Greek yogurt is used to add flavor to a pork chop.


CHICAGO — The Dietary Guidelines recommend filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Many consumers are obliging, while at the same time they are making room for more protein, the on-trend health and wellness macronutrient. Interestingly, it’s not the typical protein sources of meat, poultry and fish that many consumers are turning to, rather, dairy, eggs, grains, legumes and pulses are all gaining traction.

“Consumers associate protein with satiety, weight loss and maintenance, and energy management,” said Sally Aaron, marketing director, Solazyme Microalgae Food Ingredients, San Francisco. “As these continue to be high needs for consumers, the food industry is responding by offering a more diverse set of foods fortified or made with a variety of proteins, including alternative sources.”

Rick Zambrano, food research editor, Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., said many consumers are looking to get more protein into their diets and, as a result, protein-rich foods have come to the center of product development, menu and merchandising discussions in the food industry. According to Packaged Facts’ recently published report, “Proteins – Classic, alternative and exotic sources: Culinary trend tracking series,” 62% of consumers make it a point of getting enough protein.

“This dietary trend is a gateway of increased opportunity for the food industry,” he said. “Protein has been elevated in the mind of consumers when they think about nutrition, diet and eating habits.”

A shift is occurring among Americans from a focus on avoiding fats and carbohydrates to an emphasis on adding protein to the diet, said Justin Lindenmayer, director of operations, Buen Sabor, Newburyport, Mass., manufacturers of Latin America-inspired frozen entrees.

“We primarily use beans — lentils, black beans and garbanzo beans — as either a substitute for meat entirely, or, in the case of lentils, as a complement to meat. Beans are cost effective and require fewer steps to process, as compared to other alternative protein sources.

“Cheese is another core ingredient to many of our dishes; however, we use cheese more as a flavoring tool than a protein substitute. High protein starches, powders and pastes from peas, seeds and nuts seem to be growing rapidly in popularity as protein alternatives.”


Reviewing the marketplace

Protein-centric foods are everywhere. In the food service and restaurant space, there are recent and ongoing developments to note.

“Certainly Taco Bell made big headlines with its repositioning of the Taco Bell Cantina Menu as Cantina Power,” Mr. Zambrano said. “It shows an alignment of restaurant menu items with what consumers are craving.

“Look for more food service operators aligning menus around nutritional intake and functionality — energy, protein and digestive health — and allocating more resources and menu space to health and wellness foods.”

Quinoa is used to add flavor and protein to a salad.


For example, The Protein Bar, which has its origins in Chicago and recently opened locations in Washington, D.C., and Colorado, is a quick-service restaurant focusing on portable protein. Whether breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack, the menu items all deliver a healthy dose of protein, often from a number of sources.

Breakfast menu items rely on Greek yogurt or egg whites, while the blended drinks start with the customer’s choice of protein powder (whey, soy, egg or vegan) and a liquid (2% milk, skim milk, almond, coconut or soy). Some drinks have Greek yogurt, too.

For lunch and dinner, there are bowls, burritos and salads. There’s a 31-gram of protein vegan burrito made with marinated organic tofu, kale, toasted pepitas and chickpeas topped with chia dressing and the company’s Super 6 Salad Mix (romaine, spinach, broccoli, carrots, kale and purple cabbage), all wrapped in a whole wheat flax tortilla.

The original meat-containing version provides 41 grams of protein and is made with chicken, seasoned black beans, a quinoa blend, fresh salsa and cheddar wrapped in a whole wheat flax tortilla. A super version comes loaded with Greek yogurt and avocado and delivers 48 grams of protein, all for only 630 calories and 16 grams of fat.


Meatless Monday

The packaged food business landscape has become more meatless in recent years, but not necessarily in efforts to appeal to vegetarians. Many consumers simply want to eat less animal protein, with meatless not meaning vegan.

“Our meals are meatless for lots of reasons,” said Jen Moore, founder, Meez Meals, Chicago, a home delivery culinary concept that supplies prepared and ready-to-cook ingredients for meals. “We believe that eating meatless meals a few days a week is good for your health and for the planet. We also love the creativity that meatless meals require and the culinary adventure that it takes us on. Most of the folks who cook with us are not vegetarians, but they love the idea of eating a few meatless meals a week.”

The company does offer suggestions on how to incorporate meat, poultry and fish into the meals.

“While meat is an ideal protein source, vegetarian protein sources are becoming more popular,” Mr. Zambrano said.

An analysis of the Packaged Facts survey shows that 28% of consumers seek vegetarian sources of protein. Many are embracing dairy, in particular Greek yogurt, as well as eggs.

“There is increasing use of yogurt, in particular Greek yogurt, as a protein source in recipe development, both in the food service arena as well as in home kitchens,” said Michael Symon, a James Beard Award-winning chef, and spokesperson for the new 6-lb bags of Dannon Oikos Pro Greek Nonfat Plain Yogurt from Dannon Foodservice, White Plains, N.Y. “It has a rich mouthfeel and brings tartness and acidity to a dish for a more complex flavor.”

Michael Buononato, vice-president of creative food solutions, The Food Group, New York, added, “Greek yogurt is not only a replacement for sour cream, mayo, cream cheese and even butter in certain applications, it has grown into a meal of its own. Its ease of incorporation into recipes is due to its taste and texture combination without the fat or caloric penalties.”

Eggs and egg products also are making their way into more recipes.

“Eggs are available in so many different forms — dried, liquid, frozen and preformed patties — there is an egg ingredient to suit almost any application scenario,” said Walter Zuromski, president and culinary director, Chefs Services Group, Lincoln, R.I. “Eggs adapt to almost any type of quick-heating situation and will withstand the freeze/thaw cycle. This means formulators can incorporate eggs into microwavable, portable breakfast bowls or handheld sandwiches.”

Vegetable lasagna or ricotta cheese-filled ravioli are meatless meal options. Eggs products also may boost protein content.

“Whole egg solids in the pasta help bind the ingredients together, as in the filling, where formulators have the option to use either liquid or dried eggs,” Mr. Zuromski said.

Eggs may be used to create a smooth sauce to complement the pasta.

“There are so many sources of protein to choose from,” Ms. Moore said. “There’s a common perception that vegetarians need tofu at every meal, and we love it and edamame in recipes, but we love the full spectrum of protein options.”

Tofu long has been the go-to protein for vegetarians, with non-vegetarians often shying away from the nutrient-dense soy bean curd. Ease of use is the main challenge in cooking tofu, according to Vitasoy USA Inc., Ayer, Mass. In fact, a recent survey indicated that 62% of tofu non-users think it is a healthy alternative to meat but 49% say they don’t know how to prepare it. To assist, the company is rolling out Nasoya TofuBaked, marinated and fully cooked tofu. Ready-to-eat hot or cold, the tofu comes in sesame ginger and teriyaki flavors.

Tofu is different than meat analogs.

Ease of use is often cited as the main challenge in cooking with tofu.


“We don’t work with meat substitutes, such as textured soy protein,” Ms. Moore said. “We embrace ingredients for what they are, rather than trying to have them act as meat. These analogs tend to be highly processed and lose many of the health benefits of eating an ingredient in its more natural state.

“Our customers tell us that they love cooking with us because they discover new ingredients or preparations they never thought to try before, such as pasta tossed with beans or quinoa mixed with cauliflower.”

A recent example is flatbread topped with white bean puree, roasted bell peppers, basil oil and olive tapenade.

Mr. Lindenmayer said protein adds “likability” to meatless foods whose popularity has, for a long time, been limited to vegans and other niche groups.

“Flagging the protein content of meatless foods is a great way to bring these foods into the everyday diet of many more Americans who are looking to ways to improve their health and reduce their meat consumption without sacrificing nutrient value,” he said.

“In all our dishes that use meat, we strive to use meat as a flavor enhancer — a small piece of the whole — rather than the centerpiece of the dish,” Mr. Lindenmayer said. “In doing so, we’ve added plant-based proteins as a way to boost the protein content, provide additional texture and color, and add to the overall health profile of our dishes.”


Considering ingredient options

In addition to using “whole” food ingredients, there are a number of protein ingredients that may enhance recipes, typically invisibly.

“The most common alternative protein sources we see in meals today are whey and soy ingredients,” said Jason Demmerly, applications scientist, Glanbia Nutritionals, Twin Falls, Idaho.

“Dairy proteins are considered to be the most flavor friendly of the alternative proteins,” he said. “Dairy proteins work well with animal proteins and can contribute to a desirable texture in the prepared food.”

Suppliers offer specialty whey and dairy proteins with enhanced physiological and functional properties, making it easy to boost the protein content of almost any food without affecting product quality.

Soy ingredients are the most common plant protein source, with soy protein commonly turned into textured vegetable protein for use in meat alternatives or meat analogues to give products a meat-like texture.

Other plant protein sources are gaining acceptance by formulators and consumers. For example, in the past year, pea and rice proteins have proven to be quite versatile in food applications.

A new option comes from Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Tate & Lyle, which has introduced an oat protein ingredient made from imported non-bioengineered Swedish oats. The highly digestible vegan ingredient is about 54% protein, as well as a source of 2% oat beta glucan soluble fiber.

Rice bran protein ingredients are another emerging protein source.

“Because rice bran protein ingredients are made from the unused bran of a global crop, the raw material is readily available and requires no additional arable land,” said Robert Smith, senior vice-president of sales and business development, RiceBran Technologies, Scottsdale, Ariz. “Our rice bran protein is 30% protein, dispersible, neutral in flavor. Another of our rice bran ingredients offers both fiber and protein, with typical values of 20% protein and 50% fiber. In conjunction with animal proteins, rice bran proteins can offer cost savings and a balanced amino acid profile.”

New to the marketplace is whole algal protein.

“It is a unique source of protein, fiber, healthy lipids and micronutrients, such as lutein and zeaxanthin,” said Kathy Samuelson, application scientist at Solazyme. “It is free of known allergens, vegan and gluten-free. The protein is completely protected by the algae cell wall, so the protein has limited interaction with other food ingredients, allowing for very easy formulation across a broad set of applications. The protein has high digestibility and contains all of the essential amino acids. Its mild umami flavor allows it to work especially well in savory applications.”

Unique applications include soups and salad dressings.

“Whole algal protein can be added to vegetarian soups, such as a tomato bisque, to increase protein, since it is difficult to find ‘invisible’ protein sources for vegetarian foods,” Ms. Samuelson said.

Usage levels in soups range from 0.5% to 1%. For a French salad dressing, the usage level would range from 2.5% to 5%.

“In these examples, whole algal protein is added without any special formulation considerations and no impact on the texture and viscosity,” she said. “The temperature change does not impact the viscosity of whole algal protein.”

Mr. Demmerly said protein ingredient usage amounts may vary based on product specifications and the target market.

“While some formulators may seek protein functionality to eliminate gums and clean up a label, others may want to pack in the maximum amount of protein possible,” he said. “There are several things to consider when fortifying with protein, including pH of the finished product and the isoelectric point of the intended protein, heating and processing parameters, shelf life and freeze/thaw stability.

“The protein trend will only continue to grow and companies that don’t realize this will be left behind.”