Demand for plant proteins — and not just soy, but pea, seed, bean and more — is reinvigorating the sector in whole new ways. While a 2015 report by the research firm MarketsandMarkets predicted dairy proteins will reach a value of $18 billion by 2020, plant proteins are hardly far behind. Mordor Intelligence research from 2017 estimates their value will top $14 million by 2022.

And though dairy insiders could be forgiven for viewing plant proteins’ rise as a risk to dairy’s dominance, there’s enough demand to go around. The 2016 International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) Food & Health Survey found that fully 64% of American adults intend to get more protein in their diets, period.

As Rikka Cornelia, product manager for BI Nutraceutials, Long Beach, Calif., put it, “The more the merrier. There’s no reason a blend of plant and dairy proteins can’t get along.”

In fact, as far as formulation is concerned, she continued, such a blend “may provide the right balance of nutrition, flavor and cost to produce and market products successfully.”

So we convened a virtual roundtable with her and other protein professionals to learn what keeps the category growing, and how all sources can grow stronger together.


Dairy Foods: The vogue for protein really seems to have achieved “phenomenon” status. Who’s driving it, and how has the “typical” protein consumer evolved?

Kara McDonald: It’s no longer consumed solely by bodybuilders or frequent gym goers, but is now popular with consumers of varying lifestyles who’re looking to reap the many benefits of protein consumption [including building and maintaining muscle, managing weight and preventing sarcopenia].

Dustin Cosgrove: Protein is essential to keeping your body nourished and strong. Whether a bodybuilder is training for a big event or a 70-year-old woman is focused on keeping her bones healthy, protein plays a vital role.


Dairy Foods: What keeps protein going strong?

Jean Heggie: It works, and people who make a concerted effort to consume it notice the differences. If they’re consuming protein to help manage hunger or control weight, they can feel the effect and see the results. If they’re using it to build muscle in conjunction with an exercise program, the same is true.


Dairy Foods: How big a game-changer is the plant-based movement?

Alan Rillorta: Plant proteins are doing good things for the overall protein category. When a category’s been around for decades, as protein has, it needs some new news to help regain interest, increase visibility and feed the fire. Innovation (like finding new sources for plant proteins, such as pumpkinseed, cranberry seed, sacha inchi and other “fringe” sources) opens doors for more innovation in finished products.


Dairy Foods: Why are plant proteins hitting so many consumers’ sweet spots?

Amanda Donohue-Hansen: There’s a variety of plant proteins today that exhibit many of the attributes consumers are seeking. In addition, some of our customers are seeking unique proteins for their novelty and ability to differentiate products amongst competitors on the shelf.

Rikka Cornelia: Consumer familiarity is another factor. Soy protein was the first popular plant-based protein on the market, given the reputation of soy milk and tofu. From there, with pea and rice already staples in most people’s diets, pea and rice protein became the next big ones. And now, with the mainstream popularity of pulses and seeds, it only makes sense that proteins from these sources are becoming increasingly popular.

Pat O’Brien: We recently conducted a consumer research study that showed that one in three consumers prefers a vegetable-sourced protein to an animal-sourced protein. Pulse-based ingredients such as flours and proteins derived from lentil, pea, chickpea and faba [fava] bean allow for unique product positioning and meet the characteristics that consumers are looking for in the ingredients being used in their food products.

Satya Jonnalagadda: Many plant-based protein products have a strong sustainability story and claim a lower carbon footprint than alternatives. Our research found that 62% of protein users cite sustainability as an important factor when purchasing a protein product.

In addition to concern surrounding ethics and sustainability, the rise in allergies and food intolerances is fueling the growth of plant proteins. According to our internal primary research, over half of protein users report dairy-free as the most important nutritional factor when purchasing protein products.

These consumers also want natural, recognizable, simple ingredients in their protein products. With increasing concern around potentially harmful ingredients in foods, they’re likely turning away from animal proteins as a way to avoid antibiotics and hormones often found in meat.

Jenna Mills: Plant protein can meet the underserved needs of vegans and vegetarians, who, according to the Vegetarian Research Group, represent 4 million and 7.3 million consumers in the U.S., respectively. And according to the HuffPost Impact, there are 23 million flexitarian consumers in the U.S., all of whom are looking for both animal and plant-based proteins.


Dairy Foods: Are these consumers getting the nutrition they seek from plant sources? Isn’t it the case that plant proteins are “inferior”?

Cornelia: From a nutritional standpoint, plant-based proteins aren’t as high in certain amino acids as dairy proteins are, so their PDCAAS [protein digestibility corrected amino acid score] will be lower. But plant-based proteins offer other nutrients. For instance, faba [fava] bean protein and pumpkinseed protein still contain all nine essential amino acids, as well as other beneficial nutrients like iron and fiber.

Donohue-Hansen: New plant proteins are developing rapidly to be competitive with the nutrition and functionality of dairy proteins and are also earning credibility as we uncover distinctive nutritional and functional benefits not yet seen with dairy.


Dairy Foods: Let’s discuss functionality. How workable are today’s plant proteins in formulations?

Scarlett Full: Some plant proteins are limited in functionality and ease of use, but this is due to their novelty, and with time and research they’ll catch up to the level that dairy and soy proteins have achieved through decades of research.

Cornelia: Some plant proteins will gel or thicken, while others don’t. In some cases, having a protein that gels or adds mouthfeel will help the finished product achieve the desired performance, but it may not be needed in other cases.

Tyler Lorenzen: We have the food formulator in mind when designing all our proteins. Functionality, smoothness, solubility and how quickly the product disperses in water are incredibly important.


Dairy Foods: Flavor has been a sticking point with plant proteins. Has it gotten any better lately?

Orlaigh Matthews: When asked to report the three most important factors in choosing a protein product, 72% of U.S. consumers selected flavor and 63% selected texture in our primary research last year. The challenge here is that when it comes to formulating products with plant proteins, most are associated with bitter tastes, off notes, harsh flavors or poor mouthfeel.

O’Brien: One of the challenges when working with pulses is their natural beany flavor. In certain applications this profile may be desired, while in others product developers may prefer a blander profile.

Lorenzen: The range of quality as related to taste varies from supplier to supplier. The onus is on industry to provide the taste experience that consumers will keep coming back for. Great-tasting plant proteins will ultimately lead, as compromising on flavor simply isn’t sustainable.

Donohue-Hansen: The good news is that plant proteins continue to improve as producers refine the processing conditions to minimize off flavors. In addition, by leveraging flavor maskers and formulation expertise, we’re able to further mask off notes from plant proteins in final applications.


Dairy Foods: Can plant-based options meet a growing world’s hunger for protein?

Lorenzen: We believe that to solve the longer-term problem of global protein demand, we must have the ability to supply at a significantly larger scale. Scale is why we’re so excited about pea protein.

Donohue-Hansen: Fundamentally, we believe that to feed the world in 2030, we need more protein from all sources to meet the needs of our growing and developing population. We believe that there is a tremendous amount of protein in our plant supply chains today that we can unlock and make suitable for human consumption through new technologies.


Dairy Foods: All of which sounds promising. But this is Dairy Foods, and I almost feel disloyal in not mentioning that dairy proteins are, were and always will be, really awesome, right?

McDonald: Unlike other ingredients, U.S. dairy proteins contain all the essential and nonessential amino acids, including branched-chain amino acids like leucine, making them one of the highest-quality sources on the market. A study done at the University of Illinois used the digestible indispensable amino acid score, or DIAAS, to assess eight protein sources: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, milk protein concentrate, skimmed-milk powder, pea protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soy flour and whole-grain wheat, based on standardized ideal digestibility of crude protein and amino acids.

Results suggested that all dairy proteins tested can be considered “excellent/high” quality for people six months of age and older, ranking higher than soybeans, peas and wheat. Soy protein isolate and soy flour qualified as “good” sources of protein and pea protein and whole-grain wheat concentrate received significantly lower scores.

Cosgrove: And it’s the casein in milk protein that digests as much as 33% more slowly than other protein options and is responsible for its sustained release and satiety benefit. This makes it very appealing for weight management and satiety products, such as ready-to-drink shakes and meal-replacement bars. Staying fuller longer isn’t a new concept. What’s different is that milk protein ingredients provide the preferred mouthfeel and taste components.


Dairy Foods: Are we seeing as much innovation on the dairy side as with plant?

McDonald: The U.S. dairy industry is continually adopting new technologies to create more value-added ingredients with unique protein profiles and rare sets of functional benefits. For example, recent research has examined different microfiltration systems to separate caseins and whey proteins directly from milk. Micellar casein concentrate, or MCC, is isolated from milk through filtration and has functional benefits that include wetting, dispersibility, heat stability at neutral pH and solubility.

Cosgrove: We currently produce a variety of milk protein ingredients with MPC [milk protein concentrate], MPI [milk protein isolate] and micellar casein, as well as milk protein available rBGH free, organic, non-GMO, instantized, low-grit and lactose-free in the case of MPI.

Dairy proteins are in their infancy. This category is poised to increase substantially over the next year. It’s smart to start thinking now about how you plan to capitalize on milk protein’s versatility and other advantages.


Dairy Foods: Do dairy and plant proteins actually get along in formulations?

Donohue-Hansen: Dairy applications are among the most challenging to formulate within, and consumers’ preferences are discerning. Here we tend to gravitate toward more established plant proteins such as pea, rice and potato. These plant proteins have had more than a decade of development to optimize functionality, taste and texture to serve the needs of dairy applications. While new sources show promise on the lab bench, considerable development and scale work is required before they can make a material contribution to the sizeable dairy market.

David Sabbagh: There are plant proteins that have been specifically developed to function in dairy-containing and dairy-based formulations across a range of applications. Typically, the proteins need to be dispersed and hydrated fully for maximum performance. When handled in that manner, plant-based proteins can be seamlessly formulated into these applications.


Dairy Foods: So dairy and plant proteins can have a happy future together?

Rillorta: Plant proteins are not taking away from the market share dairy has worked so hard at building over the decades. If anything, the new buzz over plant proteins is helping to ensure the longevity of the protein market overall, which also helps dairy proteins in the long-run.

Mills: The protein market will continue to grow, and both dairy and plant proteins offer different benefits and appeal to different consumer groups. With this expanding marketplace, there’s certainly room for both dairy and plant proteins to get along. 


Meet the panel

  • Rikka Cornelia, product manager, BI Nutraceutials, Long Beach, Calif.
  • Dustin Cosgrove, senior director of business development, Milk Specialties Global, Eden Prairie, Minn.
  • Amanda Donohue-Hansen, business development manager, Cargill, Minneapolis
  • Scarlett Full, director of nutrition & research, Axiom Foods, Inc., Los Angeles
  • Jean Heggie, strategic marketing lead, protein, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis, Mo.
  • Satya Jonnalagadda, director of global nutrition science, Kerry, Beloit, Wis.
  • Tyler Lorenzen, president, Puris, Minneapolis
  • Orlaigh Matthews, strategic marketing manager – nutritional beverage, Kerry
  • Kara McDonald, vice president, global marketing communications, U.S. Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va.
  • Jenna Mills, marketing communications specialist – nutritional beverage, Kerry: Plant protein
  • Pat O’Brien, manager, strategic business development, Ingredion Inc., Bridgewater, N.J.
  • Alan Rillorta, branded ingredient sales, AIDP, City of Industry, Calif.
  • David Sabbagh, beverage innovation lead, DuPont Nutrition & Health