Protein powder, plant protein, beverage innovation
Adding plant-based protein powder to formulations comes with its own set of difficulties.

Standing out in a crowded market

Clearly, energy, satiety, and that “sexy something” are driving interest in the drinks, but Cat Connelly, CCS, sees other motivators at work. As senior scientist in R&D for the dairy processor HP Hood, Lynnfield, Mass., Ms. Connelly sees people — especially young consumers — grazing throughout the day and seeking more protein.

Consumers seeking alternative sources of protein comprised a niche market until recently and mainly included vegetarians or other consumers avoiding dairy. But now there’s broader interest that includes people concerned about allergens and ethical concerns, and those seeking non-GMO ingredients.

From a research chef’s perspective, the challenges of incorporating such new protein ingredients as pea powder, brown rice, algae, mushroom proteins as well as functional ingredients are admittedly great but not insurmountable.

From Mr. Averbook’s vantage point at Mintel, where he forecasts sales of the performance drinks sector reaching $2.5 billion by 2021, it won’t be easy.

“Brands looking to implement protein-packed ingredients such as pea powder, soy, nuts, seeds, and grains may struggle with textures, tastes and flavors that some consumers may not enjoy,” he said. “Particulates from nuts, seeds or grains and a likely grainy texture from soy or peas in protein drinks may be polarizing for consumers.”

Among plant-based options, Mr. Averbook sees soy and pea protein as “the more preferred protein sources.”

Overall, he finds launches of plant-based nutrition and performance drinks “have increased from 5% in 2015 to 13% in 2016” as a growing number of small brands introduce plant-based protein beverages.

Ms. Connelly said suppliers and manufacturers “tend to be small specialty companies that may struggle to meet demand for a large-scale national product launch.”

Considering the realities of supply and demand as well as the uncertainties of crop yield, price may also be an issue.

Of emerging proteins, Ms. Connelly believes perception of algae, hemp, insects, etc., will present hurdles that companies will have to overcome through education.

“Consumers could perceive these ingredients as highly processed,” she said. “For example, you could have a protein concentrate, a protein isolate, or a hydrolysate. So, depending on how it’s labeled, it might not be that ‘consumer friendly,’ or well-accepted by label readers.”

Myla Watkins, beverage scientist and research chef with Imbibe said the flavor of new proteins and functional ingredients may go from “absolutely horrible — like pea protein powder when first introduced” — to quite acceptable. But some protein sources feature a flavor that is particularly challenging to mask.

“Mushroom protein, for example, has an umami character that works well with stronger flavors, like Belgian chocolate or cinnamon and even complements savory flavors like Thai curry, but it needs to be masked for lighter, less assertive flavors like vanilla,” she said.