CHICAGO – Protein is building muscle in the American diet, as consumer awareness of its benefits in weight management and sports nutrition continues to grow. Product launches with a high-protein claim are nearly three times higher in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, according to recent research from Mintel International.

“Protein has become the superstar nutrient that people are getting excited about,” said Nirvana Chapman, global food science trend analyst at Mintel. “Carbs have been vilified, and fat has negative connotations. Protein stands alone as something that is slowly digested, has relatively modest calories per gram and doesn’t come with a horrible taste baggage.”

Nearly six out of 10 Americans consider the protein content when buying packaged food or beverages, according to a 2012 survey from the International Food Information Council. Consumers are increasingly understanding protein’s benefits, with 88% recognizing that protein helps build muscle, 60% agreeing it creates a feeling of fullness, and 60% indicating a diet high in protein may support weight loss.

Of last year’s high-protein launches in the U.S., snack and energy bars accounted for 20%, followed by meal replacement drinks and yogurts, Mintel said.

Among the nutrient’s cheerleaders is The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., that last fall beefed up its Special K Protein lines of cereal, meal bars and shakes and launched a “Protein Effect” advertising campaign built around protein’s role in “outsmarting hunger.” Kashi, a Kellogg brand, delivers a similar message in its marketing, billing its GoLean cereals as containing an egg’s worth of protein per serving. Its web site includes a protein calculator to help consumers determine their daily intake requirements.

Several high-protein products were introduced in January, including General Mills’ Fiber One Protein Bars and Post Great Grains Protein Blends cereals.

The companies have positioned protein as a means of sustained energy and satiety, an important food attribute for 87% of U.S. consumers, according to Mintel.

Food makers are also championing protein’s benefits in muscle recovery and performance, appealing to athletes and aging consumers alike. The number of sports beverages with high-protein claims grew 37% in the past five years, according to Mintel.

Protein-enhanced beverages are moving out of the bodybuilder’s gym bag and into the mainstream. Last year, Bolthouse Farms, a Campbell Soup Co. brand, supplemented its line of Protein Plus shakes with a coffee variety, and Odwalla, owned by Coca-Cola Co., added flavors to both its Super Protein and Protein Monster beverage lines. January rollouts of protein drinks include South Beach Diet snack smoothies, Greek Gods drinkable kefir from The Hain Celestial Group, and Evolve, a line of women’s protein shakes from Muscle Milk maker CytoSport.

Plant-based protein sources have gained favor, as the emergence of flexible vegetarians creates a greater demand for non-meat alternatives. The number of products launched in the U.S. with both a high-protein and vegan claim has grown 54% in the past five years, Mintel said. Beans, nuts and seeds are starring in more snack items, such as Beanitos chips, made with black and pinto beans and flaxseed. Snack nuts are now available in flavors from caramel macchiato to Buffalo wing, designed to entice a range of consumers.

Additionally, Greek-style yogurts, credited for containing more protein than traditional yogurt, comprised nearly 8% of global yogurt introductions during the year ended June 2012, according to market research firm Innova Market Insights, and has inspired a number of spinoffs, from frozen Greek yogurt to Bavarian and Swiss yogurt products to German-style quark, a creamy, cottage cheese-like product, set to debut in the U.S. this year.

Restaurants are also tapping into the trend. In January, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Noah’s New York Bagels debuted a power protein bagel, made with seeds and containing 14 grams of protein. Panera Bread Co. recently launched a hidden menu in some of its cafes with six high-protein items, including an egg bowl with steak, an egg white bowl with roasted turkey, a chicken and hummus bowl, and steak lettuce wraps. Each item’s name includes the word “power,” carving a connection between protein and performance.

Enjoy the below slideshow of recent protein-related product introductions. Click on the product images in the slideshow to view the related article.