While high-protein drinks used to be solely found within the sports nutrition industry, protein is now muscling into the mainstream health and wellness beverage market. Consumers are now looking to protein to aid in weight management or satiety and to build muscle after a workout or boost muscle recovery, which makes protein-fortified drinks appealing to a wide audience and enables a variety of usage occasions.
And take one look at the growth numbers for protein-enhanced drinks and it’s clear this category has plenty of fuel to burn. According to Euromonitor, ready-to-drink protein drinks grew 20 percent in 2012 and the category is expected to rise about 8 percent a year for the next few years. And, Mintel reports that new product launches of food and drinks containing high protein continue to grow each year. In the U.S. market in 2012, meal replacement and other fortified drinks made up 17 percent of all high-protein food and drink new product launches.
The success of Muscle Milk, a protein nutrition shake that leads the category, demonstrates how protein is moving into the mainstream drinks market. In addition, The Coca-Cola Company began distributing Core Power, a high protein recovery shake, back in April 2012. Coke later formed a partnership with Select Milk Producers to acquire equity stakes in Fair Oaks Farms Brands, which owns Core Power, to continue to drive the brand’s growth. Also, the success of Greek yogurt has encouraged consumers to see dairy protein as a health and wellness ingredient beyond just sports and fitness.
However, there are taste and texture challenges when formulating a ready-to-drink product with high levels of protein. Beverage makers have to find the right formula to deliver meaningful levels of protein while still offering a refreshing taste and a pleasing texture.
High-quality sources of protein often used in RTD beverages include whey protein isolate, sourced from dairy, and soy protein from soybeans. Core Power contains whey protein while Muscle Milk uses a blend of milk protein isolate with calcium and sodium caseinates.
Jeffrey Foss, principal scientist, protein-based beverage applications, at Wild Flavors, says in order to develop a successful RTD protein beverage, formulators have to address the inherent off-notes of protein ingredients, such as sulfur or cheese off-notes, with flavor masking or taste modification technologies. And, often heat processing exacerbates these off-notes, he says.
Another hurdle is stabilizing the proteins so the beverage itself remains homogeneous and visually appealing in the package. Proteins can be heat-labile, pH-sensitive and interactive with many ingredients, Foss says.
“Wild has a broad portfolio of proven, protein-compatible flavors and flavor modification technologies as well as core competency in protein beverages to successfully address both the flavor and stabilization challenges mentioned above,” Foss says.
Tom Burrows, director of strategic marketing at ADM Food and Wellness, says the growth of weight management beverages and sports recovery drinks has fueled interest in soy protein ingredients as an effective alternative to animal proteins and a great source of nutrition. ADM offers its Clarisoy 100 isolated soy protein, which, Burrows says, works well in low-pH beverage systems as the ingredient delivers clarity and complete protein nutrition.
“For developers, formulating nutritional beverages is like a juggling act. Flavor, viscosity, shelf life, cost and nutritionals are the balls that get thrown up in the air. It’s up to the developer to get them all moving in unison. Clarisoy 100 is the first isolated soy protein that enables protein fortification in transparent and refreshing low-pH beverage systems,” he says. Burrows adds that with beverage systems with a pH of less than 4.0, Clarisoy is 100 percent soluble so beverage developers can comfortably formulate beverages to have a ‘good’ or ‘excellent source of protein’ designation yet the ingredient’s transparency allows the drink to maintain a refreshing taste.
With the right expertise, protein also can be incorporated into functional waters. Ingredient maker Arla Foods unveiled a protein water prototype at the Food Ingredients Europe 2013 trade show as a pitch to soft drink companies about the opportunities for protein ingredients. The protein water was made with a high-quality whey protein isolate and contained 25 percent of the recommended daily intake of protein.
Many beverage makers are seeing the increased potential for protein ingredients in RTD performance beverages.
Xyience, the maker of Xenergy performance energy drink, markets a line of nutritional supplements, including protein powders. Xyience president John Lennon says the company is looking to develop a high-protein RTD drink but he notes there are challenges to transitioning from protein powders to an RTD format. “We’ve developed some products but we have not commercialized anything. We pride ourselves on taste and I think we have a little more work to do to deliver the best taste and flavor possible while keeping calories minimal,” he says. Lennon notes that protein fortification appeals to many different consumer segments, from young sports enthusiasts and athletes to people looking for weight management support to older adults who want to supplement their meals with protein.
Beyond sports nutrition and weight management, protein increasingly is viewed as an ingredient that supports overall health as well as healthy aging. In this vein, many sports nutrition companies are positioning their products, including high-protein drinks and supplements, as good for general wellness and even immunity. Ingredient company Biothera has an immune-booster ingredient, Wellmune WGP, which has been incorporated into sports beverages along with a wide range of other health and wellness drinks, such as teas, juices, drinkable yogurts, water and energy shots. According to the company, Wellmune WGP is a proprietary beta glucan derived from a specific strain of baker’s yeast and it is clinically proven to boost the immune system. The ingredient can be used in beverage applications for immune enhancement, stress management, sports nutrition and healthy aging.
Research indicates that the effectiveness of the immune system drops below its normal level for several hours after strenuous exercise, which makes athletes more susceptible to infection. According to Biothera, studies have shown that Wellmune WGP can help reduce immune suppression after high-intensity exercise, enabling athletes to exercise longer and harder with less risk of lowered immunity.
This ongoing focus on healthy living and fitness opens up a lot of opportunities for protein and other wellness ingredients going forward. And as ingredient technology advances, the next refreshing, high-protein drink innovation could come in an unlikely form, such as protein teas or soft drinks.