Protein just keeps moving from strength to strength. Saddled with none of the controversy that surrounds sugar or the unsettled science still bedeviling some fats, protein is, for all intents and purposes, the nutrient that can do no wrong.
Its health benefits are well-nigh indisputable. “Proteins are important building blocks for the body,” says Rikka Cornelia, product manager, BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA). “They’re necessary for proper growth and function. They play a vital role in building and maintaining muscles, organs, and other tissues, and in digestion, metabolism, and cell function.”
Add to that emerging knowledge of protein’s influence on weight management and satiety and it’s easy to see why it’s grabbed the spotlight. “It’s even easy to see and feel the results,” adds Alan Rillorta, director of protein and branded ingredient sales, AIDP, Inc. (City of Industry, CA). “Who doesn’t like to feel and look good, right?”
So perhaps that explains why, notes Lesley Nicholson, marketing manager, ADM/WILD Flavors & Specialty Ingredients (Decatur, IL), “everyone from exercise enthusiasts to seniors have all begun to realize the benefits of protein.”
Millennials have become new “locomotives of demand,” adds Udi Alroy, vice president, marketing and business development, Hinoman (Tel Aviv, Israel). So, too, are flexitarians, who represent approximately 25% of the U.S. population, per Alroy’s accounting. As they explore new plant-based protein sources, he says, they’re “creating a whole new market for new products and are moving the industry away from animal-based proteins.”
To sustain all of this momentum—which had already propelled the domestic protein market to a value of $16 billion by late 2015, according to Nielsen Scantrack—protein developers need to innovate, and many of them are.
“Industry is keeping protein fresh by offering new and convenient delivery formats,” says Jeff Brucker, vice president of marketing, Genesis Today (Austin, TX). Using technologies like de-flavoring and hydrolysis, they’re improving protein ingredients’ sensory profiles, functional properties, and nutritionals—so much so that “having a protein shake is now decadent, satisfying, and enjoyable,” he says. “We’re long past the days of protein powders that lacked flavor.”
No wonder, then, that industry insiders are almost universally bullish on protein’s potential. “This is not a passing fad,” Cornelia says. “Consumer awareness and demand for protein are only going to increase.” Though meeting that demand could raise challenges, she says, “it’ll more likely be a great opportunity for brands and ingredient suppliers to think outside the box and innovate when it comes to developing new protein sources.” Here are a few options to keep an eye on right now.
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The vogue for ancient grains has made what’s old new again, particularly among nutrition enthusiasts. Nowhere is that more the case than with quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)—that ubiquitous “supergrain” of Andean origin that had quite a moment several years back. Cornelia credits the gluten-free trend for sparking consumers’ interest in ancient grains like quinoa—but, she adds, they’re “also touted for their high protein content.”
And for good reason: Unlike many plant proteins, quinoa has a complete complement of amino acids—including lysine, which usually limits the nutritional quality of plant sources. Adds Brucker, quinoa protein “is also non-allergenic and is a natural source of fiber, magnesium, B vitamins, and antioxidants and has a low glycemic index.”
Industry developers are putting those properties to use by including quinoa protein in plant-based nutritional powders, ready-to-drink protein shakes, and bars, Brucker says.
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Spilling the Beans (and Nuts, and Seeds)
Of course, the granddaddy of plant-based proteins is soy, which “still has the most complete amino-acid profile when compared to animal protein,” notes Nicholson. But soy is in excellent company among its fellow legumes, as bean, pea, and pulse proteins are all increasingly popular choices.
Pea protein is already a sensation, and now proteins extracted from lentils (Lens culinaris) and faba beans (or fava beans; Vicia faba) are also gaining attention. What makes them special? “First off, the starting materials are extremely popular with consumers,” Cornelia says. Such proteins also check off all the allergen-free, clean-label, and sustainable boxes that are on so many consumers’ lists. What’s more, she adds, “They have more favorable taste profiles than soy protein.”
Similar advantages are boosting the profile of seed-based proteins, like those found in sunflower and pumpkin seeds—the latter of which Cornelia describes as having “a roasted nutty aroma with a consistently mild taste.”
Nicholson adds that ADM/WILD’s plant-based protein portfolio now includes nuts, nut butters, and peanut flours, too. “Nut butters, such as almond or cashew butter, have great bland taste profiles and are easy to incorporate into formulas,” she says.
For now, you’ll find these bean and seed proteins mainly in meal-replacement and sports-nutrition shakes and bars, Cornelia says. “However, with protein achieving mainstream popularity, we’re seeing these options incorporated into a broader range of products, like baked goods, cereals, and snacks.”
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Yes, our founding fathers grew hemp—for industrial, not recreational, purposes. But more than 200 years later, Cannabis sativa L. is finally getting its due as a nutritional ingredient.
“Hemp in general is experiencing a revival of interest,” Rillorta says, “and if we can get over certain stigmas and regulatory inhibitions, then hemp protein could have a strong supply chain and environmentally friendly image.” Its protein quality is on par with that of meat, dairy, eggs, and soy when it comes to amino-acid content; and as if that weren’t enough, hemp seed itself is a rich source of dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, including iron and zinc.
Rillorta notes that hemp proteins are currently getting strong play in ready-to-mix powdered nutritional supplements. “But already,” he says, “we’re seeing some movement into the food and beverage spaces.” The possibilities for product development are tantalizing. “Imagine using the fibers to make clothes and industrial building materials, the oils for cooking, and the protein for nutrition,” he says. Imagine, indeed.
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Duck and Cover
Processors are finding novel proteins in pretty unexpected places. And as far as Alroy is concerned, “The new wave of green options will come from the duckweed family.” That’s right: duckweed, from the Lemnaceae family, which Alroy claims is “one of the most promising alternative sources of protein.”
This tiny flowering wetland plant has been a nutritious food in East Asia for generations. But now, companies like Alroy’s are cultivating duckweed strains via advanced hydroponic processes that not only yield higher-protein plants but do so year round and with fewer resources than traditional methods.
“The main advantage of duckweed is its ultimate sustainability,” Alroy says, and both manufacturers and consumers benefit. “It requires no arable land, multiplies in mass over the course of a few days, requires very little energy and, as such, has the lowest ecological footprint of all protein sources currently available in the marketplace.” Oh, and duckweed is non-GMO and grown without pesticides, too.
Alroy says his company’s “precision agriculture model” enhances duckweed’s nutritionals. At more than 45% protein, the plant—which Hinoman markets as “mankai”—boasts a balanced amino-acid profile, high digestibility, plenty of vitamins and minerals (A, B complex, E, K, calcium, iron, zinc and selenium, to name a few), and a fat complement that includes omega-3s.
And don’t let the spinach-green color fool you: Alroy says that mankai is surprisingly mild in flavor, enabling food and beverage manufacturers “to fortify their products with very little change to the flavor profiles,” he says. And as a fine powder, the ingredient is “easy to incorporate into all sorts of foods,” from bars, powdered beverages, and meal replacements to baked goods.
“The combination of a superb amino-acid profile with vitamins and minerals and omega-3 levels makes this not only a highly nutritious vegetable protein source but a superfood that’s unprocessed and suitable for the clean labeling that consumers today prefer,” he says.
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Green Is the New Black
There was a time when algae was something you paid a swimming-pool service to clean up. Now it’s an increasingly sought-after protein source for green and vegan formulations. And if you ask Mark Brooks, senior vice president of food and ingredients, TerraVia (South San Francisco, CA), it’s about time.
“Algae contains the essential building blocks of nutrition: protein, fibers, healthy oils, macro- and micronutrients,” he says. That being the case, his company has developed a process that harnesses the fermentative proclivities of a non-GMO chlorella microalgae to produce what it calls AlgaVia Protein-Rich Whole Algae Powder, a yellow, nutty-tasting substance that’s 65% highly digestible protein and, in Brooks’ words, a “uniquely powerful food ingredient.”
It’s a handy one in applications, too. As Brooks explains, “Often, food and beverage manufacturers struggle with the gritty taste and texture that come with increasing protein content and that can force them to add stabilizing ingredients”—which label readers aren’t always keen to see. But because the protein and other nutrients in their powder naturally lie within the algal cell wall, interactions with other ingredients remain limited, “enabling increased fortification in a wide variety of foods,” Brooks says, including notoriously sensitive ones, like low-pH beverages, dressings, and crackers.
Further, algae just isn’t the green slime it used to be. “Our team has conducted extensive consumer research and evaluated industry trends to learn about what consumers are looking for in their food products,” Brooks says. And the results make “clear” that there’s “a high degree of consumer acceptance for algae-based ingredients” among consumers, nutrition professionals, and industry alike.
Photo of AlgaVia Protein-Rich Whole Algae Powder courtesy of TerraVia