Protein goes mainstream

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Protein’s appeal has expanded well beyond its traditional market of bodybuilders and athletes, but international consumers have differing ideas of its benefits, according to new research from multinational dairy firm NZMP, the dairy ingredients business of Fonterra.

Most consumers in Indonesia, for example, believe protein maintains wellness, those in the UK, USA and Japan think of protein as a means to strengthen muscles, and Chinese consumers look to protein for energy, to boost immunity and for strength. Despite a general focus on protein for its nutritional benefits, consumers worldwide also are interested in taste and availability, choosing their proteins based on whether they can be enjoyed by the whole family.

The best-known benefit of protein is still in building and repairing muscle in sportspeople, but protein has also attracted enormous interest in recent years for maintaining lean muscle mass in the elderly, helping maintain bone density, and for increased satiety.

Despite the rise of plant-based proteins, whey protein continues to dominate the market, and is seen as the gold standard protein for post-exercise recovery. Dairy protein more generally – made up of about 20% whey protein and 80% casein – is considered to be a high-quality protein source, meaning it is easily digested and provides the full range of essential amino acids in highly bioavailable form.

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However, whey protein breaks down faster, while casein is less easily digested. Protein hydrolysates based on casein have been used to get around difficulties using whey – for example in high temperature treated products where whey protein is denatured – but this can cause a bitter flavour. Arguably not such a problem for many sports products or supplements, taste is important for introducing protein to a wider audience, particularly via mainstream foods and drinks.

With this broadening consumer base in mind, NZMP has developed a heat-stable, fast-release milk protein concentrate. The company says its new ingredient, marketed under the SureProtein™ brand, builds on the reputation of whey protein and allows for rapid absorption of amino acids, without the taste issues associated with hydrolysates. This allows for tastier ready-to-drink beverages and dry powder mixes with the same amino acid delivery rate as whey protein – and a significant improvement over standard milk protein concentrate.

According to the company's own research, younger consumers account for much of the increase in high protein products' popularity. This has led it to ask whether there is still an untapped opportunity for such products aimed at seniors, who could stand to benefit the most from increasing their dietary protein intake.

What is clear is that taste could make all the difference as companies look to tap into this expanding market, and boost the protein content of mainstream foods and drinks.

Be sure to catch the latest on this topic from NZMP at the Fi Europe 2017 Conference during the Master Class: Life Stages, on Wednesday, 29th November 14:30–17:15.
Aaron Fanning, Senior Nutrition Research Scientist at Fonterra, will discuss ‘Dairy expertise for every life stage’.