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The Role of Protein in the Growing Functional Food Market

Once Again Nut Butter
Functional Foods protein food Protein food

Consumers are increasingly focused on the healthfulness of their food. While taste and price perennially top the list for consumers in choosing a food or beverage, 71 percent of consumers are interested in the healthfulness of a product, an increase of 10 percent from 2012 to 2014, and a 15 percent jump since 2010. Weight management is of particular interest to consumers, with four out of five Americans trying to lose or maintain their weight.1

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The combination of consumers searching for more healthful food choices and looking to lose or maintain weight offers a robust opportunity for manufacturers of functional foods, particularly those containing protein. Consumer interest in protein remains strong—three quarters of U.S. consumers believe that protein is part of a balanced diet, can enhance recovery from exercise, and can help people feel full. In addition, 50 percent of U.S. consumers are trying to consume a certain amount or as much protein as possible.2 And that number rises to 55 percent when focusing on millennials,3 the 83 million-plus 18-to-34-year-olds that represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population, a group that exceeds the size of the Baby Boomer generation.4

The consumer focus on protein also dovetails with changing eating patterns. Snacking has increased 47 percent since 2010; with today’s consumer being more prone to consume snacks in between the traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner. Quick snacks in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, or pre-and-post workout have driven the snack category in general and the functional food space in particular. This multiple time-per-day interest in snacks also bodes well for protein, as many consumers believe it’s important to consume a protein source throughout the day, with the highest time periods being mid-morning (74 percent), mid-afternoon (76 percent) and late evening (82 percent).5

Growth Areas for Protein Products

Due to its popularity and wide range of benefits, protein can be found in nearly every food category including beverages, snacks, breakfast and nutrition bars, cereals, baked goods and meat/dairy alternatives. While sports nutrition and weight management have represented the traditional protein categories, recently we have seen an interest in incorporating protein into refrigerated smoothies, novel snack formats, innovative breakfast foods and beverages, and in increasing the protein content of non-dairy milk alternatives. The functional food category is expected to expand 25 percent by 2017, with the biggest gains expected in the U.S.6

We have seen an increased demand for healthier snacks, particularly new protein-based bars and beverages. We have also found that the Millennial generation in particular is more open to try new foods or beverages, especially those with health or wellness benefits. This demographic is continually in search of snacks that combine health, convenience and portability.

In the bar category, high-protein ingredients combined with whole-food ingredients, such as nuts, seeds and grains are popular, resulting in healthful products with great taste, texture, feel and eye appeal.

Today’s consumer, due to their active, busy lifestyle, is also interested in functional beverages. Growth in functional beverages is outpacing carbonated and other high-sugar, empty calorie beverages that are actually showing negative growth. Consumers are looking for functional beverages to satisfy a variety of needs—hydration, refreshment and nutrition. Oftentimes, beverages are the perfect meal-on-the-run, serving as the bridge between lunch and dinner. Beverages also offer manufacturers a versatile format for providing nutritional and functional benefits, offering consumers a variety of textural and sensory experiences.

Another area for potential growth is the energy/protein supplement category. It encompasses a much wider cross section of health and wellness consumers, with sales moving beyond the niche store into more conventional retail channels. Mainstreaming, or the proliferation of sports nutrition product consumption by more mainstream consumers as opposed to hardcore athletes, has had a profound impact on the sports nutrition market. It has sustained market growth rates in excess of 10 percent globally for nearly a decade and shows no signs of slowing down.

In the dry blended beverage category, DuPont Nutrition & Health (Copenhagen, Denmark) recently introduced DuPont Dansico SUPRO XT 221D isolated soy protein, an ingredient, which disperses completely in water in just nine seconds. Consumer complaints about “lumps” and “hard to stir in” are commonly heard in the dry blended beverage industry. This product innovation offers the potential to create a much better sensory experience for the consumer. In sensory studies, consumers rated this formula significantly higher in flavor, dispersibility, mouthfeel and overall liking. According to Euromonitor, the global market for Protein Supplement Powders will reach $2.7 billion in 2015, up 11.3 percent compared to 2014. An even larger segment of the market—sports nutrition protein powders—is expected to grow to $7.7 billion, up 10.4 percent compared to 2014.


Manufacturers have many options when it comes to choosing proteins for high protein beverages, including both dairy and plant-based proteins. Their protein choice is influenced by a range of factors—the target consumer and product positioning, as well as the economics of the product, its nutritional content and functionality.

We are seeing increasing interest in blending proteins, particularly dairy and soy proteins in order to achieve high protein levels in beverages. Blending dairy and soy proteins offers multiple advantages for manufacturers. Nutritionally, it has been shown that blends of dairy and soy proteins are more effective than individual protein sources in building muscle mass by extending the time, post-exercise, when muscle building can occur.

Manufacturers can also drive better formula economics by blending DuPont Danisco Soy Protein and dairy proteins than through utilizing dairy proteins alone. Soy protein, offering supply and price stability, is an effective tool in developing a protein strategy that reduces reliance on animal-based proteins and minimizes the business risks associated with the price and supply challenges that they represent. Soy protein is also environmentally sustainable, requiring less land, energy and natural resources to produce. Finally, from a sensory standpoint, in high protein beverages, blends of dairy and soy proteins result in better hedonic performance (improved consumer liking) than beverages based on singular protein sources.

Finding the Right Formula

In addition to expansion into new applications, we have also seen the inclusion level of protein increasing. For example, a sports nutrition product in the past may have delivered 15-20 grams of protein, but with today’s technology, one can find products with 30 grams of protein or more per serving. That is a testament not only to the consumer demand for protein, but also the technology that enables the higher protein content while still delivering on the sensory attributes expected by consumers.

The formulation challenges when adding significant levels of protein to a product include product stability and potential flavor/texture attribute changes during shelf life. For instance, in beverages with a longer shelf life (up to one year) it is critical that the product maintains its consumer appeal over that entire time span. Over time, viscosity can change, ingredients can settle and other unintended issues can arise. To minimize this impact, it is important to utilize the proper analytical tools and testing assays to help predict all potential ingredient interactions and identify potential instabilities early in the development process.

Manufacturers will also want to consider a range of proteins to optimize their product. It is essential to batch and process it properly, which requires careful consideration to a range of functional characteristics of protein such as texture, viscosity, solubility, dispersibility, density, mouthfeel and flavor impact. Additionally, it is important to identify the best stabilizer system, sequestrants and pH, especially when dealing with beverages containing blends of different types of proteins. Effective stabilization can be difficult but achievable through emphasis of the right hydrocolloids and emulsifiers along with optimized batching procedures and processes. It is critical to identify the ideal protein to use as many formulation modifications can be made to yield the final product. With these considerations in mind, manufacturers can identify the right blend for their product that will meet consumer expectations for taste and performance.

The evolving eating habits of consumers, the demand for healthier food options and the need for convenience and portability are all positive signs for the future growth of the functional food category. Combined with new innovations in developing high protein foods, manufacturers have greater flexibility than ever before to develop new and differentiated products for a consumer hungry to try new foods and beverages. NIE


1 International Food Information Council Foundation, 2014 Food & Health Survey, n=1,005.

2 International Food Information Council Foundation, 2014 Food & Health Survey, n=1,005.

3 An In-Depth Look at Consumer Views on Protein & Carbohydrates,” Health Focus International, 2014.

4 U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse, Census Bureau Reports 6/25/15.

5 An In-Depth Look at Consumer Views on Protein & Carbohydrates,” Health Focus International, 2014.

6 Future Directions for the Global Functional Foods Market,” Leatherhead Food Research, 2014.

Greg Paul, PhD, MBA, is the marketing director for global consumer segments at DuPont Nutrition & Health, the premier supplier of food ingredients.  He is responsible for developing marketing programs that link identified consumer needs in sports nutrition, weight management, healthy aging, and family/child nutrition with the nutritional and health benefits associated with DuPont’s food and dietary supplement ingredients.