Tapping on the functional food trend, Muscle Mac stands out in the protein crowd

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Protein bars, protein water, and now… protein pasta? Meet Muscle Mac

Related tags: Nutrition

There’s a plethora of protein powders, protein shakes, protein bars, and even protein water. Protein is obviously popular among consumers, so how do you stand out in the crowd? For Pennsylvania-based Quality Pasta Company, the answer was protein pasta.

Quality Pasta started in 2014, when the company took over and updated a vacant facility. A big part of the company is contract manufacturing and private label, but their own brand, which includes protein-rich Muscle Mac​, is a “significant, growing piece of our business,”​ Paul DeStefano, president of Quality Pasta, told NutraIngredients-USA.

Muscle Mac’s blue and yellow package design, along with its microwaveable cup and box formats, makes it fit in with the other products in the mac and cheese category.

But it stands out with its red circle boasting 20 g of protein per serving on its packaging.

For comparison, we took a look at two other ubiquitous mac and cheese microwaveable cups: Annie’s Homegrown​ Classic Mild Cheddar Microwavable Mac & Cheese Cup and Kraft​ Microwaveable Macaroni & Cheese Original Flavor.

Annie’s’ cups are 57 g per serving with 7 g of protein, while Kraft’s are 58 g per serving with 6 g of protein. Muscle Mac’s cups have nearly double the serving size—at 102 g per cup—with 20 g of protein. By percentage, Muscle Mac beats out the two with 20% protein per serving (Annie’s made up 12% and Kraft 10%).

Serving the sports nutrition set

Muscle Mac may have larger serving sizes, and hence, more calories, but it fits the mindset of the company’s target audience.

“Our target audiences are consumers with active lifestyles, busy families seeking better meal solutions, and people conscious of what they are eating,” ​DeStefano said. “The larger serving size is also reasonable for active people, students, and athletes who burn off calories in their busy day. We meet their activities and efforts with a great balance of protein and carbs.”

Protein has been in high demand for the past few years, with no signs of slowing down just yet. According to Mintel, a market research firm, 25% of US consumers say protein is their ideal ingredient​ for fortifying their favorite products. The market is expected to reach $43 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insight.

DeStefano explained that, initially, the product’s target audience was active families, especially those with athletic children. But they found that even active adults sans children were buying the product.

“The hardcore athlete ​[we] think has really responded well to Muscle Mac especially in our markets of GNC and Vitamin Shoppe—even if they’re completely lean and won’t usually eat mac and cheese.”

According to DeStefano, the nutrition content helps Muscle Mac stand out from the other instant mac and cheese products on the market “that are really just ‘snacks’ of ‘inexpensive side dishes.’”

“Think of it this way, a serving of Muscle Mac and a vegetable or well-made salad is a whole meal with balance at a terrific value,”​ he continued. “We provide enough protein to literally replace the meat and this brings a value few other foods can touch. This is one reason we are the first mac and cheese to cross-over to the sports nutrition category.”

Distribution in the US, Canada, and beyond

Today, Muscle Mac can be found in around 8,000 stores in the US, including grocery stores like Publix, ShopRite, Jewel-Osco, H-E-B, and Meijer. Online, it is sold through Amazon, among other platforms. The products can also be found at supplement retailers like GNC, Lucky Vitamin, and The Vitamin Shoppe.

In fact, in Canada, its distribution is primarily done through dietary supplement and sports nutrition channels such as Popeye’s and SupplementSource.Ca.

Outside of North America, Muscle Mac can be found in Middle Eastern countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Egypt, thanks to an exclusive distribution agreement, tapping into the region’s increased interest in an active lifestyle, DeStefano said.

How did consumers choose from the plethora of protein snacks and beverages in 2017?

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Protein remains a key product attribute that keeps bringing in consumer dollars.

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Photo: Getty Images / Mel-Nik.

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Pea protein isolate and whey

To fortify the product with protein, the pasta contains pea protein isolate. “It’s worked out extremely well,”​ DeStefano said. “It’s also a very potent protein and well-received protein. It really enhances the pasta.”

Protein was also added through the use of “higher amounts of real cheese” ​and whey in the seasoning mix.

“It all comes together in a beautiful form where you don’t really taste the grittiness or vegetable-nature of the proteins. But we’re able to add a significant amount of protein to 20 g of protein per serving, and that’s significant enough that you can label it high protein,”​ he added.

The route to market

The product first came to market in 2016, after a company brainstorming session. The question they wanted to address, DeStefano recalled, was “how do we supply innovation in macaroni and cheese, which is a category that’s often subject to really how cheap people can make it?”

Not long after its launch, they picked up a big account. “Our initial customer was Publix of all places. They took in Muscle Mac quickly, stating that they hadn’t seen innovation like that in any macaroni and cheese business that they’ve been aware of. So we were pleased to have Publix as our first retail customer.”

“We’re not General Mills, we’re not Kraft, so we don’t have armies of people and coffers full of money to do national ads. So we had to really work at it, go account-by-account, negotiate each deal as best we could to get on shelf,”​ he said.

“Sure we want to be everywhere and we’re doing our best to be presented everywhere, but we’re happy with the results we’ve gotten so far. In 2018, we’re hoping to get on more-and-more shelves.”

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