Despite their dietary differences, dairy-eaters, flexitarians and vegans share a commonality: paying attention to the amount of protein they consume.

As consumers continue to focus on eating healthy, protein’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, in 2019, 74% of U.S. households purchased products that claim to be an “excellent source of protein” at least once a month, says Lindsey Ormond, director of nutrition and research for Milk Specialties Global (MSG), Eden Prairie, Minn. She cites data from Nielsen Homescan for the 52 weeks ending Sept. 28, 2019.

The protein-watching trend includes flexitarians, notes John Powers, director of marketing for Chicago-based ADM.

“Protein is paramount to the flexitarian lifestyle — 76% of flexitarians believe it is very important to include protein in their diet,” he says, referring to ADM’s OutsideVoice research.

However, not all proteins are created equal. Dairy proteins have been the “gold standard” for years, says Michael Sutich, manager of product lines for Farbest Brands, Park Ridge, N.J., due to their taste, protein content and functionality.

“Dairy proteins have been there forever, and a lot of the functionality and attributes they bring into dairy applications are very well known,” explains Ivan Gonzales, marketing director for Westchester, Ill.-based Ingredion Incorporated.

The attributes of the wide range of nondairy protein options, on the other hand, are just now beginning to be understood. And many of these plant-based options have historically contributed flavor, textural and solubility problems. Ingredients suppliers are currently trying to create better plant-based proteins to fix some of these issues.

“Dairy proteins have been studied for many years; however, there is much to learn about the processing and functionality of plant proteins,” says Brian Riesterer, manager for dairy innovation at First Choice Ingredients, Germantown. Wis. “Each plant variety has a unique set of challenges, not only from a flavor [perspective], but they [also] have unique functional aspects.”


More protein, please

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but tell that to dairy protein suppliers, which have found many ways to improve on established dairy protein ingredients of the past. One area of improvement is creating whey proteins that can be added at higher levels to meet consumer demand for high-protein products.

But adding increased amounts of protein to make a label claim can cause formulation problems, notes Anne Sinha, director of global protein segment marketing, CP Kelco, Atlanta.

“If a formulator is adding more protein or probiotic cultures to boost nutritional content, there can be protein aggregation, syneresis, sedimentation and loss of viscosity,” she explains.

CP Kelco created solutions in the form of pectin, carrageenan and gellan gum that can help reduce protein aggregation. The ingredients can be pasteurized with milk so no additional processing is necessary.

Pectin, which is mostly derived from citrus peels, “protects and stabilizes protein while minimizing sediment and serum separation,” explains Sinha. It also has the added benefit of being recognizable to consumers.

Meanwhile, carrageenan helps create rich, indulgent textures by interacting with milk casein to stabilize protein.

“It [also] provides uniform suspension of cocoa and minimizes fat creaming in chocolate milk. It is suitable for use in retorted milk drinks, HTST (high-temperature/short-time) and batch pasteurization processes,” says Sinha.

And gellan gum, a soluble fiber, provides suspension of insoluble protein, calcium, minerals and cocoa, adds Sinha. It contributes minimal mouthfeel in dairy and nondairy beverage formulation.

For its part, Chicago-based Glanbia Nutritionals launched whey proteins that can be added at higher levels, says Vicky Fligel, senior product manager. One offering is OptiSol 1007 — a heat-stable whey protein that provides stabilization properties in ready-to-drink beverages.

“The problem this ingredient solves is age gelation and sedimentation specifically in beverages. It also allows for higher protein levels,” she adds.

Glanbia also offers OptiSol 1005, a heat-stable whey for acidic formulations such as smoothies, yogurts, ambient yogurts and gels.

“The ingredient helps push the protein limits, as well as broadens processing capabilities for shelf-stable products,” says Fligel.

Dairy processors aren’t just looking to add more protein; they’re also looking for better protein that offers even more nutritional claims, says Ormond. And MSG recently added NutriPRO, a range of whey protein ingredients with superior health benefits, to its product portfolio.

This range includes NutriPRO AlphaLac-Rich whey protein isolate. It “provides all the essential amino acids and quality expected from whey protein, but with a naturally occurring higher level of the essential amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, which has positive effects on sleep, well-being and happiness,” Ormond explains.

NutriPRO AlphaLac-Rich has shown to be an effective choice for overnight recovery, as it has high levels of branch-chained amino acids such as leucine that promote muscle growth and repair.

The NutriPRO line also includes NutriPRO Lactoferrin-Rich whey protein concentrate. This ingredient has a higher level of lactoferrin, which has been shown to support healthy immune systems, notes Ormond.


‘Free-from’ claims

Products that are “free-from” certain types of ingredients such as GMOs and allergens are one of the most significant consumer trends right now. According to Sutich, Farbest’s dairy processor customers currently are “trying to make dairy fit into the claim-based and free-from trends.” He’s observed the popularity of lactose-free and non-GMO products, as well as a renewed interest in other label claims such as products made with grass-fed dairy.

“We are seeing better versions of whey protein enter the market,” he says. “There are a lot of very high-protein native whey protein isolates that are starting to be offered from grass-fed sources.”

In response to consumer’s free-from demands, Paramus, N.J.-based FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America created the Excellion caseinate range, which is designed for lactose-free or low-lactose products, says Jessica Arnaly, marketing specialist. The caseinates have the added benefit of being Non-GMO Project Verified, as many consumers also are interested in this label claim. The company’s Nutri Whey Native also is Non-GMO Project Verified.

According to Arnaly, consumers’ interest in products free from GMOs is an extension of their sustainability concerns. They are looking for products that they know are ethically sourced and good for the environment.  

“Transparency is key. Consumers want to know more about a product’s journey — what was the starting ingredient, where it came from, what type of processing it went through,” she adds. "They look for more gently processed and pure solutions.”

Arnaly says FrieslandCampina’s latest product launches, Nutri Whey Native and Nutri Whey Isolate, “respond to this increasing consumer need.” Nutri Whey Native is derived from FrieslandCampina’s own high-quality milk, and Nutri Whey Isolate is made from high-quality whey from Dutch-style cheeses.

An extension of free-from claims is the continued popularity of clean-label products made with ingredients customers recognize. This is especially relevant with nondairy proteins, as dairy proteins are inherently simple and label-friendly.

“Dairy proteins are minimally processed using no harsh chemicals and have traceable sources,” says Ormond.

In the nondairy protein world, Riesterer says single-sourced proteins such as “soy, pea protein or hemp isolate” are perceived as “cleaner” because they contain fewer added ingredients. 

Sutich says that he’s also seen plant-based protein providers working with novel proteins to make ingredient lists shorter.

“Our partner in chickpea protein has done research and development work where they have taken an ingredient list for a vegan nondairy frozen dessert from 20-plus ingredients and reduced it to six ingredients with the use of chickpea,” he adds.


Protein blends

There’s no denying that plant-based proteins are giving dairy ones a run for their money. ADM’s OutsideVoice research found that 50% of consumers are consciously eating plant-based proteins, says Powers. Of those, 42% identify as flexitarians.

“This movement is literally driving the industry towards incorporating more and more non-animal-based proteins in both dairy and nondairy products,” says Asim Syed, food lab director, Brenntag North America, Allentown, Pa.

Within the new flexitarian space are an emerging group of products that combine dairy and nondairy proteins. These products offer “the best of both worlds” and can help breathe life into established brands, says Sinha.

Gonzales says he thinks most consumers choose either a dairy or a nondairy product, but blended products could serve to convince skeptical consumers to try more nondairy offerings.

“We did research with consumers asking if they’d consume pea ‘milk,’ pea ‘yogurt,’ etc.,” he recounts. “The group of consumers more conservative with their diets were more reluctant to give nondairy a try. But if it’s a mix [of the proteins], their willingness to try went up a lot.”


Plant-based problems

Even if vegans and flexitarians are driving the usage of more nondairy proteins, processors cannot just produce a “trendy” dairy-free or blended product and assume it will be a success. Taste and texture ultimately drive repeat purchase, says Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist, Cargill, Wayzata, Minn. And nondairy proteins often incur flavor and textural problems.

“Most dairy processors are looking to expand their portfolio into the dairy-alternative space, but given the complexities, they’re looking to their suppliers for processing and formulation guidance,” she says. “Some of the common challenges include taste, texture and solubility.”

On the flavor front, nondairy proteins can create astringent or bitter flavor profiles, says Addington. Finding a neutral-flavored protein such as Cargill’s PURIS line of pea protein ingredients can help address these problems.

“While most pea proteins bring along a host of flavor issues, PURIS pea protein is unique in the marketplace. It’s sourced from yellow pea seed varieties specially selected to minimize the off-flavors normally attributed to pulses,” says Addington. “In addition, it’s processed without the use of hexanes to bring out the best flavor possible.”

According to Gonzales, flavor problems related to nondairy proteins often become more extreme if processors want to add more protein to meet consumer demands. In response, Ingredion is introducing a “clean-taste” version of its proteins.

“It’s a process we are implementing in our facilities that helps to remove some of the grassy/beany flavors from the protein,” he explains. “For example, in yogurts or milks because [the new proteins] have less taste impact, it means companies can use more of them to increase protein content to next level.”

And ADM is investing in improving its soy and pea proteins to overcome taste challenges and enable novel applications, says Sudarshan Nadathur, chief flavorist, dairy and protein for ADM.

“Our goal is to help brands deliver plant-based products that exceed customer expectations regarding taste, texture and variety,” he continues. “In addition to soy and pea proteins, ADM offers a variety of bean powders and ancient grain ingredients that add texture and nutritional value to products.”

Texture is another major issue with nondairy product formulation, explains Addington, as milkfat provides much of the mouthfeel associated with dairy products.

“When formulating dairy alternatives, product developers must rely on texturizers to build back the creamy, rich mouthfeel consumers expect. Ingredients such as native starches, chicory root fiber and pectins can help,” she explains. “These label-friendly ingredients also provide functionalities such as stability, mouthfeel enhancement and syneresis control, while standing up to the harsh processing parameters that often exist in nondairy applications.”

While nondairy ingredient suppliers are working to better understand plant proteins’ functionality, they’ve made great headway in solving for some of the more pressing problems.

“As we’ve learned more about the functionality and nutritional attributes of various plant proteins, it’s allowed us to significantly improve plant-based applications,” says Addington. “With a greater understanding of the molecular structure and chemistry of plant proteins, we can work with them in ways that are ideal for their inherent physical make-up.”

Gonzales says he also is excited about the future of plant-based proteins with all the research currently being done on their unique attributes.

“It will be really interesting to see where we are in five years’ time,” he adds.