With health-and-wellness trends driving product innovation, protein is making a move throughout the aisles as 17% of new products contain protein, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.’s (IRI) August New Product Pacesetters report “Harvesting the Fruits of Innovation Done Right.”

Chicago-based Mintel also notes the role protein ingredients are playing in consumer packaged goods. Between 2011 and the third quarter of 2016, whey proteins, milk proteins and caseinates were the top three proteins used in new beverages in North America with soy proteins and pea proteins rounding out the Top 5, according to its  Global New Products Database (GNPD).  

However, for the global food and drink market, plant-based proteins are No. 1 for new product development. With options like soy, lentils, hemp and chia, new products featuring plant-based proteins increased from 4% in 2011 to 6.5% in 2016, while new products using milk-based proteins grew from 3.7% in 2011 to 5% in 2016, based on GNPD data.

In line with this, beverage makers are incorporating protein into a wide variety of applications, including dry-mix powders and on-the-go stick packs as well as in concentrates like gels and shots. Protein also is used in a variety of ready-to-drink (RTD) nutritional beverages as well as smoothies, waters, juices and energy drinks.

More beverages from various categories containing protein are hitting store shelves. For example, Walnut Creek, Calif.-based CytoSport Holdings Inc., makers of Muscle Milk, launched Evolve, a new plant-based line of protein drinks, while Optimum Nutrition, a division of Downers Grove, Ill.-based Glanbia Performance Nutrition, and BiPro, a brand of Le Sueur, Minn.-based Davisco Foods, both launched protein waters. 

The popularity of protein  

The growing popularity of vegan and flexitarian lifestyles, along with consumers’ on-the-go lifestyles, are contributing to the prominence of protein fortification, according to Kati Ledbetter, beverage applications manager for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Co., Chicago.

“Protein fortification projects top our list of customer requests,” she said. “The recognition of the health benefits of protein across all consumer demographics requires a variety of protein products to satisfy these different tastes.”

She continued, “The increase in vegan and flexitarian lifestyles requires plant-based proteins that can be combined to create good-tasting protein fortification. Factor in replacement of dairy protein with plant-based proteins for cost reduction, and there is no end in sight to protein projects.”

To compete in a crowded beverage market, beverage makers increasingly are interested in adding functionality as opposed to only offering refreshment, said Will McCormack, business development manager of nutrition for Wauconda, Ill.-based Synergy Flavors Inc.

“The lines that used to define mainstream beverages continue to blur as hybrid or fusion beverages emerge, such as cold-brew coffee, sparkling teas or protein-enhanced juices,” he explained. “This beverage blurring is encouraging beverage makers to gravitate toward protein to further differentiate their products in the saturated market of functional beverages.”

McCormack noted that plant-based proteins are on the rise in a variety of products due to their sustainable call-out, natural, free from and vegan claims, while blends of plant and animal proteins also provide considerable formulation opportunities due to their enhanced organoleptic properties.

Although soy protein was one of the first plant proteins to build significant market share in the beverage category, products formulated with pea proteins are gaining ground because of their many benefits, said Joe O’Neill, vice president of sales and business development for Fairfield, N.J.-based A&B Ingredients Inc.

“Peas are naturally free from cholesterol and are not included in the list of major allergens (unlike soy and gluten),” he explained. “[P]ea proteins are non-GMO and are favored over soy protein because of their low allergenicity and absence of phytoestrogens normally associated with soy protein.” 

Although plant-based proteins have lower digestibility compared with animal-based proteins, new solutions are being developed. For instance, Cleveland-based Ganeden released studies showing that its probiotic strain increases digestibility for pea, rice and soy proteins; aids in the breakdown of peptides; provides better amino acid utilization; and helps reduce unabsorbed protein delivery to the colon — avoiding the production of toxic metabolites. The strain also enhances the body’s utilization of animal-based protein and helps with muscle recovery. 

As RTD protein beverages continue to grow in popularity as a result of their ease of use and nutritional value, beverage formulators have a wide range of protein systems at their disposal. For example, Belgium-based Cosucra offers a pea protein isolate that is designed for canned RTD beverages where taste, solubility and low spore-counts are critical parameters in the product design, according to the company.

Additionally, White Marsh, Md.-based TIC Gums has expanded its portfolio of texture and stability solutions with a cold-water soluble hydrocolloid system used in non-GMO instant-protein beverages to help stabilize and improve suspension of the protein in these beverages. The system is said to decrease astringency and improve mouthfeel and viscosity.

Rice bran protein also is becoming a go-to ingredient in healthy, sports and performance drinks and smoothies, according to Robert Smith, interim chief executive officer at RiceBran Technologies (RIBT).

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company developed technology to stabilize and capture the bran and germ layer of rice and convert it into a range of natural, non-GMO, gluten- and soy-free rice bran ingredients that are loaded with protein, fiber and gamma oryzanols, Smith said.

“Our clean-label ingredients are … a great source of vegetarian/vegan macronutrients including plant-based protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber and healthy fats,” he said. “While just 8% of the rice kernel has nutritional value, rice bran has 25 times the dietary fiber and four times the protein as white rice.”

Mix-and-match proteins

Although there are many choices for protein fortification in beverages, achieving the appropriate level of protein is one of the biggest hurdles for beverage-makers to overcome, ADM’s Ledbetter said.

“It’s critical to work with a partner to mix and match proteins for optimum cost-effectiveness, taste and protein levels,” she said. “Many customers are looking for protein sources to deliver protein content equivalent to a cup of milk. Many times that means blending different plant-based proteins to get the right content and quality protein as well as the desired flavor and texture for the product,” she continued. “Products like ADM’s isolated soy protein that can be easily added to beverages are also good solutions to add protein to beverages in a cost-effective way.”

But, whether it’s regular ultra-high temperature processing (UHT) or medical-grade sterilized liquid nutrition products, the challenges of formulating with proteins are present, A&B Ingredients O’Neill noted. When working with protein, beverage makers need to be on the lookout for solubility issues, providing a clean taste, maintaining a correct viscosity, being aware of possible interactions with other ingredients (such as minerals) and guaranteeing a long shelf-life, O’Neill said.

To avoid the gelation and sedimentation issues that beverage formulators could encounter with protein-mineral interactions and to help with shelf-life stability issues, phosphates can be added to a protein-based beverage to help in stabilization,  said Amr Shaheed, commercial development manager beverage at Innophos Inc., Cranbury, N.J. 

“Phosphates can be used to help stabilize protein-based beverages and avoid age gelation and pH shifts by buffering the pH in the target zone,” he explained. 

With a wide variety of proteins and products to choose from, additional flavor choices beyond vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, coupled with improved scientific knowledge and formulation techniques, proteins will continue to add versatility in the market, experts say.

“Overall, the market drive for protein-fortified beverages will evolve from a trend to the mainstream,” Innophos’ Shaheed said. “With time, a greater number of cross-functional product launches, pairing protein with one or more other claims will occur. Examples would include caffeinated protein beverages, protein-fortified sports drinks and protein-fortified electrolyte shots.”

 When it comes to protein enhancement, no beverage is off limits, Synergy Flavors’ McCormack said. “But it can be more successful if it is paired with a trending beverage application. For example, developing protein-enhanced cold-brew coffees and fortified matcha tea to leverage beverage trends.

“Plant-based proteins will continue to rise and become more common,” he continued. “Pea and soy proteins are likely to remain dominate plant proteins, but rice, ancient grain, potato and mushroom protein are expected to increase in the future.”


This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Beverage Industry, a BNP Media publication (like Dairy Foods). It was reported and written by BI Managing Editor Barbara Harfmann and edited by Dairy Foods Managing Editor Sarah Kennedy.