As consumers pay more attention to the food and beverage labels, one claim has gained momentum: protein, notes a recent survey by Nielsen.(1)
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2017 Food and Health Survey, consumers say calories from protein are less likely to cause weight gain than those from sugars, carbohydrates and fats. There has been a 33 percent increase in Americans trying to consume protein since 2012 with some 64 percent saying they did so in the 2016 survey.(2)
Statistics from IRI agree. It relays that 40 percent of consumers recognize that lifestyle plays a key role in achieving health and wellness goals. “As a result, solutions that embrace healthier ingredients, such as superfoods and protein, …are really hitting the mark with shoppers.”(3)
Protein’s popularity with consumers has translated to marketplace success. Nielsen data shows that as of the 52 weeks ending July 2, 2016, sale of food items with protein claims increased by 4.8 percent over the year before to $19.6 billion.(4)
Sargento’s Balanced Breaks®, one of IRI’s top 10 pacesetter in 2016 with year-one dollar sales of $54.2 million, is a shining example.(5) Line items claim up to eight grams of protein per serving.
Certain categories, such as protein-based sports nutrition products, have fared particularly well. In the three years leading up to March 19, 2017, sales of liquid protein & meal replacements increased 9.5 percent, powder protein & meal replacements 8.2 percent and performance bars 5.9 percent according to Scott Dicker, Nutrition Researcher at SPINS.(6)
The question that can be raised is, after such sustained interest in protein-touting products, when will this interest peak? The answer seems to be “not quite yet.” As one example, at the 2017 Natural Products Expo West, a “’must attend’ event for trend watchers, a key takeaway was the predominance of protein-centric products.(7),(8)
Protein Choices and Importance
Of the three primary macronutrients in the diet, i.e., carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, proteins are usually the most expensive, most difficult to obtain for populations with food insecurity and the most needed.
“[Proteins] provide the building blocks for tissues, balance body fluids, control acidity, are integral to the immune function, produce hormones and enzymes, manage gluconeogenesis, deliver energy and signal satiety,” says Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Dept. of Food Science and Nutrition. “Whereas I can survive for a long time without most nutrients, the only two nutrients that I absolutely need to survive are water and protein,” she adds.(9)
Nielsen’s article reports that meat, eggs and dairy are the top three protein sources, in that order, among U.S. and Canadian consumers. Seafood and legumes/nuts/seeds fall to fourth and fifth place.(1) As with many other plant-based foods, Nielsen also reports that pulses, such as lentils and beans, are rising in popularity.(4)
Animal and plant proteins are often compared to each other in a broad sense. When it comes to more specific niches, however, clearer preferences emerge. For example, whey proteins dominate most categories of sports nutrition products(6). They outperform other ingredients in areas such as muscle protein synthesis and athletic performance.10
Factors such as culinary tradition, taste, nutrition, cost and sustainability drive consumer protein choices. These also influence choices by R&D folks who formulate foods, beverages and nutritional products.
Emerging proteins and functional properties
Protein’s nutritional benefits, consumer interest, desire to utilize agricultural byproducts and advancing food technologies drive the current array of “new and improved” proteins. Laurice Pouvreau, Senior Scientist, NIZO food research, points out that what is “established” and what is “new” varies by region. “For example, Europeans are more familiar than those in the U.S. and Canada with potato and lupin proteins, while the reverse is true with protein from rice and rapeseed (canola).”
Animal protein ingredients newly marketed to food formulators include new types from insects, native milk proteins, egg white protein isolates and collagen.
Non-animal sources of protein that have gone or are going “mainstream” in/onto the U.S. market in the last half decade include those from peas, cottonseed, potatoes, canola/rapeseed and rice. Others such more recently introduced include nearly 80 percent pure protein from Shiitake mushrooms and protein from yeast with “complete protein claims.”
Rubisco (Ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase) may well be the most abundant protein on earth.(11) It is found in certain algae (e.g., Chlorella prototheocoides), spirulina (a cyanobacteria) and plant leaves. Proteins from these sources, as well as from plants with higher protein levels like hemp and duckweed, are being marketed to food formulators.
Duckweed, aquatic plants of the Lemnaceae family, is found the world over. Common names for various species include water lens/lenses, lemna, wolffia, and watermeal. For a plant, duckweed has higher than usual levels of protein and little fiber, since they do not need to support upright structures.(12) The amino acid profile of duckweed’s proteins is said to be close to WHO recommendations.(13) Commercially marketed proteins are about 45 percent protein on a dry basis.
Food attributes favored by consumers also influence what product formulators desire in a protein. However, a protein’s physiochemical functional properties are often key. According to surveys conducted among food technologists attending Global Food Forums® 2014 and 2015 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminars, “Functionality (physiochemical properties)” was ranked as one of the top two most important protein characteristics. This is the challenge for formulators wishing to use alternative proteins.
Most Important Protein Characteristics
Percent of Formulators indicating characteristic as one of the top three most important (three choices allowed)
|Protein Ingredient Characteristic||2014 Protein R&D Ingredient Trends Survey, n = 78||2015 Protein R&D Ingredient Trends Survey, n-67|
|Functionality (physiochemical properties)||68%||67%|
|Price per pound||60%||49%|
|Reliability of supply||23%||30%|
|Familiarity in to how to use it||8%||15%|
|Ease of substitution with alternatives||5%||7%|
Source: Global Food Forums® 2017 R&D Report: Protein Ingredients. Results from surveys conducted among food scientists attending the 2014 and 2015 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar.
For example, soy has dominated the global plant protein ingredient market. One prime reason is the variety of forms that have been developed for applications. They range from flavored, fortified, colored and extruded meat analogs to 90+ percent pure protein isolates of specialized properties. Over time, products with increasingly bland flavor and lack of color have allowed their use in a broader and broader array of applications.
The physiochemical properties of more traditional proteins such as from dairy sources are relatively well known. Depending the specific protein (e.g., casein vs. whey), they can provide water-binding for applications in the baked goods, processed meats and confectionary categories, as well as:
- Gelation in yogurt and custards
- Foaming in ice cream and other frozen desserts and in baked goods such as cakes
- Emulsification in mayonnaise-type salad dressing
- Flavor and color development in confectionary and soups
So, here’s to the exciting world of emerging nutritious and sustainable proteins. For maximum popularity in formulated products, may they successfully follow a path to also being affordable, physiochemically functional, and bland in flavor and color!
- Nielsen: “Animal or Plant? Understanding North American Protein Preferences,” posted online September 7, 2017.
- “A Healthy Perspective: Protein Trends and the American Consumer,” presented by Liz Sanders, MPH, RDN, Associate Nutrition & Food Safety, International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) at the 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. [PDF]
- IRI: New Product Pacesetters: Building Bridges to a Growth-Filled Tomorrow [PDF], posted online April, 2017.
- Nielsen: “Consumers Up Their Protein with Quick and Healthy Meat Alternatives,” posted online August 9, 2016.
- “IRI Announces Most Successful Consumer Packaged Goods Brands of 2016,” posted online 4/3/2017
- “A New Look at the Changing Protein Category,” presentation by Scott Dicker, Nutrition Researcher, SPINS at the 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. [PDF]
- “Trendwatching: From probiotics to Paleo,” Nutraingredients-usa.com, posted online March 14, 2017.
- Global Food Forums, Inc.: “Trends: New Protein Foods, Beverages & Nutritional Products 2017,” posted online spring 2017.
- Global Food Forums, Inc. Post conference summary: 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar: Formulating with Proteins, Global Food Forums, Inc. [PDF]
- Prospector: “Whey Protein: Formulation Considerations, Part 2,” posted online Feb. 15, 2017.
- Raven JA, Rubisco: still the most abundant protein of earth?. New Phytol. 2013 Apr;198(1):1-3. DOI: 10.1111/nph.12197.
- FAO: Leng, RA, et al. Duckweed – a potential high-protein feed resource for domestic animals and fish. Centre for Duckweed Research & Development, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351 (Volume 7, Number 1, October 1995)
Appenroth, KJ, et al. Nutritional value of duckweeds (Lemnaceae) as human food. Food Chemistry, 2017; 217: 266 DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.08.116
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