From strength to strength: Maintaining consumer motivation in the protein food, beverage, and supplement market

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 9, Volume 24, Issue 9

What will keep consumers coming back to protein products?

There’s something unimpeachable about protein. While other nutrition superstars may rise and fall, protein stands unique among macronutrients in “maintaining a positive image even as carbohydrates and fats have experienced negative attacks and backlash,” observes Max Maxwell, manager, market intelligence, Glanbia Nutritionals (Chicago).

Yet if protein’s popularity appears to defy gravity, it’s not maintaining that buoyancy all on its own. After all, the protein sector runs on the combined forces of ingredient suppliers and CPG brands, both of which keep delivering the nutrient’s power—and appeal—to loyal consumers.

Broadening Base

Ramon Mommersteeg, marketing manager, performance and active nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients (Amersfoort, The Netherlands), sees “several factors at play” in keeping protein in the good-for-you spotlight—not least of which is the increasing appeal of all things “good-for-you.”

“Consumers are more health-conscious than ever,” he says, “and that’s something that COVID-19 accelerated.” In response, they’re stepping up their diet and fitness routines, he continues, which, in turn, “has led to a boom in the search for nutritional solutions, with protein being front and center as consumers recognize that protein plays a role in being strong and physically active, and that those qualities are essential to good health.”

There was a time when that recognition registered principally with fitness enthusiasts—protein’s core consumers. But its benefits are now all but officially established within the mainstream.

No wonder, then, that “we see demand remaining strong because we keep seeing more consumers incorporating protein into their diets,” says Catherine Armstrong, vice president, corporate communications, Comax Flavors (Melville, NY). “And no, not all of those consumers are athletes looking to build muscle.” Nor are they necessarily following lifestyle diets like paleo or keto, she adds. “Rather, they’re using protein powders and other applications—bars; even cookies—as meal replacements.”

The New Snack

And as guilt-free snacks.

FMCG Gurus data from this year show that only 3% of global consumers claim not to snack, notes Mommersteeg, “and of this majority, more than two-thirds say they regularly snack on protein bars.”

Moreover, FMCG Gurus found that more than half of these snackers chose their protein-packed products because such options “offer healthy indulgence,” Mommersteeg adds. “To me, that proves that not only is protein absolutely still on the menu for consumers; they’re even looking for it in new, more convenient products that fit their everyday lifestyles.”

Make It Easy

Maxwell couldn’t agree more. “Mainstream brands have made protein very accessible as they’ve expanded into the space,” he says. And they’ve done so in no small part by emphasizing convenience.

We see this in the growth of ready-to-drink (RTD) over ready-to-mix (RTM) protein beverages, Maxwell points out, as well as in the pervasive adoption of those aforementioned protein bars “so that consumers haven’t needed to alter their behavior to get protein’s added benefits,” he says.

And though protein bars “slumped” during the pandemic as consumers were hunkering at home, “once work and travel return to a new normal,” Maxwell wagers, “bars will remain the format of choice for on-the-go convenience”—and for increasingly appealing flavor profiles, fun mini formats, and refrigerated options that, literally, “keep the sector fresh,” he adds.

But why stop at bars? Maxwell’s confident that protein’s migration into categories like cookies, chips, baking mixes, breads, popcorn, and extruded breakfast cereals offers brands the opportunity to reach yet more consumers and generate further “explosive growth,” he says.

Minding the Details

A new take on snacking isn’t all consumers want from their protein products, though. “Consumers are also concerned about sourcing, sustainability, climate impact, and products with a backstory and mission,” Maxwell says.

Moreover, Armstrong adds, consumers are especially looking for “clean” proteins and products with “simple” ingredient statements. “And protein quality is important, too,” she says, “with more consumers reading labels to make sure that’s what they’re getting.”

How closely consumers monitor such nutritional details “depends on who they are and what their level of sophistication is,” Maxwell believes. For although protein’s historical base of athletes and bodybuilders focuses intensely on performance benefits and specific protein types—for instance, whey protein isolate versus concentrates or hydrolyzed whey—newer, more mainstream entrants to the category, in many cases, “just want protein,” Maxwell says.

Finding Common Cause

Yet even though “different protein consumers have different needs and wants,” Mommersteeg affirms, there’s often considerable overlap between different demographics’ goals and preferences.

“For example,” he says, “for some older adults, remaining active is a key driver for maintaining muscle strength as they age—which becomes a key driver for protein consumption. But this driver isn’t too dissimilar from why the active consumer wants to proactively maintain strength and fitness as they age, too. And then this consumer also overlaps with the traditional sports-performance consumer, who’s also interested in protein for improving performance.” The upshot: By formulating with one of these consumers in mind, brands get that much closer to formulating for the others.

Dairy Dominates?

And though plant-based proteins are making headlines for their health and sustainability benefits—“and not just with vegans and vegetarians,” Mommersteeg is quick to note—he’s convinced that “dairy proteins remain a top choice for high-quality protein.”

Why? For one, dairy’s complete amino acid profile scores points with active and older consumers, he says. Meantime, innovations in dairy ingredients open doors to formulating the proteins into, for example, clear beverages.

“Last year we even launched a clean-tasting, clear RTD water concept that used dairy-derived whey protein to create a hydrating drink that supports muscle recovery post-exercise,” Mommersteeg says. “So while plant-based dairy is one of many elements of the protein picture, the dairy-ingredients sector is also clearly rising to the challenge of contemporary protein needs.”

All in Good Taste—and Texture

Another way all protein sources are rising to those challenges is by upping their taste and texture games.

As Mommersteeg points out, “For traditional protein users, like performance athletes, quality nutrition was always much more important than taste and texture. But as more people show interest in protein, taste and texture have become increasingly important, as well.”

And here again, consumers of all types have improved protein ingredients to thank. The effect of those ingredients “has been a revolution in innovation and new functional-product development,” Mommersteeg says, with examples including not just the clean-tasting hydration drink mentioned above but also protein bars that don’t petrify on the shelf.

“High-protein bars—with 30% protein and higher—are notorious for hardening over time,” Mommersteeg explains, “which makes them unpalatable.” He offers FrieslandCampina’s Excellion Textpro ingredient as not just an “excellent protein source” for these applications, he says; it’s also a targeted texture solution expressly developed to contribute a softer mouthfeel and reduce hardening over a bar’s shelf life.

From her perch at a flavor house, Armstrong has also seen the shift among protein consumers toward demanding indulgence as much as they do nutrition. “So brands are positioning their products as indulgent—but healthy—treats,” she says. Flavor profiles that fit the bill “run the gamut from salted-caramel pretzel to banana bread,” she says. “We’re also seeing more bite-sized and mini options that are portable and convenient as snacks, too.”

Adds Kirsten Karlsson, director of marketing, Ascent Protein (Denver), “We’re seeing a lot of success and sales boosts with limited-time-only flavors throughout the year to keep things fresh and exciting. Consumers enjoy the variety.”

And that’s no accident for Ascent as a CPG protein brand that’s putting these principles of healthy indulgence into practice.

“Better taste and texture have always been key priorities and differentiators for us,” Karlsson says, “because we know how much they inform repeat purchase and drive word-of-mouth marketing.” So before any new launch, the company conducts “extensive” consumer research to solicit feedback on taste and texture, she says. “The reality now is that there are a number of high-quality proteins on the market, and better taste and texture go a long way toward satisfying consumers and keeping them coming back to the brand.”

Progressing Protein

As for what else will keep consumers coming back to protein in general, Maxwell is bullish on the prospects for individualized nutrition. “It’s likely that as we gain the capability to personalize products for individual dietary needs,” he predicts, “there will be even more specialization in the proteins that people want.”

And as is the case everywhere, social media is making its mark on protein, too. “Interestingly,” Armstrong says, “I see a lot of protein products being promoted through social media. More influencers are promoting bars, powders, and other products via channels like Instagram. So they’ll promote special limited-time offerings and announce when a new flavor is ‘dropping.’”

All of which attracts even more attention and excitement to an already-dynamic category. As Mommersteeg says, “There’s absolutely more to come for the protein trend. We’re at a turning point in the way that consumers think about their health and wellness, and as a result, I believe we’ll be seeing a lot more from protein in our day-to-day lives, and in places where maybe we hadn’t before.”