Whether associated with weight management, immune health, physical performance or keeping an aging body lean and strong, protein has come to represent health, and people are increasingly building their diets around it.

While consumers had already become more proactive over the past decade about health and wellness, the Covid-19 pandemic exponentially heightened their focus on the matter. To this end, consumers are voting with their shopping baskets and menu choices, leaning towards food and beverages that carry a health halo. This has led to the rise of a new trend of demanding food and beverages with high protein claim.

Whether associated with weight management, immune health, physical performance or keeping an aging body lean and strong, protein has come to represent health, and people are increasingly building their diets around it. This is part of a wider pivot from ‘anti-fat’ and ‘anti-sugar’ to a more positive health stance.

The influential claim which is guiding consumers purchase and consumption behaviour, is driving innovation and leading to the growing number of products featuring high protein. This is played out in the growth of new product launches featuring a high protein claim by 12% from 2018 to 2020, according to Innova Market Insights. As the popularity of protein-enriched food and beverage products continues to rise, brands are tasked with innovating new, more advanced technologies, to keep up with consumer demand.

Raising the high-protein bar in sporting arena

The high-protein trend started in the sporting arena, targeting consumers who engage in active gym routines, seeking performance and muscle building/toning gains. The sports nutrition category, in particular, is characterized by nutrition-savvy consumers that are likely to understand not just the concept of protein quality, but also the performance implications associated with different types of proteins. For example, fast-absorbing whey proteins are popular for post-workout muscle building and maintenance, while slow-absorbing milk proteins are known for providing sustained release and satiety, reveals Glabian Nutrition.

Initially the high protein sports-nutrition products comprised of powder shakes that consumed a lot of time to prepare and find the perfect blend. With presence of busy consumers who are always on the go, the product category has evolved to include ready to consume, portable and convenient options. The reformulated products include ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages and highly nutritious gels. ADM highlights that the CAGR from 2015 to 2020 for sports protein ready-to-drink products was 8%, and sports protein powder was 6.5%. This new trend is fuelling the growth of the sports nutrition foods and drinks market which Research and Markets projects to exceed US$ 90 billion by 2022.

Tapping into this lucrative segment are players such as PepsiCo, who has big plans for its Evolve brand that it acquired from Hormel Foods Corp in 2019. Its RTD shakes which come in a wide range of flavours have 20 grams of plant protein and 10 grams of plant fiber. The protein drinks compete for market share alongside brands such as Garden of Life by Nestle, Coca-cola’s Fairlife Core Power, UP2U RECOVER by Lactalis, OWYN, Premier Protein, Iconic Protein Drinks, Soylent, among others.

The sports nutrition category is characterized by nutrition-savvy consumers that are likely to understand not just the concept of protein quality but also the performance implications associated with different types of proteins

Delving deeper into the innovation space, functional ingredients player FrieslandCampina Ingredients (FCI) has unveiled a high concentration protein gel concept, marketed as “a game-changer” for sports nutrition applications. Formulated with FCI’s Nutri Whey Isolate Clear, the product provides up to 15 percent protein content in a small, convenient portion. Moreover, it enables flexibility in the end-product’s format with applications from squeezable pouches to spoon able pots.

High protein breeds guilt free indulgence

In difficult times, people tend to turn more towards indulgent treats. And the COVID-19 pandemic has unsurprisingly prompted people to consume more snacks. In a bid to find a balance between indulgence and health, processors have become intertwined in the complexities of crafting the perfect mix of ingredients to deliver high levels of key nutrients like protein. For instance, better-for-you ice-cream options which are laden with a mixture of whey protein concentrate and other high-quality ingredients, makes every scoop a guilt free pleasure. In 2019, the family-owned dairy company, Graham launched a new line of high-protein ice cream known as Goodness Ice Cream. Halo Top, which promotes itself as “ice-cream you can feel good about eating”, flags its protein content of 18 g or 20 g on each 472g tub – numbers that are likely to catch the eye of protein-hunters.

Meanwhile, yogurt, which is naturally filled with proteins and packed with loads of other nutrients, has paved the way for a wider positioning on the high protein profile. This is courtesy of the rise of Greek-style strained yogurt, which is inherently higher in protein than standard yogurt. The King of Greek-yogurt, Chobani, has been enticing consumers with novel products for over a decade, coming in a wide range of flavours and formulations. Its recent launch is the zero-sugar Greek yogurt, targeting consumers who are closely watching what they eat and drink.  Rival Danone, has introduced Oikos Greek yogurt with almond butter. Each cup has 13 grams of protein compared with Oikos Whole Milk Greek yogurt with 11g and Oikos Triple Zero protein yogurt with 15g.

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.

Further driving innovation, Arla Foods Ingredients has launched a whey protein ingredient, Nutrilac FO-7875, that allows manufacturers to develop spoon-able and drinkable yogurts with a “significantly higher” protein content than typical products.

High protein foods and beverages tending to specific needs

As the high protein category grows, creative ingredients and new technologies have sparked a move to functional beverages, aimed to enhance mental, emotional, and overall health and well-being of consumers. Trending are ready-to-drink protein-added milk and drinks. In Africa, Pamaedge Limited introduced its Whey2Go drink in the Kenyan market, making use of the whey protein disposed during cheese production by Raka Cheese. Meanwhile, Horizon Organic, introduced the first multi-serve organic protein milk in 2018, Horizon Organic High Protein, providing 50% more protein per serving than traditional dairy milk offerings aimed to help support healthy muscles. Recently entering this product category, Chobani has expanded its dairy footprint with high-protein, lactose-free and ultra-filtered milk. The new offerings further diversify the refrigerated case, appealing to consumers with specific dietary needs and preferences.

Protein’s role in maintaining good health, repairing and building body tissues, has made it to be a more popular ingredient in functional beverages. Seeming like finding the perfect remedy to ensuring one ages like fine wine, the R&D departments of food processing giants have made an attempt to appeal to the seniors with new product launches. To this end, Finnish dairy manufacturer, Valio, has developed a lactose-free milk protein powder that caters to the nutritional demands of the growing aging population, coined Valio Eila Nutri F+. The ingredient allows food manufacturers to develop formulations that utilize the benefits of phospholipids on cognitive health and create functional food products for healthy aging. Meanwhile, Nestle China launched its first set of ‘blue-hat’ certified health foods for the elderly – a milk powder containing glucosamine and a probiotic protein powder. The former claims to increase bone density and is designed to satisfy seniors’ demand for increased mobility, while the latter is said to support the immune system.

Protein is well positioned to enable premiumization of existing dairy products as well as new ones, tapping into specific demands of consumers. In fact, a majority of consumers have indicated a willingness to pay a premium of 10% for protein-fortified products, revealing a lucrative market that food processors can venture into.

This feature appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE