isolates, or co-marketing complementary products, such as using both brown rice and beans in a formulation or product.
Pea protein is low in methionine and cysteine but high in lysine, whereas wheat protein is high in methionine and cysteine but low in lysine. Methionine is the first limiting amino acid in pea protein, while lysine is the first limiting amino acid in wheat protein.
The blend of the pea and wheat proteins yields a balanced amino acid composition, resulting in improved nutritional value to the consumer. The combination of wheat and pea protein also provides a unique viscoelastic property that is important in baking and pasta applications.