Protein’s popularity continues to defy gravity. And with today’s health and wellness trends being what they are, the macronutrient’s prospects will likely remain lofty for some time. A recent report from San Francisco-based Grandview Research valued the global protein ingredients market at a healthy $29.42 billion in 2018, and it predicted a 7.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the category between 2019 and 2025.

But protein didn’t reach these heights by accident; an astounding amount of research and development (R&D), technical innovation and old-fashioned science helped make the latest generation of protein ingredients marvels of functionality and nutrition.

Looking back at how far we’ve come, it’s tempting to identify a defining moment or innovation that pushed protein around the bend. But as Alison Pomaville, ingredient application scientist, BI Nutraceuticals, Rancho Dominguez, Calif., suggested, that might be missing the point.

“So much has happened with protein in the past 10 years that it’s hard to pick a specific turning point,” she said. “What’s important is that more protein options give manufacturers added flexibility to develop products for different audiences. From plant-based proteins like pea, lentil and pumpkin seed to grass-fed whey and collagen, high-quality protein ingredients can add nutrition and draw in new consumers.”


Health halo

To get a firmer grip on just what draws them, Cargill, Minneapolis, surveyed more than 1,900 American grocery shoppers in 2018. The company found that one in four believed more protein in the diet is always better, while six in 10 were at least somewhat likely to check ingredient statements for protein.

“In general, protein has a strong health halo, with more than half of consumers reporting to seek it for its health value and energy benefits, and nearly half also associating it with satiety and building muscle,” said Matthew Jacobs, global product line leader for plant proteins at Cargill.

Those associations reflect consumers’ new savvy, as shoppers haven’t always considered satiety or muscle anabolism when making grocery lists. But a broadening appreciation for protein’s benefits has attracted new demographics ranging from women and mature adults to endurance athletes, said Lindsey Ormond, director of nutrition and research, Milk Specialties Global, Eden Prairie, Minn.

“They’re reshaping the products, channels and communication around protein,” she said.


Protein in the mainstream

“One of the key milestones in the evolution of protein-fortified foods and beverages has been the phenomenal market growth outside the traditional sports-performance segment into the more mainstream ‘healthier-lifestyle’ consumer,” said Maurice O’Sullivan, director, R&D, proteins for Kerry in Naas, Ireland.

That mainstreaming of audience has precipitated a mainstreaming of applications. The result, O’Sullivan said, has been “a transition of protein from traditional ready-to-mix powders and shakes to everyday products such as protein water, juices, indulgent snack bars and even ice cream.”

Such a transition couldn’t have occurred without the work of ingredient developers and formulation scientists.

“The wide expansion of applications was possible because of functional proteins designed to provide unique attributes, and also because application teams and development houses continually push the boundaries of what’s possible,” said Steve Adolphson, research manager, Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago.


Plant revolution

One boundary that’s been nearly obliterated was the resistance a meat-and-potatoes nation put up against protein from plants. But as consumers seek ever more protein, they’re willing to get it from a widening variety of sources — including plants.

Jacobs places plant-based proteins at the “epicenter” of protein’s popularity, citing findings from Indian market research firm Mordor Intelligence that the global plant protein market will hit $9.5 billion by 2024, representing a CAGR of 7% during the forecast period.

In Cargill’s own survey, nearly half of respondents ranked protein type as very important, Jacobs added, especially when cutting back on animal-based foods, looking for “clean” labels and demanding proteins with a smaller footprint.

Jon Getzinger, chief marketing officer, Puris, Minneapolis, agreed that there’s consumer demand for sustainability.

“There’s real interest in proteins that don’t impact animal welfare, don’t have negative consequences on the soil and environment, and are traceable at every step of their journey,” he said.

Mission-based products, therefore, sell.

Plant proteins “touch on the sustainability and green trends” animating consumers, Pomaville pointed out, while improved processing technology “has made it easier for suppliers to produce these proteins from newer, popular sources like beans, lentils and peas.”

Samantha Ford, business development director for AIDP, City of Industry, Calif., agreed.

“Rice and pea have been plant-protein mainstays,” she said, “but we’re getting many requests for unique sources such as pumpkin seed and mung bean. Consumers are still interested in new and innovative options, and in the next few years, we’ll see the number of plant proteins expand as demand for plant protein grows.”

Demand also is expected to increase as the cost curve bends downward.

“As plant-protein manufacturing becomes more efficient and more supply enters the market, they’re simply becoming cheaper, and the market is far less volatile compared to dairy,” noted Michael Sutich, proteins product manager for Farbest Brands, Park Ridge, N.J.


Pea power

The infrastructure for growing and processing plant proteins is worlds beyond where it was a decade ago, but suppliers are still smoothing out the rough edges — and taming the properties that held plant proteins back.

“New processing methods have greatly improved the flavor, texture and solubility of many plant proteins,” Ford said. “This, coupled with new plant sources and options, make plant proteins a very competitive option for a diverse array of applications.”

While soy long ruled the plant-protein space, Indian market research firm MarketsandMarkets anticipates a $34.8 million domestic market for pea protein by 2020, with applications ranging from beverages and nutritional supplements to dairy alternatives and snacks.

Indeed, Melissa Machen, senior protein technical service specialist for Cargill, believes pea protein “has come a long way in the past 10 years, improving in-application functional properties such as solubility, mouthfeel and stability.”

One area where it’s historically fallen short, however, is flavor. But new options are tackling that challenge as well. Puris specially selects yellow pea seed varieties for its Puris pea protein — the product of the company’s partnership with Cargill — for minimal off-flavors. Further, said Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist for Cargill, hexane-free processing “brings out the best flavor possible.”

The ingredient’s relatively high solubility helps it remain suspended in beverage formulations, and Addington noted that it’s especially well-suited to neutral beverages.

“Neutral-pH beverages like alternative milks, protein powders and ready-to-drink meal replacements typically have a pH close to 7.0 — far above pea protein’s isoelectric point, which ranges from 4.5 to 5,” Addington explained.

The farther a beverage’s pH is from a protein’s isoelectric point, the better the protein remains in suspension.

But demand for protein in applications such as juices has put a premium on options that remain soluble — and clear — in low-pH environments, too. In response, O’Sullivan said, Kerry developed a clean-tasting, fully soluble pea-protein hydrolysate for clear, low-viscosity, heat-stable, low-pH formulations.


Dairy still strong

Pea protein’s progress undeniably impresses. But there’s room for improvement.

“Despite major advances in the taste and functionality of plant-based proteins,” Getzinger said, “there’s still work to be done.”

For that reason (and many more), product developers should continue giving thanks for dairy proteins, and for the major advances in taste and functionality thereof, too.

“Technological innovations in dairy ingredients have supported a major diversification of applications,” observed Anne Louise Friis, sales development manager, health and performance for Arla Foods Ingredients, a subsidiary of Viby, Denmark-headquartered Arla Foods. “They’ve increased the functionality of the protein, allowing for high-protein versions of a wide range of popular applications, including puddings, desserts, ice creams and yogurts.”

Dairy and dairy-plant protein combinations account for nearly 80% of ready-to-drink and ready-to-market protein beverage sales in Chicago-based SPINS’ multi-outlet and convenience channels (protein supplements and meal replacements, weight management, performance nutrition and functional beverages, 52 weeks ending Dec. 30, 2018), noted Max Maxwell, manager, market intelligence for Glanbia.

“Consumers and marketers may be fascinated by plant-based proteins and trending diets like vegan, paleo and keto,” he said. “But most of the proteins they’re buying are dairy-based.”


A better whey

In fact, the technical innovations now improving dairy proteins are neck-and-neck with those shaping plant-based ones, and that’s given formulators even more tools for their kits.

“I definitely believe that as we’ve learned more about the process of making dairy ingredients, we’ve been able to refine them to improve their sensory profiles, functionality and specific beneficial attributes,” said Ermel Manuel, technical sales support manager, adult nutrition for FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America Inc., Paramus, N.J.

Consider the advances in whey.

“Whey protein has improved greatly in solubility, taste and stability due to improvements and efficiencies in manufacturing and processing,” noted Sudarshan Nadathur, chief flavorist, dairy for ADM Nutrition, Decatur, Ill.

Citing data from Innova Market Insights, Terri Rexroat, vice president, global ingredient marketing for the Arlington, Va.-based U.S. Dairy Export Council, said that 2017 marked a record number of new product launches with whey protein — an increase of 6.6% over 2016. More than half of those launches were outside the No. 1 sports-nutrition category, too, which she said reflects the versatility of whey protein in terms of end-use applications.

The development of whey proteins that remain stable and clear in lower-pH systems — again, think juices and waters — is bringing these proteins to more applications.

“The challenge industry faced was innovating proteins that could be placed into solution in these systems and appear clear, or moderately clear, so that they can be colored and flavored easily,” explained Nancy Kraus, vice president with AMCO Proteins, Burlington, N.J. “Having dairy proteins that behave in low-pH systems opened up new product spaces like energy shots, protein waters and even protein-fortified sodas.”

Manuel believes that a deeper understanding of filtration has improved how processors extract dairy proteins, even allowing for the extraction of whey protein concentrate directly from milk as opposed to from cheese as a byproduct. His company’s Nutri Whey Native whey protein concentrate is produced directly from fresh milk using ceramic microfiltration, which he describes as “a gentle process” that maintains the protein structure.

“These native proteins tend to have a higher leucine content, which is important to triggering and signaling protein synthesis,” he said.


Getting bioactive

The ability to hydrolyze whey protein at commercial scale “opened the door” to further innovation, including not just whey-protein hydrolysates, but also bioactive whey peptides with unique application functionality, noted Corbin Hohl, a research scientist at Glanbia.

“This success paved the way for continued research and development, optimizing other proteins for the modern market and consumer, both of which are searching for innovation and functionality,” he said.

Bioactive peptide fractions show particular potential in nutraceutical formulations, Krauss said.

“Whey protein hydrolysates and components have been medically shown to be cardioprotective, strong antioxidants, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, immunomodulatory and even neuroprotective — on top of the already well-known science demonstrating muscle anabolism,” she noted.


Modern technology

O’Sullivan points to membrane separation technology as a dairy-protein milestone.

“At present, it’s widely used to provide more environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and sustainable options for the concentration, fractionation and purification of value-added protein ingredients from milk and milk-processing side streams,” he explained.

And as the technology evolves, he foresees the introduction of sophisticated techniques such as charged membranes and forward osmosis — advances that should translate into more efficient production processes, as well as more differentiated dairy proteins.

Quill Merrill, principal scientist, dairy applications for DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, New Century, Kan., has long been bullish on milk protein fractionation, recalling a university lecture on the topic 30 years ago predicting that the process someday would be “as common as separating cream from milk.” Now it is, making possible the development of a wide range of dairy products that take advantage of the many existing protein fractions.

A marquee example: Greek-style yogurt, which uses fermentation and mechanical separation to create a high-protein, high-casein product that’s “revolutionized the yogurt industry,” Merrill said. He believes ingredients derived from fractionation “set the stage for the future.”

Friis is equally bullish on protein’s prospects — and not just in dairy.

“It’s not about plant versus animal protein,” she insisted. “There’s plenty of space in the market for both. Technological innovation will mean the arrival of new, great-tasting ingredients. They’ll be easy to flavor and to include in a range of applications, allowing manufacturers to offer new great-tasting, high-protein products.”