Trend toward higher protein doses to continue, but big tubs will still rule, consultant says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Image © iStockPhoto
Image © iStockPhoto

Related tags Protein Amino acid

The trend toward high protein offerings shows no signs of losing steam. Innovation in protein sources and mixtures continues, but delivery mode innovation has not kept pace, at least not in the US market, said consultant Ralf Jaeger, PhD.

Jaeger, a principal in the Milwaukee, WI-based consulting firm Increnovo, spoke with NutraIngredients-USA about how the protein trend has affected product development in the supplement and cross over functional foods space. Protein is as old as food, of course, and can be found at physiologically relevant amounts in many food sources. Innovation in recent years has extended toward new protein sources for food and supplements beyond the mainstays of egg, whey and casein with a number of plant based sources such as pea and rice proteins taking taking center stage.

Growth to continue

“The protein market is a very strongly growing market. It is developing in the trend toward plant-based proteins which is bringing a whole new healthy/organic consumer base into the market,”​ Jaeger said.

Among the leaders in this trend has been sports nutrition brand Vega, which based its performance and recovery products on plant proteins from the brand’s inception. The company grew strongly enough to become an acquisition target, and in June announced a deal to sell itself to Whitewave Foods.

In addition to innovation in plant sources, there has been innovation in animal sources, too. There has never been much market for side stream proteins from meat animal production, as these usually yield low quality hydrolyzed collagen from byproducts such as hooves and bones. Despite a few offerings in the market based on powdered beef protein and the like, most consumers seem to prefer to consume meat protein as meat. But there has been significant innovation in marine protein sources. BlueWave, a company with processing plants in Peru, Ecuador, Spain, and Morocco​ has perfected a membrane screening approach over the past few years that allows it to offer high quality hydrolyzed fish protein. Similarly a newer player on the scene, Norwegian company Zymtech, has developed an enzymatic process to derive a suite of peptides branded as Amazate from the leftovers of salmon filet production. To date neither ingredient has made big inroads into the market for finished products.

Protein has always been a key macro nutrient but lately it has been targeted for more focused functional properties as well. Among these are its function in satiety, and its role in sports recovery, with hydration and energy drink manufacturers now starting to feature the ingredient in formulations specifically targeted for post-workout use.


Jaeger there is evidence to support both applications. But the satiety story is starting to fade, he said, because research seems to show that while satiety can in fact be promoted, whether that makes a difference is less clear.

“With regards to satiety there is significant proof that proteins can promote this, especially the slower absorbed proteins (casein is an example). Where the science is lacking is whether satiety even matters.  If you give people a serving of a slowly absorbed protein they will tell you they feel full. But if you then put them in front of a buffet, they tend to eat the same amount as they do without the protein,”​ Jaeger said.

Do larger doses equal bigger benefits?

The trend in recent years has been toward ever higher protein doses as formulators work out how to put 15 or 20 grams of protein into a bar or a beverage and still maintain an acceptable taste and mouthfeel. Servings of up to 30 grams are now common, but Jaeger said if the protein is being pushed for its functional properties, bigger isn’t always better.

“More than 20 grams at a sitting has been shown to no longer be useful for muscle synthesis. The excess protein tends to get burned as a food source,” ​he said.

And to achieve those functional properties some consumers are willing to take the protein as protein and little else. In this regard, the big tubs of powder still rule the protein roost, Jaeger said.

Have tub will travel

“The most classical form is protein powder and I think that will always be the no. 1 source for protein. There are gel shots and pouches, too. The pouches especially have been popular in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, but they haven’t caught on in the same way in the US market,” ​he said. 

Organoleptic properties continue to be an issue for the high protein offerings. For the core muscle builder community it is less of a hurdle, but the chalky mouthfeel that plagues high protein offerings can limit their appeal for the wider market. But Jaeger said formulators are making steady progress.

“The taste is improved and more people are willing to take it.  But for some of the protein powders, you really have to want to take it. If you are looking at the hardcore body builders they are willing to take anything they think will help their workouts so it has never been an issue for them,”​ he said.

Temptation to cut corners

Recently the issue of “protein spiking” came to a head within the sector, culminating in several trade associations issuing policies for their members to calculate the protein amounts in their products using tests that look for nitrogen specifically from protein. Other, cheaper ingredients were being used as nitrogen sources to artificially plump up these results. Jaeger said this trend is dying down rapidly.

“People were adding cheap amino acids and even non protein ingredients to fool these tests. I think there is less and less of that out there because of the class action suits that were filed. I think there has been a lot of education around those issues,”​ he said.

But the temptation to cut a corner somehow is there because quality proteins tend to be expensive. One way some manufacturers have gotten around this issue is to use large amounts of relatively inexpensive hydrolyzed collagen, which while it is perfectly legitimate from the protein test point of view, does little for the consumer because the protein itself is of such low quality, Jaeger said. It does have specific benefits in skin and joint health, but beyond that it doesn’t really do what a consumer would believe something called “protein” should, he said.

“We did studies with hydrolyzed collagen in joint health with great results. However, the protein quality on the PDCAAS scale is zero. So we regularly use the product in our studies as placebo, due to the low leucine content (approximately 3%, vs. 10-11% for whey protein, or approximately 8% for plant proteins) and the bad overall protein quality. Hydrolyzed collagen does not contain any cysteine or tryptophan,” ​Jaeger said.

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