In the past, consumers generally designated protein for bodybuilders and athletes. Today, it’s seen as an essential part of the average person’s daily diet, leading many people to wonder how they can add protein to their diet, says Michael Sutich, senior product manager at Farbest Brands,based in Park Ridge, N.J. This change in consumer thinking has led to a proliferation of protein ingredients and claims in a wide range of food and beverage products, he says.

Recently, Minneapolis-based Cargill set out to understand just how important protein is to the average consumer. The company surveyed more than 1,900 U.S. grocery shoppers and found that nearly half indicated that they are trying to get more protein in their diets, according to Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager. Furthermore, one in four said that more protein is always better, and six in 10 were at least somewhat likely to check the ingredient list for protein, according to the company’s 2018 proprietary research.

“Protein’s strong health halo is clearly driving those responses,” Stauffer says. “Consumers told us they seek protein for energy, satiety, muscle maintenance and overall health benefits.”


Plant-based proteins

In particular, plant-based options are boosting the health-halo effect of protein, says William McCormack, business development manager at Synergy Flavors, Wauconda, Ill.

“Consumers identify plant-based foods as healthier and ‘better for you’ than traditional sources of protein in the diet,” he says. “Environmental, sustainability and animal welfare considerations are also driving the growth in plant-based proteins.”

Many experts say the most popular plant-based proteins are pea and soy protein, though demand for soy could be waning.

“Soy remains a popular source of plant-based protein but has suffered somewhat due to negative media coverage related to conflicting scientific data as to the health benefits associated with the consumption of soy protein,” McCormack explains.

Pea protein, on the other hand, is increasing in demand thanks to its unique combination of nutritional benefits, functional attributes and environmental credentials, says Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist for plant protein at Cargill. In fact, Cargill recently doubled down on the ingredient by investing an additional $75 million in PURIS, a North American producer of pea protein, enabling the producer to more than double its pea protein production, the company says.

Rice protein is another popular plant-based option, according to experts. Emerging protein sources include beans, such as lentil and faba; seeds, such as pumpkin, sunflower and quinoa; and oats, says Alison Raban, certified food scientist for BI Nutraceuticals, Rancho Dominguez, Calif.

Each protein has different characteristics, making certain proteins better suited for some beverage applications than others. “For example, seed sources of protein are very popular with paleo formulations, and oat milk has experienced a huge spike in the coffee and creamer space,” Raban explains.

Additionally, BI Nutraceuticals recently launched a hemp extract powder and several hemp protein concentrates, reflecting rising consumer interest.

“We are really excited about the growing consumer interest in hemp, so we’ve been actively promoting our newly launched hemp seed protein concentrate,” Raban says. “We’ve already had lots of interest from beverage developers as well as the food and supplement sectors.”

For use alone or in combination with other plant-based proteins, chickpea protein is another emerging option. Steve Fink, vice president of marketing for Morristown, N.J.-based PLT Health Solutions, says its Artesa Chickpea Protein is comparable to whey in terms of taste, color, texture and aroma thanks to the ingredient’s small particle size, shape and uniformity.

Regardless of the type, it’s clear that plant-based proteins are trending in the food and beverage market.

“Plant-based proteins are one of the highest growth categories in the nutrition industry right now,” says Connie Siu, senior marketing specialist for plant-based nutrition with Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago. “Plant-based protein allows for diversification of diet with a focus on plant-based nutrition for health and wellness; sustainability and lowering carbon footprint; avoidance of [genetically modified organisms] (GMOs); [and] allergen avoidance.”

These benefits are all important to consider when marketing a beverage with plant-based protein. However, despite the growing interest in plant-based proteins and their benefits, these ingredients face many formulation challenges.


Overcoming obstacles

Although plant-based proteins have experienced advancements in relation to their organoleptic properties, challenges still remain, Synergy Flavors’ McCormack says.

“These include inherent offnotes, such as green, beany, bitter or chalky characteristics,” he explains. “In addition, texture and mouthfeel can present a challenge when formulating high-protein plant-based applications. Plant-based proteins are also typically deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids (those that cannot be synthesized in the body and must be consumed through the diet). This means that in order to be considered a complete protein source, plant-based protein must be blended together.”

To “complete” the protein, formulators also have the option to add more of the same plant-based protein source to reach the target protein claim, Cargill’s Machen says. However, a greater amount of protein often results in more challenges, she warns. Very high-protein beverages can result in an undesirable product that is too thick, she explains.

Generally, plant-based proteins work best in low- to mid-level beverages, such as a shake with 8 to 12 grams of protein, says Vince Cavallini, beverage, dairy and convenience foods application manager for Cargill.

“It’s harder to use plant proteins alone and achieve the ultra-high protein levels of 20 to 30 grams,” he explains. “At these inclusion levels, plant proteins can run into issues with flavor, viscosity, texture and stability.”

As a solution, Cargill offers PURIS Pea 870 H, which is mildly hydrolyzed for greater solubility, enabling high protein content in a smooth, drinkable, clean-tasting format, Machen notes.

To face the challenges that plant-based proteins present, beverage-makers should choose a knowledgeable ingredient supplier, BI Nutraceuticals’ Raban notes. They should also be sure to taste the product at every stage of development — including at the end of its shelf life — to ensure the flavor and texture is the same, she advises.

“Sometimes, evaluating the product at or near the end of shelf life isn’t considered a high priority until after receiving negative feedback from customers, which really means it’s too late,” Raban explains. “After all, flavor is the main driver for most food and beverage purchases, so if it doesn’t taste great the first time it’s purchased, what’s going to keep consumers buying a product again?”

Although plant-based proteins carry their weight of challenges, whey proteins aren’t exempt. Their challenge comes in the form of heat stability, according to experts.

“Whey proteins will not withstand a direct heat or retort,” says Jessica Arnaly, marketing specialist for FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America, Paramus N.J. “It will denature causing the protein to aggregate and sediment.”

As a solution, FrieslandCampina offers Excellion Calcium Caseinate Spray.

“FrieslandCampina Excellion Calcium Caseinate Spray has a very high heat stability, very high solubility, no plasmin (enzyme) activity, very low spore count and the typical protein content is 91 percent as is,” she says. “This protein is great for neutral-pH beverage formulation, and due to its high heat stability, it is able to withstand any kind of heat treatment process, whether it is direct, indirect or retort.

“However, if you want to use it in an acidic environment, it will not work” Arnaly continues. “Once it starts getting closer to the isoelectric point of 4.6 pH, the protein will denature and start to separate out. For the beverage of pH 3.0 to 3.6, we would recommend using our Nutri Whey Isolate. We offer a clear version to provide an exceptional clarity product without sedimentation and cloudiness.”

Despite the limitations of protein ingredients, an experienced supplier is key in selecting the ideal product for a beverage application, experts note.


The gold standard

Although plant-based proteins are trending, dairy proteins are still the “gold standard” for formulating protein into food and beverage applications, PLT Health Solutions’ Fink says.

Consumers enjoy the taste and sensory experience of beverages formulated with dairy proteins, he says. Plant-based options aim to mimic that experience, but animal sources offer strong competition.

International Dehydrated Foods Inc. (IDF), for instance, touts the nutritional value of its chicken protein.

“Our CHiKPRO chicken protein isolate ingredients offer the same nutrition as eating a piece of chicken,” says Stephanie Lynch, vice president of sales, marketing and technology for the Springfield, Mo.-based company. “In addition to high-quality protein, CHiKPRO offers the nutrients (like zinc and iron, based on a 100 gram serving) necessary to promote and maintain balanced nutrition; is rich in electrolytes; and has a two-to-one potassium/sodium ratio to support recovery and rehydration.”

Plus, its high-quality amino acid profile enables every gram to count toward the daily value for complete protein, she adds. For example, IDF data show that it takes 39 grams of CHiKPRO protein isolate powder to get all the essential amino acids of a 50-gram daily value of complete protein, whereas it takes 62 grams of whey protein isolate and 86 grams of pea isolate to reach the same value.

“Additionally, chicken protein aligns with many of the other diets rising in popularity alongside plant-based [proteins],” says Lynch. “It is keto friendly and certified paleo. Furthermore, it is free from common allergens, including whey, soy and gluten.”

Similarly, dairy protein producers are responding to interest in the sustainability credentials of plant-based proteins with their own solutions, Synergy Flavors’ McCormack notes. For instance, many have programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption while improving animal welfare, he says.

Environmental stewardship is greatly affecting the market, BI Nutraceuticals’ Raban affirms. Concerns about sustainability and animal welfare have caused an increase in demand for plant-based proteins as well as responsibly raised animals, she notes.

“Looking at the news and buzzier protein ingredients, it seems as though two parallel paths are forming,” Raban explains. “The first path includes the expansion of plant-based protein options from a variety of different sources. The second path, which is also increasing in popularity, is animal protein sourced from grass-fed cows and free-range poultry.”

For instance, FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America shares that its Nutri Whey Native whey protein concentrate is derived directly from the company’s own high-quality fresh milk and purified through ceramic microfiltration. Sharing these details provides manufacturers and consumers with transparency about where the ingredients come from and what type of processing they go through, Arnaly explains.

“Consumers want to know more about a product’s journey: what was the starting ingredient, where it came from, what type of processing it went through,” Arnaly says. “They look for more gently processed and pure solutions.”

This fits in with the consumer desire for clean labels as well as transparency.


Future forecast

Protein is arguably the most popular functional ingredient in the food and beverage industry currently, according to BI Nutraceuticals’ Raban. As a result, adding protein to a beverage application has the potential to boost interest and drive sales, she says.

In particular, experts predict beverages with plant-based proteins will continue to gain in popularity.

“Plant-based fortification and the rise of plant-based beverages and milk alternatives [are] on the rise,” Glanbia’s Siu says. “We are excited about the new opportunity and the growth of this segment. Plant-based proteins offer excellent nutritional value and superior functional properties such as flavor, texture, solubility and stability.”

Cargill’s Machen expects to see a rise in beverages featuring pea, oat, rice and other plant-based options. Likewise, Farbest Brands’ Sutich has high hopes for pea proteins.

Previously, pea protein was limited to powdered beverages, but now hydrolyzed pea proteins can solubilize in solution and offer low-sodium options for products such as vegan dairy alternative beverages, Sutich explains. As a result, he expects these advancements to open up new categories and areas of development for plant proteins in the food and beverage industry. BI