CHICAGO — Protein’s momentum as a power nutrient in beverages continues in 2019, with new sources and formats making the satiety-inducing, refueling, muscle-building macronutrient more appealing and accessible in the mainstream marketplace. With many consumers heeding nutritional advice to increase their intake of plant-based foods, more and varied plant proteins are being added to all types of refrigerated and shelf-stable beverages.

“More consumers are adopting vegetarian or lactose-free diets, while others are turning to plant-based foods for other perceived health benefits,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation, Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands.

This is fueling beverage innovation with plant proteins, many of which are sources of additional beneficial nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Adding any type of protein to a beverage comes with sensory challenges. With plant proteins, hurdles are often higher than with dairy proteins, as plant proteins tend to have beany, grainy or green flavor profiles, as well as reduced solubility and off color.

“In the move to offer something new, a growing number of non-soy plant-based ingredients are appearing, including cereals such as rice, oats and barley,” Ms. Williams said. “We are also seeing an increase in nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts and macadamias, as well as coconut and more unusual options such as lupin, hemp and flaxseed.”

In many instances, blends work best. Chicago-based Spinning Wheel Brands has introduced Hope & Sesame organic sesamemilks. The beverage relies on an exclusive plant-based protein concentrate comprised of sesame seeds and pea protein, delivering eight grams of protein per serving.

Califia Farm UbermilkCalifia Farms, Los Angeles, is the most recent company to enter the oat beverage business with Übermilk. One serving contains eight grams of plant-based protein from peas, oats and sunflower seeds, a blend that provides all eight essential amino acids.

It is that balance of essential amino, along with a creamy texture, that has long made whey and milk the preferred source of protein in beverages ranging from smoothies to lattes to meal replacements.

“Dairy proteins are the ‘gold standard’ for formulating protein into beverages,” said Devin Stagg, chief operating officer, PLT Health Solutions, Morristown, N.J. “In most cases, plant proteins can’t match dairy proteins, if for no other reason, it’s because that’s what people are accustomed to.”

Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist, Cargill, Minneapolis, said, “Plant protein ingredients lack milk fat, which provides much of the texture and mouthfeel associated with dairy-based products. To make up for that loss in mouthfeel, formulators often turn to texturizers to build back the velvety, rich texture consumers expect.

“Milk and whey proteins also are inherently sweeter than plant proteins; natural non-dairy flavors can be added to plant-protein beverages to enhance the taste while also providing creaminess.”

PLT Health Solutions made chickpea-based protein concentrate available in commercial quantities in June 2018. The product was designed to provide the beverage industry with a plant protein that approaches the sensory and formulating experience of dairy proteins.

“The very small, uniform and smooth-surfaced particle size of our chickpea protein is responsible for important formulating benefits, in particular when it comes to the development of beverage products,” Mr. Stagg said. “In beverages, this small particle size enhances dissolution and suspension of the ingredient in liquids and reduces sedimentation that is a common issue for plant proteins, specifically in low-pH beverages where ‘crash out’ can occur. The unique smoothness of the particles also works to enhance texture and mouthfeel in beverage applications.”

The company helped a fortified-juice beverage manufacturer eliminate grittiness by switching plant proteins to chickpea. The swap also allowed for an increase in protein load.

“We have used our chickpea protein in combination with other protein ingredients — notably pea protein — to improve overall taste of a formulation,” Mr. Stagg said. “This has the benefit of reducing the need for sweeteners or masking agents, delivering a healthier product and a cleaner label.”

Plant-based chocolate milk

Not all pea proteins are created equal, Ms. Machen said.

“While most pea proteins bring along a host of flavor challenges, our pea protein is decidedly different,” she said. “It’s sourced from yellow pea seed varieties specially selected to minimize the off-flavors normally attributed to pulses. In addition, it is processed without the use of hexanes to bring out the best flavor possible.”

From a functional standpoint, pea protein tends to be more soluble than other plant proteins, making it easier to keep in suspension. The further a beverage’s pH is from a protein’s isoelectric point, the easier it is to keep the protein in suspension.

“It is especially well-suited for both neutral and low-pH beverage applications,” Ms. Machen said. “Neutral pH beverages, such as alternative milks, dry protein powders and ready-to-drink meal replacements, typically have a pH close to 7.0, far above pea protein’s isoelectric point, which ranges from 4.5 to 5.”

Pea protein possesses emulsifying capabilities, making it well suited for plant-based meal-replacement beverages. The products typically are fortified with numerous vitamins, minerals and nutrients and contain satiating levels of protein and fat. It is paramount the suspension maintain stability to deliver a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.

“It is important to allow for proper dispersion and hydration time,” said Karen Constanza, project leader — technical development, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “There are also sensory differences that are inherent to each protein source and must be considered when determining the overall flavor of a beverage.

“For example, our pea protein isolate is characterized by cooked bean and sweet aromatic notes. Our pea protein isolate also has lower raw and green flavors compared to other commercial pea protein isolates, which can be beneficial when it comes to developing a beverage flavor.”

Bolthouse Farms plant milkPea protein contains all of the essential amino acids, but it is not a complete protein because two of the amino acids, methionine and cysteine, are limiting. To compensate, formulators typically blend pea protein with a complementary protein source, such as rice, chickpea, soy or pumpkin.

“One issue that comes up frequently is that most plant proteins are not complete proteins, like dairy,” said Danielle Black, senior product strategic manager of plant-based nutrition, Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago. “Plant protein blends may offer a solution to achieve a higher protein level, but the resulting blend may have functionality or even continuity-of-supply challenges.

“And each plant-based ingredient poses different challenges. For instance, flaxseed’s organoleptic stability can be a challenge, which is unfortunate because it has such a great nutritional value. It is high in omega-3 fatty acids and also contains fiber and protein.”

Glanbia has developed a process that renders flaxseed protein a two-year shelf life. It may be used at up to 3% inclusion in ready-to-drink applications.

Soy remains the most popular plant protein, alone or in combination with others. This often allows for a greater protein level along with an improved sensory profile.

“Some of our soy offerings for beverages include soy protein isolates and concentrates, and organic whole soybean powder,” said Lisa Bradford, senior scientist, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago.

Soy protein is most comparable to dairy when it comes to protein quality. This means it contains all the essential amino acids in the best proportion for the body’s use.

“Peanuts and tree nuts are another great source of plant-based proteins that can be adapted for beverages by using nut butters and flours,” Ms. Bradford said. “We offer a variety of tree nut butters, including almond, cashew, macadamia, pistachio and sunflower. Nut butters are a great protein because they offer intact fat, which aids in creating a creamy mouthfeel in beverages. We also offer peanut flour, which is an interesting ingredient that offers additional protein, mouthfeel and flavor, and that can provide a foundation for instant powder beverages and other applications.”

Other plant-based beverage protein options ADM offers include chia seeds, quinoa flour and edible bean powders.

“The starch from edible beans plays a key role in mouthfeel and stability, which is critical for beverages,” Ms. Bradford said.