Moo-ve over Milk: Plant Alternatives Primed to Benefit from Protein Supplement Demand

As consumer demand for protein continues to surge and more categories seek to incorporate the popular ingredient, a growing number of alternative sources are reaching the market. Euromonitor International examines the rise of animal protein alternatives and their potential impact on the consumer health market.

Protein: Supplement du jour

Despite Siberian temperatures this winter, protein is basking in a warm glow of international publicity, which has catapulted it to the forefront of the supplement world recently. In February, The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) published its recommended intake value for protein. The agency’s figure of 0.8 grams per kilogram per day is pegged to body weight. Given the average weights of consumers in developed countries, these guidelines could represent significant increases over the current 2000-calorie diet recommendations. For American males over 20, with an average weight of 194 pounds according to the most recent figures from the US Centers for Disease Control, the EFSA recommended intake would be 71 grams, a full 31% more than the current 54 grams recommended for a 2000-calorie diet.

Protein supplements have long been at the core of sports nutrition – consumer health’s fastest growing category. Despite differences in format preference at a national level, protein products – defined by Euromonitor International as protein powders, protein bars and protein RTD’s with over 20 grams of protein per serving, and other protein products, such as protein shots – still account for the majority of sports nutrition sales by format in all seven major geographic regions. While non-protein products, such as pre-workout supplements, are the fastest-growing format in many areas, protein products continue to deliver enviable year-over-year growth and added over US$2 billion in retail value sales between 2006 and 2011, according to the most recent Euromonitor International figures. The sports nutrition market is benefiting from a health and fitness awakening as a reaction to the increasing global obesity epidemic. While convenient formats like bars and RTD’s provide a bridge to standard consumers, producers across the globe are experimenting with packaging to increase the mass appeal of the category’s oldest stalwart – protein powder. Smaller, re-sealable packages of protein powder have had success, because consumers associate them more closely with food products than workout supplements, while lower price points put them closer to the all-important indulgence purchase threshold.

While protein continues to grow on the popularity of sports nutrition, it has been gaining a strong reputation for its potential weight loss benefits. Though EFSA stopped short of formulating a protein dietary reference value for decreasing body weight and obesity risk, a number of recent studies have linked increased protein consumption with greater satiety, thermogenesis, and lean mass maintenance. Protein is a mainstay of the fast-growing meal replacement slimming category, and an increasing number of protein powders are coming out with a distinct general nutrition/dietary supplement positioning. According to Euromonitor International’s latest figures, global retail value sales of non-sports nutrition protein powder, tracked as a separate category under vitamins and dietary supplements, grew by a staggering 19% annually during the review period to nearly US$1.6 billion in 2011.

Plant-based alternatives appeal to both producers and consumers

Prices for traditional proteins, such as whey, continue to spike, as demand from emerging markets for products like baby formula continues its unbridled growth. According to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, prices for whey protein isolate have nearly tripled in the last three years. This has driven some producers to seek out lower-cost sources. While whey protein still reigns supreme in sports nutrition, an increasing number of products, including many of the dietary supplement launches, have moved toward protein blends including casein, egg proteins and, increasingly, plant-based proteins. For years, niche producers have supplied bodybuilding’s small vegetarian and vegan minority with soy, brown rice, and pea proteins, but recently, a growing number of non-fitness consumers have been exploring plant-based proteins. In developed markets, brands like Spiru-Tein and Now Foods have gained traction among the growing number of vegetarians, vegans and “flexitarians” – consumers who give up meat for some meals out of health or, increasingly, environmental and sustainability concerns.

While soy is the most established plant-based protein source – even traditional sports nutrition heavyweights like Optimum Nutrition offer soy protein powders – concerns over allergies and hormones, such as oestrogen, make it a non-starter for some consumers. Brown rice and pea proteins have been finding their way into more products recently, and their low price relative to whey protein could further spur their use, especially among non-sports-positioned dietary supplements. However, there are a number of protein sources that have not-yet been tapped commercially. Canola protein appears to be on the brink of a commercial breakthrough, as two Canadian firms – BioExx and Burcon – have signed development deals with industry leaders to create a range of canola protein products, including both dietary supplements and sports nutrition offerings. While work moves ahead on canola, the industry is continuing to push forward with research on the protein possibilities of less familiar crops, such as flax seed and hemp. In addition to their eco credentials, these plant and seed-based proteins are not among the “big eight” allergens.

As the growing obesity epidemic is sure to produce an onslaught of consumers looking for sports nutrition and weight management solutions, protein is primed for further phenomenal growth. Though consumer products featuring frontier plant-based protein sources are not likely to turn up on retail shelves in the very near term, growing consumer demand for nutritious ingredients with a lower carbon footprint and producer concern over costs will continue to push forth the industry’s sourcing innovation.