While protein has its roots in foods such as chicken, eggs and almonds, growing consumer demand has lead to its emergence in a host of new places, some of them unusual and unexpected.
Protein, which is an essential building block for the body found in everything from hair and muscle to enzymes and antibodies, is increasingly being included in chips, shakes, ice cream and even candy. Research and Markets estimated the global protein ingredients market could reach $48.77 billion in 2025.
The demand for protein has made its way into a variety of foods, but arguably none more than the plant-based space where "meats" from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and yogurts from companies like Ripple Foods, have populated grocery store shelves and forced their traditional competitors to take notice.
Ripple has created its own pea-based protein that the company claims is tasteless and contains more protein than traditional yogurt or other plant-based options.
“Protein is more linked with fashionable eating habits than with an actual health benefit, or to cover a deficit of this macronutrient in our diet.”
Senior analyst, Euromonitor
Sales of plant-based meat alternatives rose 24% in the past year to $670 million, according to Bloomberg, citing data from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association. The current U.S. protein market represents $16 billion in annual sales.
"Plant-based protein is a crowded space overall," Adam Lowry, co-founder and co-CEO of Ripple told Food Dive "It's where growth is and there's literally no growth in traditional food space."
Is the protein trend meant to last?
The popularity of protein started gaining momentum with diets such as the Atkins and Paleo. Nutritional recommendations for protein are included in most diets, but they don't recommend adding beyond what is naturally included in the food itself.
“Protein is more linked with fashionable eating habits than with an actual health benefit, or to cover a deficit of this macronutrient in our diet,” Maria Mascaraque, a senior analyst at Euromonitor, told Food Dive.
Even though the protein craze is popular now, she said it's most likely to stick around for another five years.
The demand for protein is related to an increase in consumers trying to live a healthy lifestyle that still want to stay full, as well as individuals active in sports and fitness that use protein to rebuild muscle, Mascaraque said. The exercise gurus have the best chance of maintaining longevity of the trend once its popularity among the average consumer starts to wane.
According to a Euromonitor study, most consumers who are trying to increase their protein intake are millennials. This generation is searching for alternative options like convenient snack products that fit into their on-the-go lifestyle. Millennial diets are more about a well-balanced meal anchored by protein rather than dietary restrictions, according to a Future Cast research report.
Protein snacks on the market
The snacking category, already valued at roughly $89 billion, is growing at a compound annual growth rate of almost 3%, according to IRI. Datassential estimates consumers are eating four to five snack foods a day.
This has created a bevy of opportunities for protein to grab a larger share of the market. Snacks enriched with protein are being viewed as a way to keep hunger at bay, serve as a meal replacement and provide essential nutrients — especially for consumers looking for protein from sources other than meat and dairy. Among the companies to benefit include thinkThin snack cakes, RXBAR bar and Halo Top ice cream.
“Halo Top has taken market share by proving that consumers can have it all — taste, indulgence, and health,” Patty Johnson, a Mintel food and drink analyst, told Food Navigator. Founded in 2012, Halo Top’s sales have sky-rocketed. It sold more than 17 million pints in 2016, and is now the #1 selling pint of ice cream in the U.S., beating out iconic brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers.
Andy Harrow, president of Protein2o, told Food Dive his company created a water to deliver protein to consumers in a more refreshing way. Most protein beverages on the market have a milky consistency due to the pH levels and manufacturing techniques, he said. One advantage of protein water is that it allows people to consume small amounts of it throughout the day at their convenience, just like a protein bar or snack cake would.
"Most protein is either coming in a chalky form or in a edible form or in a highly caloric form. We defy all of those things by being refreshing and low calorie at the same time," Harrow said.
As consumers stray away from sugar-heavy soft drinks with artificial flavorings for health concerns, they are looking for alternative options. The sweetness in Protein2o, for example, comes from sucralose. The product also contains a special, water-soluble protein to make it clear and tasteless.
"The reason we use sucralose is because it creates sweetness, but it doesn't add any calories," Harrow said. "So all the calories come from protein."
Too much protein
Snacks, water and alcohol with protein in them have to be careful not to add too much of it or they risk upsetting the taste. Nutritionists also say too much protein isn't good either. It can lead to higher caloric intake and push out other nutritional foods that consumers should be eating like fruits and vegetables.
To achieve a healthy lifestyle, we only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight but the average adult consumes about 100 grams of protein a day.
Health experts emphasize that people should consume more protein in the morning than in the evening to reap the most benefits. The human body breaks down protein while we sleep, which leads to muscle loss, Donald Layman, a professor at the University of Illinois, told NBC News. He said the body needs protein in the morning to regenerate. This explains the uptick in protein within the snack bar, cereal, yogurt and milk categories — all common breakfast foods.
The market for whey or soy protein-enriched packaged foods is expected to slow down. Mascaraque expects the trend to shift back to naturally occurring proteins found in products like nuts, peas, and grains.
This trend has already in some areas as many manufacturers who previously used whey protein have switched to using natural proteins amid the high demand for natural ingredients. Last year, Post Holdings launched its version “PowerBar Plant Protein” in the U.S. that features 10 grams of protein that come from cashews, almonds and peanuts. ThinkThin also launched a variety of snack bars that only contain plant proteins.
As larger food companies join the trend stoked by startups like Ripple, Halo Top, thinkThin and Protein2o, the market share for protein rich food will continue to grow.
"Big food companies have the advantage of tapping into the protein trend (or any other trend) through an easier access to sourcing, manufacturing and logistics versus a smaller company," Mascaraque said. "However, in the U.S., the dominance of the top players has been challenged in recent years by the growth of regional and independent companies."