Product developers are innovating with protein to stay on trend and add value to beverages.

Protein has muscled its way to the package front, with many consumers seeking products containing noteworthy amounts of the macro nutrient associated with controlling blood sugar, managing weight, building muscle and more.

Sixty-two per cent of consumers said they are “making a point of getting enough protein” from the foods and beverages they consume, according to a new report by Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., titled “Proteins — Classic, alternative and exotic sources: Culinary trend tracking series.”

“Americans continue to seek out protein for a variety of health and wellness concerns, and to increase maintenance, growth and repair functions of the body,” said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. “With the popularity of diets like Paleo, Primal and Atkins, protein has been the darling of lean diets for more than two decades now, and ties in more broadly to the consumer quest for health and wellness food and beverages to address specific health concerns. This presents a unique opportunity for food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants.”

Consumer desire for protein-rich foods and beverages is fueling the growth and innovation of protein ingredients. This interest was apparent at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists’ (I.F.T.) annual meeting and food exposition in New Orleans in June, where Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation, Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, told attendees “The time is right for protein innovation” during a presentation.

She explained that demand for whey protein is soaring due to its rising popularity as a natural, healthy ingredient, particularly in sports, medical and infant nutrition, and in weight management. And while vegetables lead the list for the number of published protein patents in foods and drinks, whey has risen from eighth position in 2012 to third position in 2013, Ms. Williams said. At the same time, the number of nut and seed protein patents has risen sharply, from single digits in 2012 to more than 200 in 2013. Even more interesting has been the strong activity in patent actions relating to algae-derived proteins, she said.

Whey is where it began

Whey led the protein ingredient phenomenon less than a decade ago when it was discovered whey proteins contain one of the highest levels of the branched-chain amino acid leucine, which has been shown to have a significant role in muscle maintenance and repair. Whey proteins are considered complete proteins, as they contain all the essential amino acids the body requires and in the right proportion.

At the I.F.T., the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va., sampled a whey protein isolate (W.P.I.)-based no-sugar-added vegetable drink containing a 23% blend of eight different vegetable juice concentrates/purees. An 8-oz serving provides 12 grams of whey proteins and only 130 calories.

Numerous suppliers showcased specialty whey ingredients. Arla Foods Ingredients, Basking Ridge, N.J., has a whey protein hydrolysate that has been shown to be quickly absorbed by the body. This results in significantly faster muscle recovery after exercise. Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis., offers an ingredient containing high levels of leucine-rich peptides isolated from whey proteins. It is produced using patent-pending technology designed to improve delivery of amino acids to muscle tissue, thereby allowing for more efficient nutrient delivery for improved muscle synthesis and growth.

At the 8th Global Dairy Congress in early June, Davisco Foods International Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., was named a finalist in the global 2014 Dairy Innovation Awards for its alpha-lactalbumin ingredient. The proprietary whey ingredient is rich in leucine and the amino acid tryptophan. The latter is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and the neurosecretory hormone melatonin, which have been shown to play a role in regulating neurobehavioral effects such as appetite, sleep-waking rhythm, pain perception, mood, anxiety and stress control. The company also markets a proprietary W.P.I. that is a concentrated source of leucine: 13.1% vs. 11% for standard leucine.

Supporting the effectiveness of whey protein, and at the same time recognizing the value of other sources of protein, Craig Sherwin, director of protein technology at Davisco, spoke at I.F.T. Wellness 14 in March on the topic of blending proteins. He explained how whey proteins are known for their clean flavor and high solubility, particularly at low pH, but to achieve additional goals of thermal stability and improved economics, product developers often blend whey proteins with other protein sources.

Mr. Sherwin explained to attendees that data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (F.A.O.) shows Davisco’s alpha-lactalbumin has a Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) score of 114 and its higher-leucine ingredient has a score of 110, far superior to the DIAAS score of 92 for soy protein and 74 for pea protein. Blending proteins with scores above 100 with those below 100 for functionality and cost benefits may still deliver theoretical DIAAS scores of 100. The DIAAS is the new, recommended test for assessing the quality of dietary proteins.

Plant protein power

Beverages containing both dairy and plant proteins are definitely a trend. At the I.F.T., Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill., sampled a vanilla-flavored protein beverage where half of the protein came from isolated soy protein and the other half from milk protein isolate.

“This high-viscosity soy protein was designed to replace dairy proteins in neutral pH applications,” said Dina Fernandez, protein research scientist. “It allows for high-protein applications, while providing price stability, lower cost and a clean flavor profile.”

Soy remains the most common plant protein source, but other sources are quickly gaining acceptance by formulators and consumers. In the past year, pea protein has proven to be quite versatile in food applications, and now, due to a namesake innovation from Botan Ltd., Santa Monica, Calif., beverage applications, too.

The company recently introduced a 100% soluble vegetable protein beverage made with pea protein powder. Each 16-oz bottle delivers 12 grams of protein. Botan comes in three flavors: tomato, pineapple coconut, and strawberry cucumber. According to the company, Botan captures the goodness of the pea, a protein with essential amino acids that the body cannot produce but are critical in the production of all cells. The amino acids also help delay fatigue during exercise, enhance immunity and promote bone health.

“In beverages, as in many application areas, alternative plant protein sources are an up-and-coming topic,” said Stacy Pyett, business development manager, NIZO food research, The Netherlands. “Depending on the specific source, the level of technical development varies. Pea, rice and potato are, for example, already available as industrial ingredients. Ongoing research focuses on developing new sources like algae, pulses and green leaves.”

Each source presents its own specific challenges, but there are some general considerations.

“The first challenge is to achieve a cost-effective extraction while maintaining functionality,” Ms. Pyett said. “Techniques such as acid precipitation, for example, can be cost-effective but result in low-soluble, low-functional proteins. We’ve worked with suppliers of new-source proteins to improve extraction processes.”

One example is the extraction of a high-foaming, colorless rubisco protein isolate from green leaves using a combination of mild heat treatment and decolorization. Rubisco is the plant enzyme involved in the conversion of atmospheric carbon dioxide to energy-rich molecules such as glucose.

“Beverage applications are particularly challenging due to the need to achieve high solubility at low pH,” Ms. Pyett said. “Some protein sources, such as potato, have a naturally high solubility at low pH and lend themselves particularly well to beverage applications.”

When The Netherlands-based Solanic, part of the Avebe group, was ready to introduce a new potato protein isolate to the market, the company worked with NIZO to develop on-trend applications.

“The unique emulsifying, foaming and gelling properties of the native potato protein make it an ideal ingredient for different food applications, including sports beverages,” Ms. Pyett said.

NIZO scientists were successful in developing a clear sports drink with a desirable level of protein without any gelling.

“Ingredients from other sources often make use of hydrolysis to increase solubility, but often an additional step is required to eliminate or mask bitterness,” Ms. Pyett added. “Alternatively, the proteins can be modified using natural technologies such as glycosylation or fermentation. Continuing research aims to increase the toolbox of solutions for suppliers and users of new-source proteins.”

AIDP, City of Industry, Calif., markets a number of plant-based proteins, including a sprouted brown rice protein that recently has become available in a certified-organic form.

“It (the brown rice protein) also has been improved so that it has no gritty mouthfeel or aftertaste, making it applicable for beverage formulations,” said Alan Riollata, director of branded sales. “This ingredient addresses numerous issues, including continually rising costs of other protein sources, a growing vegan market, and growing awareness of whey, soy protein and other foods that lead to allergies and sensitivities.

“Sprouting enhances the protein’s nutritional benefits, as well as other benefits over conventional rice protein. Rice protein has been shown to have similar muscle-building capabilities as whey protein.”

The company also offers a proprietary blend of rice and pea protein that delivers a complete protein profile as it boosts the low lysine level typical of rice-only protein.

“Our pea protein comes in highly purified formulations, 80% and 85% concentrates sourced from Canadian peas,” Mr. Riollata said.

Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Tate & Lyle used I.F.T. to debut an oat protein ingredient made from imported non-bioengineered Swedish oats. The company uses a patented process without the use of solvents to extract the protein component of oat bran.

“This highly digestible vegan protein is the only commercially available oat protein in the marketplace today,” said Megan Mullinix, sales manager of oat ingredients. “It is about 54% protein, as well as a source of 2% oat beta glucan soluble fiber. It works great in beverages that have some viscosity, because even though it is clear in solution, it does contribute some mouthfeel.”

The company sampled the ingredient in an iced mocha café au lait that also was enhanced with its 35% oat beta glucan fiber ingredient, which resulted in a beverage where an 8-oz serving provided 5 grams of both protein and fiber.

Ancient yet on trend

Ancient protein-rich grains such as chia and quinoa are being rediscovered by consumers and encouraging formulators to explore innovative applications. The use of chia seeds as an ingredient continues to grow, with a tenfold increase in ingredient penetration globally between 2009 and 2014, according to Mintel, Chicago. Impressively, in 2013, 12% of products launched with chia seeds were in the beverage category, up from zero in 2009.

At I.F.T., Glanbia Nutritionals Inc., Fitchburg, Wis., showcased its new cultured Greek yogurt powder in an energy chia smoothie that also contained the company’s super-finely milled white chia seed.

“The Greek yogurt powder, which is made from cultured skim milk and milk protein concentrate, provides the tart flavor consumers expect from Greek yogurt,” said Vicky Fligel, business development manager-functional dairy and beverages. “It is more than 60% protein and can be a source of high-quality complete protein for all types of beverages.

“The chia powder is about 15% complete protein. It readily disperses, allowing for smooth, non-gritty beverages.”

Regardless of the protein, fortification can be difficult to manage if you don’t have the right ingredients.

“The viscosity, pH, processing conditions, fortification and flavor components are critical considerations,” said Jenny Zhou, food technologist, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis.

She said there are many intricacies that factor into developing protein-fortified dairy beverages, and specialty stabilizers designed for beverages are often necessary. At I.F.T., the company sampled an iced caramel coffee-milk drink enhanced with W.P.I. Proper stabilization allowed for 12.5 grams of protein per 8-oz serving.

In anticipation that revisions to the Nutrition Facts Panel will include an “added sugars” line under the total carbohydrate category, alternative sweetener suppliers are developing protein beverages that allow for a zero added sugars declaration. For example, at I.F.T., Celanese, Food Ingredients Division, Irving, Texas, showed this is possible in a chocolate meal replacement shake based on animal and plant proteins with added soluble fiber for increased satiety value.

“We developed a no-sugar-added breakfast shake using our sweetening system comprised of acesulfame potassium, sucralose and natural flavors that provides a sugar-like sweetness in high-protein beverages and other beverage applications,” said Amy Gilliland, technical manager-Americas. “There’s nat-ural sweetness from the low-fat cow’s milk and nonfat dry milk, which is blended with rice milk and oat milk to produce a beverage with fewer calories, lower total carbohydrates and no added sugars, as compared to similar sugar-sweetened meal replacements. This highly soluble sweetener system can be used in ultra-high temperature processing, which is what is often used for many meal replacement-type protein drinks.”

The protein trend is expected to grow, and beverages are a convenient and simple form of delivering this powerful macronutrient.