KANSAS CITY — Protein is hot with consumers, and manufacturers of bars and snacks are responding with many new alternatives on the market. Protein is associated with healthy lifestyles and helping to build muscles, among other benefits.

“High-protein snacks have a health halo among consumers because of their benefits in human nutrition and weight management,” said Tanya Jeradechachai, vice president of ingredient solutions, research and development, MGP Ingredients Inc. “There is a significant surge of keto-friendly snacks based on high customer demand for our wheat protein isolates, and we have yet to see this trend leveling off.”

Capitalizing on this trend and taking it a step further, bar makers are promoting other claims with these snacks for the health conscious, including low sugar, gluten- and grain-free, plant-based, clean label and more.

Nicole Redini, category strategy manager, F&BS, North America, Tate & Lyle, pointed to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, which shows that products launched over the past two years in the snack and bakery categories that contained a high/added protein claim have also focused on several clean label claims and appeared on at least 50% of new product launches over the past three years.

Additionally, 75% of consumers said they would pay a premium price for snacks and treats fortified with protein, according to a 2021 Kerry survey.

With several protein options, it’s important to understand what sources are available, the benefits they bring and how they will affect claims on labels.

Building better bars

A wide variety of proteins are available to fortify bars and snacks, including wheat, soy, whey, peas and other pulses, nuts and ancient grains.

Wheat proteins are versatile and can be used in many high-protein salty snacks and bars, Ms. Jeradechachai said, although they, like many high-protein products, can have tough textures if used in large concentrations.

“They provide viscoelastic properties and protein enhancement in keto-friendly salty snacks, such as pretzels, chips and crackers,” she said. “In high-protein bars, wheat protein isolates are used as binders, and the texturized wheat proteins are added for texture.”

She added that wheat protein isolates can form film and entrap air, which can create light and airy snacks.

Soy protein has been widely used for years and provides versatility in formulations.

“It’s a product that has been developed with love for many years, and it works well in all these spaces,” said Chad Rieschl, principal food scientist, North American applications team, Cargill. “It’s amazing how it works everywhere. All these proteins are catching up to see how they can be in that place.”

Dairy protein is another choice that provides several benefits for snack bars.

Whey protein

“For high-protein bars, dairy proteins — whey and milk proteins — provide an ideal solution as they are high in protein, clean flavored and have a complete protein profile to give a PDCAAS of 1.0,” said Steve Adolphson, research manager, bar applications at Glanbia Nutritionals.

PDCAAS, or protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score, rates the quality of a protein based on people’s amino acid requirements and ability to digest it, with 1.0 being the highest score. That means the protein will provide 100% of all the amino acids required in a diet.

“Plant-based proteins can also be a good choice, but they tend to have lower protein loads, and commonly have flavor challenges that need to be overcome,” Mr. Adolphson continued. “In addition, as the protein quality is not as high, a combination of different plant-based proteins needs to be used if there will be a claim made around high protein in the bar.”

Dairy proteins can also help bars maintain a soft texture.

“We would suggest including a hydrolyzed whey protein, as it will help with shelf life and slow the hardening of a high-protein bar,” said Peggy Ponce, Agropur’s director of product innovation.

Plant-based proteins surging

Although whey, soy and wheat are high-quality proteins used in many applications, the pursuit of clean label, plant-based products that are allergen-free can eliminate these options, depending on the claims snack and bar makers are pursuing.

“Plant-based is definitely having its moment in the sun, as is low sugar,” said Emily Jackson, technical service manager, Manildra Group USA. “Consumers are reflecting more on their food choices in the wake of the ongoing pandemic and are making choices that directly impact their health and the health of the planet.”

And there are many plant-based options with newer ones emerging.

“Any pulse or ancient grain in a flaked, grit or flour form can be utilized to enhance the protein of a snack such as pressed bars, crackers or extruded snacks, to name a few examples,” said Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer, Healthy Food Ingredients.

Peas and other pulses do have their challenges, including giving bars a gritty, powdery or dry texture, but those problems can be offset with binding syrups, said Erin Nese, senior technologist, commercial innovation acceleration, Ingredion. Managing the taste is crucial as well.

“Plant proteins have inherent flavors that are beany or earthy,” Ms. Nese said. “Choosing a plant protein with the cleanest flavor profile will help with overall flavor. Flavor maskers can also be used to neutralize or mask off-notes. Formulators should work with flavors which complement plant proteins. Chocolate or nutty flavors pair well with many pea proteins in bars.”

A combination of plant proteins can also help overcome some of the challenges associated with them.

“Certain plant-based proteins in raw whole form such as legumes, may have strong flavor profiles. By utilizing a precooked option in flour or flaked form, these off-flavor notes can be reduced,” Ms. Tesch said.

A combination of proteins also can help bars maintain a soft, chewy texture during their shelf life.

“When you start adding proteins, they have a tendency to densify the material, so then you need to look at its supporting characters,” Mr. Rieschl said. “What are the ingredients you will couple with it to help improve or create the texture you desire? Or what proteins will you combine together to create the right texture and density and flavor profile that you’re looking at?”

Pea flour and split peas

ADM offers a range of flours that combine pea protein with wheat or rice proteins, which offer greater ingredient density and nutrient density in one product.

“Both wheat and rice MaxFlex blends deliver quality plant protein content and functionality as well as great taste, light color and improved texture for snacks ranging from crispy chips to soft-baked bars,” said Wendy van Buren, global commercial growth leader, alternative proteins, ADM.

Merit Functional Foods is now offering a canola protein to answer demands for plant-based protein options. It can achieve a PDCAAS of 1.0 when blended with pea protein.

“In addition to its solubility and protein levels, Puratein C has low water binding capacity that keeps bars soft and allows them to stay softer longer,” said Jeff Casper, director of research and applications at Merit.

Crisps, crackers and more

One way to increase protein without creating texture problems is to use crisps.

“At ADM, we produce soy crisps with 60% and 80% protein that are perfect for nutritional bar formulations,” Ms. van Buren said.

With high-protein crackers and other sheeted products, processability and texture present a challenge.

“Using high levels of protein in a sheeted snack requires higher levels of moisture compared to traditional snacks,” Ms. Nese said. “Pea protein, for example, has a high water-holding capacity; a formula with pea protein incorporated will require additional water to achieve a cohesive dough. A cohesive dough is also important for sheeting. If a dough is dry, crumbly or tearing during sheeting, adding a pre-gel starch may help solve the challenge. The final texture in a high protein snack may be dense and hard. Using the right starch texturizer in the formulation can help achieve a light, airy, crispy and/or crunchy snack.”

Another plant-based choice is also environmentally friendly. EverGrain Ingredients is one of the first to offer Upcycled Certified barley fiber.

“As concerns around food waste become more and more prevalent, consumers are looking to upcycled ingredients like our barley fiber and protein ingredients as a solution and path to a better future for themselves and for our planet,” said Giacomo Cattaneo, EverVita product owner, EverGrain Ingredients.

The type of protein and format a formulator uses will depend on the claim the bar or snack maker wants to make. For instance, a keto-friendly bar formulation would need added protein but keep sugar content as low as possible.

“Formulators are recommended to use protein isolates over the concentrates to ensure the highest protein and lowest available carbohydrate content possible, and to reduce the sugar and starch and replace them with dietary fiber,” Ms. Jeradechachai said. “The protein isolate source must also be functional — viscoelastic — especially in keto-friendly bakery products.”

Isolates have a higher protein content, often upwards of 80% to 90%, depending on the protein source, while concentrates generally have a lower protein content.

Ins and outs of extrusion

High-protein extruded snacks present unique challenges for formulators, although their popularity is growing among consumers.

“When it comes to snacking, really where a lot of the traction is happening with protein fortification is around extruded snacks,” said Marilyn Stieve, senior product manager, bars and snacks, Glanbia. “There we have a line of milk proteins that we’ve developed specifically for extrusion that can allow up to 74% protein in an extruded snack. It’s a little bit more challenging getting into high protein levels when you start talking about extrusion.”

Texture is one challenge with high-protein extruded snacks. Ms. Stieve said it’s important to understand the protein matrix and find ways to functionalize it so snacks can go through the temperature and pressure of extrusion while keeping a pleasing, crunchy texture.

“When we set out to develop proteins that could work well in extruded snacks, it was really focusing on the protein molecules and how that would behave through extrusion in order to minimize that glassy-type challenge,” she said, referring to the brittle texture that can come with these products. “When you start talking about extruding plant-based protein, it can be even more challenging with the texture because it is very difficult to get good expansion when you’re working with plant-based protein. I’m speaking specifically about pea protein. And flavor can also be a significant challenge.”

Mr. Rieschl explained that there are a couple of ways that extruded snacks are made, which can influence the amount of protein that can be put in the product.

“Direct expand comes out, it puffs, and you can cut it, coat it and go,” he said. “And there’s a 3G pellet, which is where you can potentially increase the moisture and some of the protein. You dry this pellet, and then you can expand it later. Whether it’s microwaved, hot air popped or oil fried, you can potentially get a little more expansion.”

Consistency of the raw materials in a high-protein extruded snack is vital for ensuring a high-quality product.

“Extrusion has the general effect of increasing the digestibility of proteins and reducing the microbial load of the finished product,” Ms. Jeradechachai said. “Proteins normally undergo aggregation — such as cross-linking — due to the heat and shear effect of the extruder, which dictates the end-product quality.”

Ms. Nese said she doesn’t see high-protein extruded snacks slowing down anytime soon.

“New high-protein snacks may take on different forms,” she said. “Instead of protein bars, for example, we may see more extruded snacks or sheeted snacks.”

Experts see the trend toward high-protein bars and snacks continuing into the foreseeable future. As consumers strive to guard their health in the face of a pandemic, they are seeking out these products.

“I see the trend continuing,” said Julie Phillips Waters, an Agropur food technologist. “Busy lifestyles lead to more snacking. And today, people are more mindful and conscious of what they’re eating.”

Mr. Casper agreed, adding that “consumers are going to continue to look for innovation in high protein snacks that can deliver on taste, texture, color and protein content while maintaining clean label and plant-based designations.”