Could 2016 be protein’s big year? It probably will be. But it wouldn’t be for the first time. That’s because protein has had a run of good years, thanks to a general souring on sugar, lingering fat phobia and genuine good news about what protein is and what it brings to the table.

“Protein has become more mainstream in recent years,” said Loren Ward, director of R&D, Glanbia Nutritionals, Twin Falls, Idaho. “As a result, consumers’ awareness of its benefits has also grown.”

So dairy marketers are investigating protein’s benefits. But many may still wonder what the hype is about, and whether all proteins are created equal—either from a nutritional or functional standpoint. We asked dairy suppliers why this trend has legs and why dairy developers should run with them.


Dairy Foods: Anecdotally, protein’s popularity is pretty clear. But what hard numbers can you share to back up what we know just by looking around?

Ward: According to the United States Dairy Export Council’s 2014 Consumer Whey Protein Tracker webinar presentation, 61% of the population tries to maintain or increase dietary protein intake.

Jean Heggie, strategic marketing lead, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis: According to Euromonitor, strong growth is expected in many protein-centric segments. In 2015, sports-nutrition protein powders grew to become a $4.8 billion category, up 12.2%. Sports-nutrition ready-to-drink products grew to $801 million, a 9.8% increase, while protein supplements grew to $561.7 million, up 10.8%.

Dairy Foods: What are the main drivers?

Ward: The impact of protein on health and fitness is resonating more with consumers, and its role in healthy aging is also becoming increasingly recognized as people live longer and remain active later in life.

Building and maintaining muscle mass is a key driver behind consumers’ protein consumption, as well as is protein’s ability to provide sustained energy throughout the day. Weight management and awareness of body composition are also important to consumers.

Dina Fernandez, protein scientist, ADM/Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients, Decatur, Ill.: An active general population and aging population now understand that protein helps muscle development and maintenance. Likewise, protein’s satiety properties aid in weight-management efforts in the general fight against rising obesity.

Heggie: High-protein on-the-go foods and beverages have become the go-to meal replacements or quick pick-me-up snacks for millions of busy, health- and weight-conscious consumers.

Jessica Henry, marketing manager, Idaho Milk Products, Jerome, Idaho: A growing shift in consumer preference for whole foods as a way to eat more naturally with fewer processed foods means a growing acceptance of dairy proteins and whole-fat products.


Dairy Foods: You’ve mentioned plenty of selling points here. But when it comes to protein’s key nutritional benefits, what are the biggies?

Fernandez: The weight-management and general wellbeing segments are looking for satiety, craving and food-intake control, complete nutrition and smart calories. The sports-nutrition segment is looking for muscle recovery, muscle growth and athletic performance. The elderly-nutrition segment is looking for muscle maintenance and sarcopenia prevention. Other segments are just looking to have a more nutritional, clean, sustainable or healthier product.

Santiago Vega, manager, nutrition marketing, Ingredion Inc., Bridgewater, N.J.: Shoppers are looking for foods and beverages that deliver long-lasting energy. Protein is highly associated with steady energy delivery in consumers’ minds.

Greg Paul, marketing director, beverages & bars, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis: Protein’s role in sports nutrition and weight management is certainly a top-of-mind benefit, but one can’t ignore protein’s role in growth and development, as well as its importance for aging populations.


Dairy Foods: Does science back up these benefits?

Fernandez: The latest scientific research on proteins has focused on the satiety effect and muscle health. The longer feeling of fullness that comes from protein consumption occurs because protein increases serum amino acids (aminoacidemia), increases energy expenditure, increases gluconeogenesis and decreases levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin while increasing satiety-promoter hormones such as PYY [peptide YY], CCK [cholecystokinin], GLP-1 [glucagon-like peptide 1], leptin and others.

Henry: Zinc and magnesium, alone or together, can play anabolic roles in hard-training athletes by stimulating production of growth hormone and testosterone. Minerals bound to amino acids are more readily absorbed through the intestinal lining into the blood, making them more bioavailable for use in metabolic processes. The majority of minerals found in high-quality milk proteins are directly bound to amino acids on casein molecules in the micelle and are easily absorbed into the blood for the body’s use.

Ward: Protein can confer positive effects on muscle protein synthesis, helping to combat the age-related muscle loss of sarcopenia. By maintaining higher muscle mass, older generations can benefit from enhanced wellbeing.


Dairy Foods: What do we know about how much protein we generally need to reap these dividends?

Ward: The Institute of Medicine recommends an acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for dietary protein of 10% to 35% of a person’s total daily calories. Research shows that there’s evidence to support protein intakes of 1 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Despite the awareness of protein, the U.S. population’s protein intake makes up only 14% to 16% of daily calories. Protein isn’t consumed as highly as you might think. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination  Survey, men consume on average 98.6 grams of protein per day and women consume 67.0 grams.


Dairy Foods: Is there any danger that some of us might be getting too much?

Paul: According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, diets containing up to 30% of calories from protein are deemed safe. For a person consuming 2,400 kcal per day, this would represent 720 kcal, or 180 grams of protein per day. For someone weighing 220 pounds (100 kilograms), such an intake would be 2.25 times higher than the current RDA for protein, which is 0.8 gram per kilograms body weight. In short, provided you have no issues metabolizing protein, consumption of higher protein diets within the context of the Dietary Guidelines recommendations shouldn’t present and safety issues.

Gonzales: Protein is not in short supply in the U.S. diet. However, most protein is traditionally consumed at dinner. One suggestion is to distribute protein equally among meal occasions during the day. Thus, 30 grams of protein each for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is exactly where opportunities for the food industry lay, to incorporate protein into foods consumed during these meal and snack occasions—yogurts, milks, cereals, bars, soups, crackers and more.


Dairy Foods: That’s an interesting point. Besides thinking about the timing of protein consumption, we should be thinking about the quality of the protein we’re consuming.

Gonzales: It’s known that protein quality is very important, especially as relates to how it’s assimilated into our bodies. The PDCAAS, or protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score, is the most well-known method that provides an indication of protein quality.

Fernandez: The PDCAAS uses a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being the protein ingredient with the best protein quality. This means that the amino acid profile and digestibility of the specific protein meets the nutritional requirements of a 5-year-old child, which is the most protein-demanding period in human development.

Ward: The DIIAS, or digestible indispensable amino acid score, is also being introduced to the market.


Dairy Foods: How well do consumers understand these scores, or protein quality generally?

Fernandez: Consumers aren’t fully aware of the nutritional quality differences among protein ingredients. For example, they don’t understand what PDCAAS means.

Ward: Only three in 10 of surveyed consumers were able to correctly identify whey protein as a product of milk. There’s quite a knowledge and awareness gap.

Heggie: Many consumers do think that “protein is protein.” But we believe that will change in the coming years as consumers become more knowledgeable about protein sources and their specific benefits and start to distinguish them more on the basis of quality.

Paul: For clinical-nutrition products or meal replacements that serve as the sole source of nutrition or of protein nutrition, protein quality is critical. This is why high-quality proteins like soy protein and dairy protein are used in these applications.


Dairy Foods: Are these the best-quality sources? What about the others?

Fernandez: Usually, animal proteins have higher PDCAASs than plant-based proteins, with some exceptions. Eggs, dairy proteins and soy protein isolates have a PDCAAS of 1, which is why they’re frequently used in nutraceutical applications.

Heggie: Soy protein is unique in being the only widely commercially used plant-based protein that’s also considered a high-quality protein. It has more than 50 years of clinical research backing specific benefits for heart health, muscle health and weight management.

Ward: Whey protein scores highly thanks to high concentrations of essential amino acids and high leucine content, which triggers muscle synthesis. Whey has been shown to synthesize muscle particularly effectively in aging populations as a result of its leucine content and rapid absorption.

While nondairy-derived protein sources typically don’t have as high a concentration of essential amino acids as does whey, vegetarian alternatives can also offer great benefits, particularly in more mainstream products, such as bars and RTD beverages. They can provide a good source of protein and tend to be more cost-effective than dairy sources.

Fernandez: Other popular protein ingredients and their PDCAASs are pea protein at 0.7, kidney bean at 0.5, quinoa at 0.7 and chia at 0.5. Although they have lower PDCAASs, they’re also very attractive alternatives for the food industry.


Dairy Foods: In other words, we don’t have to choose just one.

Ward: Combining vegetable protein with dairy proteins offsets some of the nutritional limitations of vegetable proteins. Bringing the two together raises the overall quality of the combination, so combining milk and vegetable proteins for mainstream applications provides flexibility for product development.

Fernandez: The latest scientific research supports combinations of casein, soy and whey as producing better muscle-synthesis results than individual proteins because of the complementarity of amino acid profiles and different digestibility speeds.

For instance, branched-chain amino acids, or BCCAs, improve endurance and increase muscle synthesis. Glutamine and arginine improve performance, contribute to protein synthesis and improve post-exercise recovery. While whey protein is high in BCCAs, soy proteins are high in glutamine and arginine.

Another factor to consider is a protein’s digestibility speed, because only after digestion of the native proteins will the bloodstream receive the free amino acids needed for muscle synthesis. Whey, soy and casein have a fast, medium and slow digestibility speed, respectively. The perfect protein for sports applications needs a balance among these amino acid profiles and proper digestibility speeds to potentiate muscle recovery and synthesis. That’s why protein blends are becoming so popular.

Henry: Consuming whey proteins and micellar casein together can provide the maximum benefit for an athlete’s body by stimulating protein synthesis over a prolonged period for maximum repair and growth of muscle tissue. These fast- and slow-digesting proteins are ideal for muscle protein synthesis, long-term amino acid release and lasting satiety in nutrition applications.


Dairy Foods: Okay, you’ve made the case for all sorts of protein ingredients. But still, isn’t protein finicky?

Ward: It’s a challenging ingredient to work with. Protein is a complex molecule whose characteristics can change depending on how it’s used in application. All applications present their own challenges, and each protein functions differently.

Gonzales: The most common problems are related to texture and flavor. Typically, high-protein products are thicker in texture, rougher and grainier in appearance in applications like yogurt, milks or puddings. [They can be] difficult to stabilize during the shelf life of a bar or yogurt, requiring the use of special processing conditions or stabilizers to overcome some of those challenges.

Henry: Shelf life is always a concern, especially beverages. To optimize milk protein powder’s use in RTD applications, it’s important to disperse the powder properly into the liquid base and hydrate it properly to maximize the powder’s solubility.

Gonzales: Another well-known problem is the generation of off flavors. Proteins carry their own flavor notes and when formulated in higher-than-traditional amounts aren’t necessarily well perceived by consumers. Typically, we overcome this challenge with de-flavored proteins, as well as with the help of flavor houses and specialists.


Dairy Foods: What are the trickiest applications in which to include protein?

Gonzales: Dairy and dairy-alternative beverages. The reason goes back to protein’s texture. When proteins are formulated in high percentages, they build a lot of texture that may not fit the characteristics of the beverage, and that makes processing and even consumer acceptance difficult to achieve.


Dairy Foods: What emerging themes and innovations keep you bullish on protein?

Fernandez: The world is thirsty for new protein sources to provide variety and secondary benefits like fiber and other bioactive components. Protein alternatives also provide benefits such as sustainability and excellent functional properties.

Heggie: Plant protein is very hot right now. Soy protein is unique in that space as a high-quality protein with proven health benefits. It’s also the most functional plant-based protein, with a wide range of applications and an ability to be incorporated into foods and beverages at high levels while delivering a great sensory experience. Compared to dairy proteins, it provides economic benefits, more stable pricing and supply reliability.

Gonzales: From the plant-based perspective, I’d probably say that pea, lentil and fava are becoming more commonly known. Newer options and processing technologies provide good functionality and fewer flavor constraints.

Henry: Easy-to-understand ingredients like milk protein concentrate continue to grow, especially among Millennials and Gen X shoppers. A recent Technomic consumer survey found that milk protein concentrate ranks higher in health perception than many other dairy proteins, which is quite likely due to ingredient recognition.