Miss Muffet Broadens Her Palate

By Jeffrey Klineman

She was eating curds and whey back in the day, but Little Miss Muffet might look past milk the next time she’s searching for her protein boost.

Advances in protein technology, rising raw materials costs, and lifestyle changes have combined with an overall upsurge in demand to create a broader set of proteins used in beverage than those derived solely from whey, the popular milk-based protein.

“Whey is still the most sought-after protein,” said Patrick Michael, who is the business development manager for beverage for Glanbia, a protein manufacturer. “But industrywide, soy has become fairly prominent, as have plant proteins.”

According to Michael, while proteins made from whey (about 80 percent) and even milk powder (20 percent) comprised almost the entire category a decade ago, the mix is now about 60 percent whey, 40 percent a mix of soy, hemp, flax, and other “ancient grains” and plants, including pea protein and even algae.

Meanwhile, with the building block nutrient’s popularity increasing due to increased emphasis on satiety and high-protein diets, high protein beverage launches are through the roof: they are up 37 percent since 2008, according to a report by the product tracking firm Mintel, which also identified snacks and beverages as the two leading categories driving consumer demand for products with extra protein. Meanwhile, protein-heavy weight control and nutrition beverage categories continue to roll up sales, nearing $2.75 billion in the past year, according to Symphony/IRI Group numbers – and that doesn’t include protein-rich shakes and smoothies from companies like Odwalla, Bolthouse and Naked.

Accompanying that demand, however, has been an increase in the cost of whey protein. The protein type has long been valued because of its digestibility and quick absorption, but it’s become even more popular as technology has advanced manufacturer capabilities for incorporating proteins into tastier, less chalky beverages.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Michael said. “It’s kind of a cop-out answer, but what’s been happening is a great and greater demand for protein from consumers has created better technology for the use of proteins.”

But protein sources aren’t broadening to include soy or grains only due to whey demand; changes in lifestyle that cut out animal proteins are also driving suppliers to come up with new sources of this ingredient. Launches of products boasting plant-based proteins increased 54 percent from 2008 to 2012, largely due to increased vegan and vegetarian diets. From larger brands like Sambazon, which uses hemp protein to bolster its protein count, to smaller startups like Botan, which deploys green pea protein powder as a muscle-building source, there are an increasing number of plant-based proteins aiming for the 30 million-plus U.S. vegetarians.

“The demand for non-animal-based protein, the reason we’re into fractionating flax, delivering a flax protein concentrate, the reason we’re living to see this variation, is that consumers are recognizing the benefit of protein, they want to put it into their diet,” Michael said.