Protein attracts new customers: 2023 Ingredient trends for food, drinks, dietary supplements, and natural products

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Nutritional Outlook, Volume 26, Issue 1

Expect more protein innovation this year as brands cater to an expanding audience.

Consumers did not stop buying protein products during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an Innova Market Insights (The Netherlands) global survey in 2022, 1 in 5 consumers said they changed their protein intake in the past 12 months, with 17% seeking high-protein products. Protein is now a key selling point. Innova reports a 10% CAGR in the number of food and beverage new-product launches making protein claims in 2017–2022. New-product protein claims are growing most in Africa/Middle East (+41%) and Europe (+26%), followed by Asia (+15%), Australasia (+12%), Latin America (+8%), and North America (+2%).

2022 ingredient-sales data from SPINS (Chicago) also show that protein purchasing didn’t decline. For instance, in the mainstream U.S. supplements channel, whey protein sales rose 25% while plant protein sales grew 12%. Similarly, in 2020 and 2021, protein sales were especially solid in the mainstream market.

Protein stays strong because it’s a nutrient everyone knows and likes. “Protein is one [ingredient] that has pretty much universal recognition among consumers,” says Scott Dicker, senior market insights analyst at SPINS. Some consumers need to learn about optimal dosages or the differences between protein types, but “no one doesn’t know what protein is,” he says.

Moreover, everyone views protein positively. “Protein is really the one odd macronutrient that has always had this health halo,” he continues. “The research on it is really strong when it comes to health benefits.” Other macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates, by contrast, have gone in and out of vogue over the years, being lauded some years and vilified in others.

What are some of the protein trends we’ll see in 2023?

Plant protein is one for sure. “We’ve even seen a ‘cow-less’ or animal-free whey protein,” says Rachel Jones, MS, RDN, senior vice president and chief product innovation and science officer at GNC.

Innova Market Insights sees plant proteins growing fastest in food and beverages. According to Innova, the top-five food and drink categories for plant and non-animal protein ingredients are: 1) bakery, 2) ready meals and side dishes, 3) meat, fish, and eggs, 4) snacks, and 5) meat substitutes. Pea is still the plant protein growing strongest globally. It is especially used in meat substitutes as well as in sports nutrition and dairy. Rice protein is growing in meat substitutes, sports nutrition, and cereal products. Soy is still doing well, too.

Some of the fastest-growing plant proteins are ones with smaller market share, Innova says. These include chickpea, brown rice, fava bean, mung bean (growing especially in egg substitutes), lentil, wheat, and flaxseed protein, as well as mycoprotein. Fava bean protein is gaining in sports nutrition products especially, and mycoprotein is emerging as an ingredient in spreads. Both are also used in meat substitutes.

Consumers will continue reaching for both animal and plant proteins as the number of flexitarians—consumers who eat both animal and plant products—continues to grow. At last November’s SupplySide West trade show, ingredient supplier Cargill (Minneapolis) shared data showing that flexitarians now play a bigger role in the plant-based dairy market than strict vegans or vegetarians. Many of today’s households have both animal- and plant-based dairy products in the fridge, it said.

Jones agrees. “We see protein trends being driven by consumer preference. For some, continuing to leverage animal protein will remain part of their routine, while others will shift to plant-based to take advantage of a ‘cleaner’ protein source. The good news is that the category—and companies like GNC—are diversifying their portfolio of protein products to offer unique solutions for consumers. Whether it’s whey-based, soy, plant-based, or animal, having options that allow you to try, adapt, and adopt products into your wellness routine remains important.”

Another protein trend GNC expects to see in 2023 are protein peptides. “Peptides that target specific functions and benefits in the body are gaining momentum,” Jones says. “Plus, there’s an added perk: they’re typically lower-dose than the traditional 25 grams of protein, but still generate results.”

Delivery form will also be important in 2023. “The integration of protein into functional foods is going to be big,” Jones predicts. “Consumers want to meet daily protein goals through a variety of nontraditional snacks. You can find protein-enhanced chips, cookies, brownies, pretzels, and more—no need for total reliance on powders, bars, and drinks anymore!”

Clean labels are also key. “Consumers are looking for clean-label claims—from sugar-free to gluten-free—which means what’s not in a product can be just as important as what is,” Jones says. Within protein products, “This year, we expect to see more natural alternatives for flavors and sweeteners such as stevia, allulose, and monk fruit, and opting out of artificial additives that have gotten a bad rap in recent years.” Attributes like organic, animal welfare, and grass-fed are powerful differentiators, too, Dicker says.

He also expects precision fermentation to shake up the space. “I think this is the year you start to see a little disruption in precision fermentation for whey,” he says. “We see the first few products hitting the market. It’s not going to make a big dent this year…[but] in the next three years, I would expect it to carve out a big market share.”

The strong return of the active-nutrition market will also be a key accelerator in 2023. SPINS data show the mainstream performance-nutrition market grew almost 19% in 2022. Protein—both animal and plant—dominates ingredient sales in this category. Protein will soar as the audience for active nutrition broadens “beyond body builders to athletes, weekend warriors, yoga moms, and just anyone [who wants protein] in their morning smoothie,” Dicker says.

In short, expect more innovation. “Protein products have been a mainstay within our curated product assortment for years,” says Jones. “It remains a go-to product for many consumers, and as trends have emerged—and consumer behaviors shifted—we’ve introduced new brands, solutions, and ways to amplify intake. We offer dozens of options across our science-backed brands like GNC AMP, GNC Total Lean, and Beyond Raw to make sure consumers have the options they need as their routines change over time.”