SupplySide West: Protein Trends Part 2

Alternative proteins gain popularity, but long-term viability of some questioned

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Alternative proteins gain popularity, long-term viability questioned

Related tags Nutrition

Myriad new protein sources – from pea to microalgae to insect – are gaining traction in some packaged foods and beverages, but whether they move beyond novelty and survive long-term remains to be seen, according to protein experts. 

“Ingredient suppliers, food manufacturers and consumers are really on the lookout for alternative protein sources”​ that are more sustainable, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly and non-allergenic, according to Joanne Clifton, global account manager for Innova Market Insights. 

In particular, she notes that plant-based proteins are gaining significant traction, especially among athletes. She explained sports participants are turning to plant-based proteins because they are easy to digest and thus require less energy, are alkaline forming so reduce inflammation caused by workouts and are nutrient dense, delivering essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fiber and phytonutrients in addition to protein.

As a result, launches of products with plant-based proteins are outpacing the growth of more traditional animal-based proteins, Clifton said. Specifically, she said, new products with plant-based proteins grew 14.7% in 2014 compared to animal protein, which climbed 7.5%. That said, new launches with animal proteins still outnumbered those with veggie proteins 23,911 to 15,370 in 2014, according to Innova.

Soy holds top spot

Within the plant-based protein launches, soy remains the leader – accounting for 12% of all foods and beverages with protein claims launched in 2014 and 58% of all new products with vegetable specific proteins launched in 2014, according to Clifton.

Despite its dominance, soy fell 5 percentage points in terms of penetration in 2014 compared to the previous year – revealing its vulnerability to competition from hemp, pea, algae and other vegetable proteins.

A major weakness of soy is its association as a predominately GMO crop in the US. However, DuPont does offer “identity preserved”​ soy that can be traced back to the farm and to the nonGMO seed planted, said Greg Paul, global marketing director of Consumer Segments at DuPont Nutrition and Health. However, he said with cross fertilization it can be difficult to have “truly nonGMO”​ soy.

Some consumers also may turn their back on soy for fear that it is an endocrine disruptor, Clifton suggested. However, she added that one way firms are minimizing the negative connotations of soy is to call it out on front of packs as “plant-based protein.”

Pea protein is sprouting fast

The fastest growing plant-based protein to watch by far is pea protein, which grew 361% in new product launches in 2014 compared to 2013 when it was up 183% from 2012, according to Innova data. Its penetration also increased 4 percentage points to account for 10% of all product launches with vegetable proteins in 2014 compared to 2013, Clifton said.

Despite this growth, pea protein still has a relatively small based and thus is ranked in fifth place for leading vegetable proteins behind soy, wheat, non-specified vegetable protein and corn, according to Innova.

While pea protein is versatile and is appearing across categories in dairy-free desserts, sausages, chips, beverages and as powder blends, it has a few significant formulation hurdles that it must overcome to successfully go mainstream – mainly taste. Clifton explains it has a distinct flavor that is hard to mask, which restricts use. That said, some companies like World Food Processing, are tackling the taste of pea protein head on​. 

Microalgae is another plant-based protein that is expected to grow in the future, but for now remains a niche ingredient, along with hemp and rice, she added.

As the numbers show, some of the plant-based proteins show significant promise, Paul acknowledges, but he suspects only a few additional ingredients will make it to the mainstream because of flavor, functionality and formulation problems.

Animal proteins remain strong

Among animal-proteins, whey remains popular, appearing in 8.2% of new launches with protein claims in 2014, according to Innova.

Clifton added that dairy protein use is up 5.2% in the last two years, but this is still nothing compared to plant protein’s 24% increase.

Insect protein is another much-talked about new protein source that some manufacturers speculate will take off among millennials in Western markets. It also may become big in pet food in the future. However, at this point the ingredient remains very niche, Clifton said.

Find out how one company is using insect protein in snack bars for people at our FREE online forum Nov. 4. We will also talk about how much protein people really need and want, and the ingredient’s long term viability. Register quickly and easily HERE​. 

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