CHICAGO — Strengthening cookies. Satiating snack crackers. Muscle-building muffins. Manufacturers have learned that protein fortification of popular baked goods adds value and differentiates products in a crowded marketplace. Protein is a nutrient that sells.

Almost four out of five consumers rate protein content as important in their food and beverage purchase decisions, according to the market research firm N.M.I. About 40% of all millennials indicate “high in protein” as a very important product attribute. NMI said. For baby boomers, 39% of women say protein is important for their diet compared to 27% of male baby boomers.

Increasingly it’s more than just protein content that sells. It’s the protein’s story. Consumers want a better understanding of how it was sourced, including country of origin, animal welfare, genetic modification and carbon footprint. Suppliers are responding, and bakers now have a growing toolbox of protein ingredients — traditional and specialty — to fortify everything from sweet bakery items to savory snacks.

“With so many options to choose from for protein fortification, it is important for bakers to understand the benefits and challenges of working with the different proteins,” said Supaporn Naknukool, protein ­scientist at Parabel USA Inc.

There’s also the desire for minimally processed ingredients. In this instance, some animal proteins are often favored over plant proteins. This is particularly true among active consumers looking for high-quality complete proteins with demonstrated advantages.

“Consumers around the world are seeking more natural and less processed foods with proven health benefits,” said Benjamin Maclean, product group manager for FrieslandCampina DMV. “This trend is observed in the sports nutrition space, and at the same time, there is a fast-growing lifestyle segment interested in nutrition and healthy living. Convergence of these segments has created market potential for protein-­enriched nutrition products with a natural positioning, targeting serious athletes and new mainstream consumers looking to fuel a more active lifestyle.”

To assist with offering a protein for every application, suppliers have tapped into advanced technologies to isolate, concentrate and purify this muscle-building, satiating macronutrient found in both plants and animals. The latter includes the very small, yet conversation-worthy category of insects, everything from crickets to mealworms. It’s a category that some believe has the potential to change the protein ingredients market.

“In meeting consumer demand for protein, product formulators have to keep in mind the consumer desire for simple, recognizable ingredients on food labels,” said Laurie Scanlin, research and development culinary manager at Ardent Mills. “A main goal with protein enrichment is balancing nutrition with good taste. This can be achieved in food formulations by understanding what each ingredient offers alone, as well as in combination or pairings.”

Demanding dairy

Bakers have long used dairy ingredients for their performance in recipes because they contribute to desirable crust browning, enhanced yeast fermentation and improved stability of the batter or dough. Protein fortification was an added perk. Now, it’s often the attraction.

At the Institute of Food Technologists (I.F.T.) Annual Meeting and Food Exposition, Agropur Ingredients ­debuted its whey protein pods. These crunchy balls, which can be inclusions or toppings in baked goods, contain 70% protein and feature a dairy flavor with a clean label. They can be used either plain or enrobed with chocolate or flavored coatings.

Ardent Mills fiber cookies“They add light and airy texture to nutritional bars while fortifying with protein,” said Corrie Drellack, communications and marketing manager at Agropur. “Not only are the pods neutrally flavored but these unique extrusions also provide a fun texture and allow for improved protein content without being disruptive to the base formula.”

At I.F.T., Apgropur sampled a savory Asian granola with whey permeate and protein crisps. The 70% protein crisps are made with whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate, providing 6 grams of protein per serving.

Innovations across a variety of baked goods were also presented at I.F.T. Arla Foods Ingredients introduced its latest solution for softening high protein bars. When the specialty whey protein ingredient is 5% of the total product, formulators saw 45% improved texture and 60% reduced hardness after 15 to 18 months, compared with a bar made with standard whey protein.

Idaho Milk Products showcased an 85% whey milk protein isolate and whey protein crisps in a white chocolate-coated bar containing 9 grams of protein per 40-gram bar. The isolate allows for a desirable texture and color while still delivering a high dose of protein and amino acids, according to Ron Hayes, marketing manager. The crisps add an extra dimension of texture. The company uses low heat membrane filtration to ensure the protein remains undenatured for functionality and nutrition. It has a clean, sweet dairy flavor and aroma as well as solubility and emulsifying capabilities, delivering improved texture and hydration.

Milk Specialties sampled an almond mango coconut nutrition bar made with the company’s highly functional dairy protein system designed specifically for soft-textured, high-protein bars. The system includes whey protein isolate and milk protein isolate and in studies has been shown to reduce moisture migration for a softer bar. Studies also show significantly reduced browning and hardening over shelf life. The bar contained ­15 grams of protein per 60-gram serving.

Where most whey proteins are produced from cheese whey, FrieslandCampina is differentiating itself with a new native whey protein ingredient derived directly from fresh raw grass-fed dairy milk. This is a story that can be conveyed to the consumer.

The 80% protein ingredient is isolated and concentrated using proprietary ­ultrafiltration and ceramic microfiltration, which results in a high leucine content. Leucine is the amino acid associated with promoting muscle health. At I.F.T., the company showcased the ingredient in a high-protein cookie.

“This native whey protein ingredient meets this demand for natural food propositions, offering sports nutrition manufacturers differentiation in their portfolio for premium positioning,” Mr. Maclean said.

Abundant alternatives

Just as dairy proteins have long been used in baked goods for functionality, the same is true of eggs. In fact, fortifying with proteins from such a common ingredient makes a lot of sense.

Rembrandt Foods offers a range of egg proteins for baked goods, including a new egg white protein isolate that is more than 92% protein on a dry basis, making it comparable to whey and soy isolates. The technology de-flavors the protein and reduces its foaming, gelling and whipping properties. The partially agglomerated form is optimal for boosting protein content in bars, nougats, baked goods and snacks, according to the company.

Gelatin, too, contributes protein to baked goods. However, the main reason for its use is its multiple functionalities. In addition to possessing thermo-­reversible gelling behavior, gelatin has excellent binding and whipping functions. It also acts as a stabilizer and emulsifier, making gelatin useful in fillings and frostings, according to Heather Arment, Gelita marketing coordinator for North America.

Protein granola barsBakers are also investigating the use of non-traditional animal proteins in baked goods. International Dehydrated Foods, Inc., markets defatted spray-dried chicken protein powders that contain no ­carbohydrates. The powders are made from 100% real chicken raised in the United States.

“Chicken is the most common animal protein consumed globally and often the food source that bodybuilders and serious athletes depend on most for quality protein,” said Stephanie Lynch, vice-­president of sales, marketing and technology for International Dehydrated Foods.

The company offers standard and organic versions, both of which contain more than 80% protein and can be used in baked and snack foods.

Powerful plants

On the plant side of protein ingredients, bakers can choose from a growing toolbox of options. There are whole food plant proteins, including specialty grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, as well as protein isolates obtained from these foods. A side perk with using whole-food plant proteins is that other nutrients often get boosted at the same time. Plus, many bring interesting colors, flavors and textures to the finished product.

“Our purple corn is a good example of a functional plant-based protein providing a high level of antioxidant power while being minimally processed and clean label,” said Tara Froemming, marketing coordinator for Healthy Food Ingredients. “The natural purple color allows for visual appeal without adding synthetic colors or dyes.”

Purple corn is available in many ingredient forms, including flour, meal, grits and flakes. It can be used in artisan breads, bars, cereals and crackers.

Combining nutrient-rich grains such as quinoa, amaranth, teff, rye, barley and spelt with pulses like lentils, chickpeas and dried peas is an increasingly common approach to boost the protein content of baked goods.

“Grains are generally lacking a couple of essential amino acids, such as lysine and threonine," said Angela Ichwan, senior ­director and technical solutions for The Annex by Ardent Mills. "By adding pulses, which lack methionine, a product developer will create a product that has all nine essential amino acids. Both grains and pulses are available in multiple forms, such as flour, flakes, whole seed, crisps and individual quick frozen, which can be incorporated into everything from bread and muffins to cookies, crackers, flatbreads and more.”

Grains and pulses can also be matched to optimize taste in specific applications.

“Chickpeas, for example, are described as beany or nut-like, while amaranth is earthy or peppery,” Ms. Scanlin said. “Pairing these two in a low-moisture food, such as a baked savory snack, can offer a unique pretzel-like taste.”

For the most part, pulse-based flours and proteins are ­broadly applicable in baked goods.

“We have successfully incorporated them into breads, tortillas, sweet goods, fillings and more,” said Yeni Pena, project lead of technical service U.S. and Canada ingredient solutions for Ingredion, Inc.

Limitations are application specific, she added. It can get challenging to process protein-enhanced baked goods when bakers exceed 10 grams of protein per serving when using pulse concentrate ingredients.

“Alternatively, pea protein isolate or a combination with a pulse concentrate can be better options for high protein levels,” she said.

Protein powder and protein barsAt I.F.T., Ingredion showcased its recently launched pea protein isolate sourced from yellow peas, which has a minimum protein content of 80%. Prototypes sampled included toasted rye ramen noodles and vegetarian protein-enhanced poppy seed buns.

Nutriati, Inc. and PLT Health Solutions, Inc., teamed up to offer a chickpea-based protein concentrate. The small, uniform particle size of the ingredient provides enhanced dissolution and suspension properties, excellent foaming and emulsification. This renders it suitable for all types of snacks as well as leavened breads, flatbreads and pastries.

Nuts are also a viable alternative. Blue Diamond Almonds’ Global Ingredients Division rolled out almond protein powder, which provides a source of fiber, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese and ­copper, as well as potassium and calcium. The powder has a fine texture, smooth mouthfeel and a neutral flavor.

Careful considerations

The protein trend isn’t likely to slow for some time. Finding ways to incorporate all types of the nutrient can help any baker looking for a differentiator. Plant proteins, specifically, can do more than just provide a “good source” of protein label claim.

“Some additional benefits of [some plant] proteins include emulsification and emulsion stability, gluten-free formulating, vegetarian and vegan friendly, and they provide a protein alternative to the major eight allergens,” said Karen Constanza, principal technologist of technical development at Ingredion.

The challenge with certain plant proteins is that some of these plants are still niche and not grown widely. Others are imported, which brings additional challenges in terms of tariffs and supply and demand.

“Flavor has also traditionally been a hurdle for pulse-based ingredients, but clean-taste technologies have helped make these ingredients more broadly ­applicable,” said Chris Thomas, principal technologist of technical service at Ingredion.

Another concern, and one that is of increasing importance, is transparency.

“As consumers demand to know where ingredients come from, how farmers grow them and how they are processed, it is more challenging to find local growers who can provide visibility throughout the supply chain and maintain transparency with each ­stakeholder along the way,” Ms. Ichwan said.

Beyond the formulation considerations, transparency helps tell the story behind a product and its ingredients and creates trust between consumers and their favorite products.