Sharon Gerdes
Sharon Gerdes is a certified food scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at

Whey continues to be the protein of choice in a broad range of consumer products for infants, athletes, and seniors. And despite competition from plant protein ingredients, whey protein still commands the lion’s share of consumer dollars.

“Whether it’s SPINS’ MULO data or ClearCut Analytics Amazon data, whey protein powder continues to hold protein source market leadership at about one-third share. ‘Whey is still the undisputed king of protein powders because even with its market leadership, it also had the strongest year-over-year growth on the most important VMS (vitamins, minerals, supplements) retailer Amazon,” says Joshua Schall, functional consumer packed good (CPG) strategist for J Schall Consulting.

Protein innovation in drinkable yogurts, protein bars

Whey protein, with superior nutrition and taste, is often the protein of choice to fortify traditional consumer products. A great example is the new Snickers Hi Protein Bar with 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of total sugar. This bar touts “The nutritional profile you expect and the taste you’ve always wanted.”

Dairy Foods reached out to some of the major whey protein suppliers for updates on their innovations — functional ingredients that add protein to dairy products. 

“A growing area of interest is the use of whey proteins in drinkable yogurts. In addition to standard whey protein concentrates and isolates, Agropur offers heat-stable proteins that can go through pasteurization and fermentation without negative impact on taste and texture of the drinkable yogurts. Agropur’s talented food scientists have helped launch commercial protein waters that use varying levels of whey protein,” states Peggy Ponce, Ph.D., director of product innovation at Agropur, Saint-Hubert, Longueuil, Canada

“Last year, Fonterra’s NZMP launched Pro-Optima, a Grade A functional whey protein concentrate that enables unrivaled protein enhancement in cultured products, unlocking a range of textures suitable for various applications. Pro-Optima meets the wellness needs of health-conscious consumers by creating new product formats and adding nutritional value to existing products,” mentions Megan Patterson, Fonterra America’s marketing communication manager.

Additionally, Chicago-based Glanbia Nutritionals recently introduced FerriUp, an advanced whey protein ingredient that provides a strong nutrient foundation for active women, a group that may experience depleted iron and energy levels.

 “FerriUp contains abundant levels of lactoferrin and vitamin B12, and delivers 80% dairy protein. The combination of lactoferrin, B12, and protein supports iron modulation, energy levels, and immune health,” explains Eric Borchardt, director of corporate marketing for Glanbia Nutritionals. “Women who participate in strenuous athletic activities could experience low energy from iron deficiency. Lactoferrin has been shown to help retain higher levels of red blood cells in active females, and it supports the utilization and balance of iron in the body. It’s important to maintain vitamin B12 levels, as a deficiency can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of balance, which may lead to a decrease in athletic performance.” FerriUp also is instantized, making it ideal for use in ready-to-mix powders,” Borchardt adds.

Another way to innovate with whey protein is to pair it with another ingredient that boosts its effect. New York-based Nutrition 21 offers the patented Velositol, a blend of amylopectin and chromium that when combined with whey protein has been clinically shown to improve muscle protein synthesis, as well as muscular strength and endurance — even better than protein alone, the company says.

 “In a clinical study published in 2021, the impact of Velositol on muscular strength in healthy trained adults was evaluated. Relative to protein alone, the addition of Velositol significantly increased muscle endurance in squat reps to failure, improved muscle strength by enhancing one-rep maximum squats, and increased muscular power by improving vertical jump height,” notes Katie Emerson, MS, RD, LDN, Nutrition 21’s manager of scientific affairs.

 Velositol can be used in supplements and has self-affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status and works well in protein drinks, ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages and powder, and energy and protein bars, Emerson says. 

Plant-based options resonate

In the plant-protein category, soy remains a strong player due to its nutritional profile, but pea is the most sought after plant protein, according to experts. Other plant protein sources include potato, canola, oat, algae, sunflower, lupin, faba bean, chickpea, and ancient grains like amaranth and sorghum.

Off tastes and incomplete nutritional profiles hinder usage of these protein sources. However, blending plant proteins can improve solubility and protein quality. Precision fermentation also may create novel proteins from plant sources that can compete in a demanding marketplace.

Today, there are more options for protein fortification than during any other time in history. “When it comes to product innovation in 2023, it’s imperative companies keep in mind that having a great product is only the entry to compete in the market. Understanding that ‘everything is mostly the same, but can be distinctly unique too’ should provide motivation to focus on what memorable user experience you are creating and why that's powerful,” J Schall Consulting’s Schall concludes. “The endless aisle age can be a daunting competitive landscape, but it all starts with being strategically aligned to a narrative so you don't get lost in the shuffle.”