The lure of protein-based beverages initially appealed to muscle-builders, but now manufacturers are trying to bring their products to the masses. The number of health-conscious consumers is rising, and the popularity of protein beverages is only in the beginning stages, says Russ Harmon, vice president of marketing and monetization at Human Performance Labs, Austin, Texas.  

“More consumers are focused on what the actual ingredients are inside whatever they are putting into their bodies,” he says.

Consumers are looking more at nutrition labels, and manufacturers of protein beverages have “cleaned” up their nutritional profile, says Jack Owoc, chief executive officer and chief scientific officer of Weston, Fla.-based VPX.

“If your product is high in fat, calories and sugar, your days in this category are numbered,” Owoc says. “Consumers of protein drinks almost always look at the nutrition facts before purchasing the product. Even mainstream consumers are becoming aware of higher grade sources of protein … and are moving toward high-quality, fast-acting whey isolates and concentrates, sustained released caseins and other high-grade milk proteins.”

The use of protein in beverages, especially in a ready-to-drink format, is in the beginning stages but growing steadily. According to The Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights, the number of U.S. beverages claiming to contain protein increased from 175 in 2008 to 315 in 2009.

According to Chicago-based Euromonitor International’s March 2009 “Sports Nutrition in the U.S.” report, protein beverage manufacturers need to appeal to casual athletes, who currently use their product infrequently or not at all, in order to increase sales. The casual athlete is less exposed to sports nutrition, which creates significant room for category growth, the report says.

“The popularity of protein is in its infancy and will continue to grow at an explosive rate,” VPX’s Owoc says. “Many consumers already understand the value and role that protein plays in making their body sexy, lean and toned and in maintaining ideal body weight and health.”

Savvy consumers are not only watching what they put in their bodies but the companies behind the products. “Larger and well-established players rely on their reputation and experience to show that their products are safe and will work as they’re advertised,” Euromonitor’s report states. “Smaller and new players must therefore be more transparent about the science behind their products in order to gain legitimacy in the view of discerning sports nutrition consumers.”

Building up to RTD
Until recently, protein products typically had been available in a powder form. In order to bring protein beverages to a mass market appeal, the introduction of RTD beverages were necessary, Human Performance Labs’ Harmon says.

“We are trying to take protein to the masses, and putting the product in a RTD convenient format that is available inside a local convenience store cooler or a grocery store is much easier,” Harmon says. “It’s much more convenient and less time sensitive in order for them to grab a drink, take it with them on the go or just open it up when they are done with athletic activity.”

Human Performance Labs offers two powder-packet protein formulas, PureSport Workout and PureSport Recovery. PureSport Workout is low-calorie, contains electrolytes and 6 grams of protein, the company says. Workout is designed to be consumed during a workout. PureSport Recovery carries 18 grams of protein and is designed to replenish the body of what is lost during strenuous activity, the company says.

In the first quarter of this year, Human Performance Labs will launch PureSport Workout RTD format available in a 16-ounce bottle. In addition, the company’s Workout and Recovery formulas will be available in stick packets, which can be added to water for a RTD product. The stick packets and RTD beverages will be available in Banana Berry, Fruit Punch, Lemon Lime and Grape varieties. The new Workout and Recovery products contain 9 grams and 18 grams of protein, respectively.

“By putting it into a RTD format, we think we will be able to garner even more market share and have even more word-of-mouth going to work for us, as well as capitalizing on our marketing initiatives to grow our brand nationwide,” Harmon says.

To help broaden PureSport’s mass appeal, the company partnered with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and Olympic all-around gymnastics champion Nastia Liukin.

VPX offers a variety of powder-based protein products as well, but for RTD protein options, the company introduced Protein Rush. The product contains less than 1 gram of sugar, 4 grams of fiber and 40 grams of protein per serving. Packaged in a 17-ounce TetraPak carton, Protein Rush is available in Banana Supreme, Vanilla Dream, Chocolate Dream and Strawberry Shake flavors, and a Cookies and Cream variety is slated for a March release.

In March, VPX also plans to release a protein shot, Power Hit Protein Candy. Although the word “candy” is in the name, it was given the name according to Owoc because it “tastes like liquid candy.” Power Hit Protein Candy is a 3-ounce shot that contains 32 grams of protein and no fat or sugar.

ABB Performance, owned and operated by Optimum Nutrition, Aurora, Ill., recently introduced a RTD protein drink in an aluminum package. PurePro50 contains 50 grams of whey and milk protein and is packaged in a resealable Alumi-Tek aluminum bottle. The package will keep the beverage cooler for longer, and gives consumers the option to re-cap it and save it for later, the company says.

“PurePro50 is ideal for anyone who can use a tasty 50 gram serving of milk and whey proteins with RTD convenience,” said Rachel Hopkins, a food scientist at ABB’s product development laboratory. “That would include bodybuilders looking to move up to a heavier weight class, athletes who typically burn a lot of calories when training or competing, and individuals who need a little help hitting their daily protein target.”

The product is called PurePro50 because it focuses on the purity of the protein, says Tim Weigard, marketing writer for Optimum Nutrition and ABB Performance. PurePro50 is available in Banana Cream, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Cookies and Cream, Milk Chocolate and Vanilla Bean varieties.

For consumers who want protein but not 50 grams worth, ABB Performance also offers PureProShake with 35 grams of milk and whey protein. PureProShake is packaged in an 11-ounce can and is available in Chocolate Swirl, Cookies and Cream, Vanilla Smoothie and Strawberry Banana flavors.

“We are always reformulating our products when technology or science makes advancement possible,” Weigard says. “We will be one of the first companies to jump on that and do it. If it improves our products, that’s what we are all about. We are constantly improving just as athletes are constantly trying to improve themselves by training.”

Less protein, new package
Bio-Engineered Supplements & Nutrition Inc., (BSN) Boca Raton, Fla., produces a variety of protein powders and RTD protein beverages. Introduced late last year, Syntha-6 is the company’s newest product. BSN is in the process of creating a new package for it in addition to decreasing the amount of protein per package.

BSN created a snowman-shaped bottle for mass market appeal, the company says. Currently, Syntha-6 is packaged in a 16.9-ounce TetraPak carton containing 40 grams of protein, and the new bottle will be a 28-gram product.

“There those people that say, ‘40 grams of protein, the more the better,’ but when you cross into the mass market, people say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of protein,’” he says. “What do you need with that much protein, especially when you get into the female clientele. They need a protein beverage but 40 grams is a little intense.”

Syntha-6 is available in Chocolate, Banana and Strawberry flavors, but Dansby also expects to launch Vanilla Butterscotch, Cookies and Cream, and Caramel Latte varieties.

“We use a very innovate flavor system, and the thing that is important to us is making sure the product is the right product,” Dansby says.

Stress and poor diet can lead to muscle catabolism, and it results in the bodybuilder feeling run-down, losing muscle, and gaining fat, Dansby adds. “[Syntha-6] is a healthy product that will help you get muscle growth and help deter catabolic muscles.”

New packaging and flavors
On-the-go convenience is a growing trend with consumers. To show consumers how convenient protein-enhanced drinks can be, CytoSport, Benicia, Calif., expanded its line of protein beverages to include a 3-ounce shot. Initially available in select markets, the 3-ounce shots feature 5 grams of protein, 100 mg. of caffeine and 90 mg. of EGCG from green tea. The shots offer branch chain amino acids to support muscle recovery and use alpha L-polylactate as an energy source. Muscle Milk Refuel Protein Power Shots are available in Raspberry, Tropix and FruitSour flavors.

The original Muscle Milk formula is available in Original, Light and 100-Calorie Light formulas. The product provides lactose-free, high-protein nutritional shakes that supply active individuals with 20 vitamins and minerals plus a complete dose of “healthy fat” to promote lean muscle growth, the company says. Muscle Milk Original is packaged in 17-ounce TetraPak cartons and is available in Banana Crème, Cake Batter, Chocolate Milk, Cookies ‘N Crème, Mocha Latte and Vanilla Crème flavors. Muscle Milk Light is packaged in a 14-ounce bottle, and Muscle Milk 100-Calorie Light is available in 8.25-ounce TetraPak packages.

In January, CytoSport partnered with the Cleveland Cavalier’s Shaquille O’Neal to release an interactive Muscle Milk bottle. The special-edition bottle includes augmented reality technology, an online application that allows the user to interact in real-time with computer-generated imagery, CytoSport says.

“This limited edition interactive bottle in partnership with Shaquille will engage our consumers beyond the point of purchase and is consistent with our brand as an innovative protein drink,” said Nikki Brown, CytoSport’s chief marketing officer, in a statement. “Connecting with consumers via the virtual world is a large focus for all CytoSport brands and the opportunity to work with the groundbreaking technology of augmented reality is something we’re very excited to introduce.”

The limited-edition, 14-ounce bottle is available in Chocolate and will be sold at retailers in Ohio.

Another RTD protein drink, Whey Juice, created by EB Performance, launched in Triple Tea, Triple Fruit and Triple Anti-Ox flavors. Triple Tea combines red, black and green tea; Triple Fruit blends strawberry, blueberry and banana; and Triple Anti-Ox is a combination of cranberry, apple and acai. Each 16.9-ounce bottle contains 15 grams of whey protein isolate, 3 grams of prebiotic fiber and is sweetened with organic agave nectar.

In addition, Whey Up added a Grape Punch variety to its line of whey protein and energy products. Grape Punch joins Wild Berry and Tropical Citrus, and all three flavors offer 20 grams of whey protein isolate in a 16-ounce RTD bottle. BI