The protein market continues to be strong, and it comes as no surprise given its health halo. Consumer awareness about overall health and wellness has taken protein’s popularity beyond sports nutrition and weight management into the mainstream. Diet trends such as low carb, keto and paleo have expanded protein consumption even more into the mainstream audience. According to Nielsen, 55% of U.S. households state “high protein” is an important attribute considered when buying food for their households.
These factors have increased demand for both animal-based and plant-based protein, though we are seeing rapid growth in the plant-based segment. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey, while few survey participants stated they are following a plant-based diet, 34% stated they consume plant-based protein daily. Twenty-five percent also stated they eat more plant-based protein than they did a year ago. This is due to a multitude of reasons, including its association to health. In that survey, protein from plant sources remained in the top three for nutrients consumers perceive as healthy, with 70% agreement on this viewpoint. Animal protein, on the other hand, was only perceived as healthy by just over 30% of survey participants.
Another reason for the growth of plant proteins is the innovation happening within this segment; new sources of protein concentrates are frequently being launched. Soy is the first and most established plant-based protein concentrate, but consumers are trying to avoid it due to its GMO and allergen status. Ingredient suppliers are trying to meet this demand with pea and rice protein concentrates as the early entrants. However, other sources like legumes (faba beans and lentils), seeds (pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds) and oats are starting to become the more popular sources among consumers, especially since they play into keto, paleo and low carb. Other innovations within the plant-based protein segment include deflavoring and hydrolyzing. These advancements provide product developers more options to create value and product differentiation.
New food formats
As plant proteins improve, they are not constrained to just nutrition bars and shakes anymore. We are seeing them in a wide range of applications, including chips, ice cream and water. In the beverage segment, protein has exploded into dairy alternatives and ready-to-drink (RTD) coffees. In the food aisle, the up-and-coming segments poised for growth are baked goods, snacks and, most significantly, dairy and meat alternatives.
This territory is exciting, but formulators must keep in mind the different properties of these new protein applications. Nutrition bars and shakes cater to the challenges of plant proteins, including flavor and texture. These new applications, however, do not and thus require more consideration during product development. Texture, of course, is a challenge when it comes to plant proteins, but it is especially so with baked goods and snacks in both formulation and production. Gluten plays a vital role in the structure and, thus, texture of baked goods and snacks—and non-wheat plant proteins are not as effective. This affects both the processing and product itself. The higher water absorption rate of plant proteins influences formulation and processing the most, including dough elasticity, mixing time, etc.
Overcoming formulation challenges
A few solutions to these challenges include adding more water, increasing mix time and/or changing baking conditions. Ultimately, it depends on the protein source and its water absorption rate. This moisture retention not only presents a challenge on the backend, but also during shelf life. High protein applications are more susceptible to drying out and/or hardening, so it is important to do shelf life studies.
In addition to texture, shelf life studies are needed for flavor. It is always important to evaluate flavor at the end of shelf life to see how the finished product is affected by processing and aging. The best time to do this is after a pilot plant run because it is usually smaller than a full production run, yet still made on production equipment, giving a better approximate than a lab batch product. This testing will provide product developers enough time to adjust the formula if needed, since trial batches are usually done before the product needs to ship to stores. Manufacturers can also complete accelerated shelf life studies using heat to approximate full shelf life, but in less time. This gives some idea of how the product will perform over time.
When it comes to flavor, starting with a protein concentrate might help avoid some of the off notes, especially with the legume sources. In addition, work with the flavor profile of the plant protein to your advantage. For instance, lentil protein is savory and can mimic cheese. Product developers can use it to replace cheese in a nacho popcorn seasoning or any other plant-based snack. Pumpkin seed protein has a nutty roasted flavor, so it could pair well with a cold brew coffee.
Another tip that might seem a little out of the box is to ensure that product developers are cognizant about how the other ingredients in the product work with plant-based applications. For instance, they shouldn’t be paired with animal products, for example, a plant-based snack using milk powder in the flavoring. It could seem disingenuous to consumers to tout plant protein, but still use an animal product. This was demonstrated most recently when a fast food chain cooked a popular meat alternative on the same grill as their beef patties; some consumers viewed it as cross contamination.
Overall, the market is welcoming of flavorful and nutrient-rich plant protein options. We anticipate an increased interest in these options as consumers continue to further their awareness of their overall health benefits.
Rikka Cornelia is the product manager for BI Nutraceuticals, which was recently acquired by Martin Bauer. Rikka has a Bachelors in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. She has been with BI for 9 years as an integral component of the marketing team, assisting with setting the product vision and strategy for BI’s portfolio of over 200 botanical ingredients.