By Geri Berdak and Jeff Zachwieja

More people are exercising today than in the past, and more than one billion additional total hours of exercise occur each year than in 2003. These stats help support a growing opportunity for dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt, as well as dairy ingredients, including whey protein, to highlight the sports performance benefits that dairy’s protein content and overall nutrient package offers.

Increased time spent on exercise and sporting activities are one example of how an increasing number of consumers are turning to a holistic approach to health and wellness. (Changes to weight management are another, which we discussed in "Powering dairy growth with protein: weight management").

For years, the nutritional quality of the diet, specifically the value of dietary protein, has commonly been associated with sports nutrition and performance. Athletes and many who live an active lifestyle and exercising regularly can reap benefits of higher protein diets, including muscle building and maintenance, improved body composition and exercise recovery.

Research shows that 36 percent of exercisers say they look for products that contain protein, and nearly a third of these active consumers would pay more for a product with added protein.

By communicating that dairy is a source of protein to sports-minded individuals, the industry is opening the door to a tremendous business opportunity to elevate the awareness of the essential nutrients such as the protein and calcium found in milk, cheese and yogurt products.

Learning from flavored milk and whey protein

While the protein marketplace for sports performance is huge, dairy foods are missing out. Only 12 percent of consumers recognize dairy products as sources of protein. However, two segments — flavored milk and whey protein—have paved the way for cheese and yogurt in the sports performance arena.

Thanks to science establishing that consuming flavored milk as part of a post-workout plan is an effective way to stimulate muscle recovery and replenish the body’s nutrient needs after exercise, the industry has begun to help consumers see milk in a whole new way.

At the same time, consuming whey protein in combination with resistance exercise has been shown to help athletes gain more lean muscle than resistance training alone.2 In fact, of consumers who are familiar with whey protein, 57 percent agree whey protein is good for you and 43 percent agree that whey protein is one of the highest quality proteins.

Not all proteins are equal

Dietary proteins vary according to their source. Though proteins are found naturally in animal foods and some plant foods, the amount and quality of protein differs. High-quality proteins, such as those found in milk, cheese and yogurt, provide all the essential amino acids the body can’t make on its own.

In fact, a newly recommended method for assessing protein quality, Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, is anticipated to further differentiate dairy products as high quality protein sources, adding to the growing body of research supporting the role of the protein found in milk, cheese and yogurt to help consumers achieve desired end benefits associated with sports performance.

Backed by sound science and a growing market of exercise-conscious consumers, we now have the momentum to evolve the dairy and protein conversation to one of protein quality and how the nutrient package offered by dairy products and ingredients meets a spectrum of sports performance needs.

By following the lead of flavored milk and whey protein, cheese and yogurt manufacturers have a significant opportunity to innovate and position their products as sources of high-quality protein.


  • Protein whitepaper, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy; 2013:28
  • Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, et al. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007; 292: E71-E76
  • DMI 2011 Protein Tracker Update
  • DRI brochure, 2013
  • DMI Whey Protein Tracker 2008