Protein is hot. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va., 54% of U.S. consumers say they are trying to get more protein in their diet. One way for consumers to boost the protein content of their diet is via protein drinks. Whether they are high-acid or low-acid, chocolate or vanilla, fruit-flavored or coffee-based, virtually all protein drinks contain a sweetener.

Selecting the appropriate sweetener for a protein beverage can be challenging because there is a wide variety of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners in the market. Beverage manufacturers who understand the motivation of their target audience will be more likely to pick the sweetener ingredient that ideally suits their consumers’ sweet tooth.


Carbohydrate/protein ratios

All protein beverages are not created equal. Some are focused on sports nutrition, and others positioned for weight management, meal replacement or healthy refreshment for active adults. Sports beverages run the gamut from Isopure with 0 grams of carbohydrate and 40 grams of whey protein, to a new USDEC prototype Dairy Mineral Thirstquencher with 18 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of protein. But most fall somewhere in between. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein (C/P) is one way to differentiate and describe these beverages.

“Athletes are beginning to understand that the ideal sports beverage includes both protein and carbohydrate — in an appropriate ratio to fit the duration and intensity of exercise, and that whey protein can be an important part of these sports performance/recovery beverages,” said Keigan Park of the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, Ill.

Endurance athletes burn a lot of calories and need to replace plasma glucose and muscle glycogen, both during and after exercise. A recent meta-analysis reviewed 88 randomized crossover studies of carbohydrate supplements. The authors indicated that a carbohydrate supplement with 3% to 10% carbohydrate plus protein (providing 0.7g/kg/h glucose polymers, 0.2g/kg/h fructose and 0.2g/kg/h protein) was most effective at enhancing performance for endurance athletes. This blend yields a C/P ratio of approximately 5-to-1. Nutritive sweeteners include monosaccharides such as fructose, disaccharides such as sucrose, and polysaccharides such as maltodextrin, which is a glucose polymer.


Zero-carb drinks

On the opposite end of the spectrum are minimal or zero-carb beverages, which appeal to bodybuilders and dieters. For these beverages, non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose or acesulfame-K are ideal. Most beverages fall somewhere in between, with a C/P ratio in the range of 3-to-1 to 1-to-2. The latter, with fewer carbs and more protein, tend to be labeled lean. Lean protein beverages often utilize naturally occurring lactose, and may add both nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.

In 2011, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy conducted market research to explore consumer attitudes toward sweeteners. The center found that attitudes are changing and often conflicting. Consumers not only want fewer calories from sugar but also products that are more natural. Traditionally, less sugar meant using artificial sweeteners. But emerging natural high-intensity sweeteners offer new opportunities for manufacturers of protein beverages.

Natural high-intensity sweeteners include various Rebaudioside A sweeteners derived from the stevia plant, as well those derived from luo han guo, also known as monk fruit.

“Truvia stevia leaf extracts are stable [in] typical protein beverage processing methods, including hot fill and UHT. In addition, our studies show that Truvia stevia leaf extracts maintain sweetness for at least three years at pH 4, which would be typical of many whey protein drinks,” said Chris Delfosse, senior applications scientist, Cargill Health & Nutrition, Wayzata, Minn.

“Often, stevia products need greater masking agents or more limited use levels, as the bitterness and off-flavors can be noticeable.” said Ed Kuenzle, applications technologist at Ingredion Inc. (formerly Corn Products International), Westchester, Ill.

To build back the body or mouthfeel when sugar is removed, Kuenzle recommends using nutritive sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, texturants such as starches, or ingredients like Erysta erythritol, a fermentation-derived sweetener with 0.2 calories per gram.

“Nutritive sweeteners will help to offset some of the natural astringency of whey protein in lower pH beverages,” said Kimberly Burrington of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wis.

Visit to find a wide variety of formulas for protein beverages, suitable for U.S. and international audiences. International consumers prefer beverages of varying sweetness depending upon their geography. Check out various beverage formulations, such as the Honey Lavender Soothie or the Cucumber Lemon Yogurt Drink.