Drinkable protein
The ready-to-drink beverage category is growing as product formulators experiment with new sources of the nutrient.

CHICAGO — Protein is the most sought after nutrient by U.S. shoppers, according to the 2016 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), Washington. An impressive 64% of Americans seek to include protein in the diet, a statistically significant increase compared to 2015.

“Growing interest in protein has expanded the appeal of sports nutrition products to a wider audience that includes a variety of lifestyles and generations looking for easy, high-quality nutrition,” said Kara McDonald, vice-president of global marketing communications, U.S. Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va. “Added protein to ready-to-drink beverages is an important selling point for brands.”

What the IFIC survey did not delve into is the source of protein, which may come from animals or plants, and increasingly in the beverage category, tends to be a blend of both. This is often because blends of proteins allow for higher addition levels without a chalky mouthfeel or unpleasant taste.

Consumers rank taste as the most important criterion when choosing a high-protein beverage, according to a study by DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis. Protein content ranked second, according to the study, which was conducted earlier this year to better understand consumer taste preferences in the $2.7 billion U.S. retail R.-T.-D. high-protein beverage category, while protein source was significantly less important.

Drinkable protein
The Kellogg Co.'s Kashi brand recently launched a line of plant-powered protein shakes.

“The study is a very unique, topical and comprehensive review of the R.-T.-D. high-protein beverage category,” said Colleen Conley, principal scientist — sensory science. “This holistic view of the protein beverage landscape is strategic in that we took into account different types of consumers of these products and examined their individual preference patterns.”

For the DuPont study, a trained descriptive panel profiled more than 65 commercial high-protein (greater than 8 grams of protein per 8-oz serving, with the maximum level being 20 grams) beverages, containing various sources of protein. Descriptive profiling enabled DuPont to create a sensory map of the category, which demonstrated how much flavor diversity exists in the high-protein beverage category. Following descriptive profiling, consumer panels in three U.S. cities evaluated 20 beverages — both commercial and DuPont prototypes, which exceeded the 20 gram protein limit of the commercial products — occupying unique spots on the sensory map.

Consumers perceived the ideal protein content level to be 25 grams of protein per serving. The finding was consistent across consumer segments that indicated they either used such beverages to support weight loss, as a supplement before or after exercise, or as a meal or snack alternative.

“These findings are significant for beverage formulators because they provide target levels that could inspire innovation and widen the protein palette, opening up options to diversify and blend protein sources,” Ms. Conley said.

Another finding from the study pointed to the value of blending proteins, particularly soy and dairy. The R.-T.-D. high-protein beverages formulated with blends of dairy and soy protein performed better in flavor liking than all dairy- or all plant-based beverages. Of the seven top scoring beverages in the study, six were formulated with blends of dairy and soy proteins.

Drinkable protein
Demand for ready-to-drink beverages featuring protein is moving beyond athletes and exercise enthusiasts.

“This study adds to existing data confirming the benefit of soy and dairy blends in driving better flavor in the category,” Ms. Conley said. “All proteins, including dairy and soy, have inherent positive and negative flavor attributes. By blending them, you can create formulas that maximize their positive attributes, and minimize any negatives.”

Blending protein sources not only improves product flavor, it also may help manage formulation costs. This is because plant proteins, most notably soy, are more cost-effective than dairy proteins, as well as less susceptible to supply and price volatility. This is likely why blends of plant proteins are on the rise.

“We are also noticing growing interest in non-animal protein sources,” said Afrouz Naeini, senior marketing manager — sweetness and beverage, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “Nearly one in three beverages carrying a high-protein claim also claim vegan.”

Jean Bacardi, regional market segment lead — bakery and beverage, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, added, “New protein sources and improved functionality
of certain proteins have helped formulators create great-tasting beverages that appeal to consumers looking to enhance a healthy and active lifestyle. Although vegan and label-friendly pulse proteins have gained popularity, dairy proteins remain the most functional in beverages with the highest nutritional value.”

The golden protein

Dairy proteins long have been the protein of choice among athletes and exercise enthusiasts.

“Whey protein is among the most popular protein supplements because of its enhanced muscle-building and weight-management benefits,” Ms. McDonald said. “It is now being formulated into all types of beverages so the evolving audience can get the high-quality protein in products they prefer.”


Drinkable protein
Whey protein is one of the most popular protein supplements.

Kimberly Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wis., said, “There are two types of high-quality dairy protein ingredient options: whey proteins and milk proteins. The two protein groups have similar protein levels. The difference lies in the dominant protein found in each one.”

With most milk protein ingredients, such as milk protein concentrates and milk protein isolates, casein is the dominant protein. The typical composition of the ingredients reflects what you find in cow’s milk, which is about 80% casein and 20% whey protein.

Whey protein ingredients, as the name suggests, are a concentrated source of whey proteins. For example, whey protein concentrate typically contains 34% to 89%, while whey protein isolate (W.P.I.) contains 90% or more.

Ms. Burrington said protein quality is quantified through the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (D.I.A.A.S.) and the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (P.D.C.A.A.S.).

“The P.D.C.A.A.S. has long been the standard tool, but the D.I.A.A.S. is a new, more accurate assessment of protein quality still under consideration,” she said. “Dairy proteins have a high D.I.A.A.S. score because of the presence of branched-chain amino acids, which help stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Each dairy protein has a higher level of branched-chain amino acids than egg, meat, soy and wheat proteins. Whey protein, specifically, is seen as higher quality because of the presence of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid accountable for muscle synthesis.”

Dairy proteins readily combine with other p
For example, BiPro USA, Eden Prairie, Minn., a division of Davisco, a business unit of Agropur Inc., recently introduced BiPro Protein Water. The clear beverage, which comes in lemon and peach flavors, delivers 20 grams of the company’s proprietary W.P.I., a high-leucine protein, in every single-serve 16.9-oz bottle. A serving is also only 90 calories and void of fat, sugar and carbohydrates.

“We decided to create BiPro Protein Water because of its unique versatility in the R.-T.-D. protein beverage marketplace,” said Jon Davis, executive vice-president of ingredients. “Not only is this the perfect post-workout drink for a professional athlete, but also the average gym-goer or health-conscious mom.”

ICL Food Specialties has developed an acidified W.P.I. derived from fresh fluid milk. It is transparent in water and is designed for acidic R.-T.-D. refreshment beverages where transparency and minimal taste impact are critical.

“Proteins often impart an undesirable astringency; however, our unique manufacturing process yields whey proteins with very low astringency,” Ms. Bacardi said. “The protein must be hydrated completely before adding sweeteners, flavors and other ingredients. This ensures optimum beverage stability.”

Proteins beyond dairy

Other animal-derived proteins gaining traction in R.-T.-D. beverages include collagen and egg. In the plant-based category, pulses are the up-and-coming protein source for R.-T.-D. beverages.

“A protein comprises more than just essential amino acids, and, as there is no lack of essential amino acids in the well-balanced diet of normal healthy consumers, there is really no need to focus only on these,” said Lara Niemann, marketing director-Americas, Gelita USA, Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. “Collagen peptides are valuable proteins in many health applications without necessarily involving high concentrations of all the essential amino acids.

“As collagen is the most abundant protein found in humans (more than 30% of the body’s protein is collagen) and collagen peptides are the ideal protein source for supporting metabolic turnover, they are very efficient at supporting the body’s protein requirement in the connective tissue of bones, joints, skin, ligaments and tendons,” Ms. Niemann said. “This knowledge, long-forgotten by product developers, is now coming back into their minds, mainly because joint, bone and skin health are of considerable importance for the aging population.”

Egg white protein products also may add a healthy twist to protein beverages. Because they tend to create a foam when shaken, they may contribute to a desirable frothy, milkshake-like appearance.


Drinkable protein
Consumers are seeking protein in different vehicles and convenient formats.

“Instantized egg whites are most commonly used for protein beverage powders,” said Mindi McKibbin, new product development manager, Rembrandt, Spirit Lake, Iowa. “However, dried or liquid egg whites also have application in R.-T.-D. refrigerated beverages. It’s important to consider that egg whites are sensitive to heat. They coagulate to form a thermally irreversible gel. Therefore, processing time and temperature must be considered.”

Currently, egg products are not used in shelf-stable beverages, but Rembrandt’s research initiatives are focused in this area. The company plans to launch an egg white protein isolate soon for use in R.-T.-D. shelf stable beverages.

As different types of protein have increased, so too has consumers’ interest and discerning nature regarding the options to best address their needs, said Vicky Fligel, senior product manager-functional systems, Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis. “While whey protein was once the vanguard of R.-T.-D. protein beverages, other sources such as pea, rice, soy and chia are leading the way for appealing and effective products in the vegetarian and vegan sector.”

Lesley Nicholson, marketing manager, ADM/Wild Flavors & Specialty Ingredients, Decatur, Ill., agreed.

“Growth in vegan and flexitarian lifestyles, as well as sustainability concerns, are contributing to growth in beverages based solely on plant proteins,” she said. “We have access to a wide range of plant proteins, including soy isolates, which are specially processed for clean flavors in dairy replacement applications. This enables us to provide our customers with the optimum solution for their requirements, including protein content, viscosity and sensory profile.”

Ingredion serves as the exclusive sales, marketing and distribution arm for AGT Food and Ingredients’ line of protein concentrates, flours and fiber ingredients derived from pulse crops such as lentil, pea, faba bean and chickpea. These vegetarian, non-G.M.O. ingredients include pea protein concentrate, which is 55% protein on a dry weight basis.

“A proprietary process reduces the beany notes, resulting in an ingredient with a milder flavor profile than the original pea protein concentrates in the market,” said Kasi Sundaresan, senior associate global sweetener development at Ingredion. “Pea protein concentrate has the highest P.D.C.A.A.S. among pulse proteins.”

RiceBran Technologies, Scottsdale, Ariz., offers process-patented ingredients derived from the bran of rice kernels. They are minimally processed, non-G.M.O. and a concentrated source of vegetarian protein, dietary fiber and healthful fats. While just 8% of the rice kernel, rice bran has 25 times the dietary fiber and four times the protein of white rice.

Formulation considerations

There are numerous considerations when formulating a R.-T.-D. protein beverage. First and foremost is beverage pH.

“Beverage manufacturers need to take into account the isoelectric point of the protein being used and formulate around that to get the best finished product,” said Lois Baker, senior scientist for BiPro. “Some proteins are also not soluble below their isoelectric point and are poorly suited for acidified beverages.”

Shelf life considerations include the stability of the protein over time. Does it separate or thicken during storage? Does the flavor or color change?

“It is important to understand protein interactions with other ingredients,” Ms. Baker said. “Minerals, for example, can greatly affect protein stability.”

Ms. Burrington added, “It is also important to know the order of ingredients added, packaging and storage environment, and temperature exposures and treatment during processing.”

All proteins present their own processing challenges, whatever the source or application.

“Proteins are functional and not a one-size-fits-all ingredient,” Ms. Fligel said.