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Intensifying Interest in Novel Proteins

Consumers around the globe are increasingly interested in eating more protein, and they are obtaining that protein from an evolving variety of sources. According to a 2019 HealthFocus International study of more than 12,000 primary household shoppers from 22 countries, “Navigating the World of Plant,” nearly one third of global and U.S. consumers report that adding protein is important.

Moreover, more than three quarters of surveyed consumers believe adding more protein to a food or beverage makes it healthier. A similar percentage believe using plant-based protein also makes a food more healthful.


General Manager of HealthFocus International

Julie Johnson, General Manager of HealthFocus International, presented illuminating results from several recent surveys in her presentation titled “Emerging Global Consumer Views on Protein,” at the 2019 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar, presented by Global Food Forums, Inc. (GFF). Formed in 2012 by Peter Havens and Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, MSc, MBA, GFF’s events provide R&D, food formulators and engineers, and other food scientists with practical, non-commercial formulation advice; consumer and product trend information; insights into emerging ingredients; and nutritional and regulatory updates.


In her presentation, Johnson relayed that consumers’ changing protein beliefs can be observed among all ages. However, the idea that using alternative or plant-based protein improves the healthfulness of a product is most apparent in younger consumers—primarily those under age 40.


Johnson also noted that the keen interest in the keto diet has created many opportunities for marketing protein-rich foods. Protein consumers (especially in the U.S.) believe a high-protein diet to have a myriad of health benefits. And, while consumers are interested both in traditional sources of protein, such as egg white protein, milk protein, and plant proteins, they also express intrigue and willingness to try the less obvious sources of protein, i.e., grains and novel protein sources, like algae and hemp.


Insect proteins are sustainable and often garner much media coverage and buzz, but consumers show little interest in actually consuming them. “This disinterest may change, however, as the sustainability of food is important to consumers and will likely play an increasing role in driving protein demand in the future,” opined Johnson.

Consumers are increasingly interested in eating more protein via various sources, ranging from more popular options like plant-based foods, to lesser known options such as algae and hemp-based proteins.

Planting the Seeds of Change


Plant proteins are at the forefront of the “alt protein movement” for a number of reasons. For one, the raw materials generally cost less than animal proteins, but they align well with a number of emergent consumer trends, such as vegetarianism, veganism, and sustainability. Thus far, however, proteins’ functionality as ingredients has lagged behind that of animal proteins.


Prof. B. Pam Ismail

Also at the Protein Trends & Technology Seminar, speaker Prof. B. Pam Ismail, Associate Professor, Dept. of Food Science and Nutrition, and Director of University of Minnesota’s Plant Protein Innovation Center, discussed some emerging technologies that most likely will expand the use of plant proteins used in F&B production. She also provided details on two new, interesting protein-rich oilseeds under evaluation for potential commercialization.

“When investigating new and novel proteins, we need to know how to obtain desired protein ingredient functionalities through cost-effective extraction and processing techniques,” said Ismail. Cost-effectiveness, functionality, and taste must go hand-in-hand. “If they don’t taste good, consumers won’t eat them,” she added.


The search for new plant protein sources to meet rising global demand led Ismail’s researchers to focus on alternate sources to soy, such as peas. In 2012, 81% of commercial (plant) protein ingredients were obtained from soy, but by 2017, soy protein’s market share had dropped to 61.4%. Meanwhile, pea protein’s share rose from 7.6 to 21.2%—and it continues to go up, she noted. And, while pea protein processing technology is still in a relatively early stage, clearly this novel protein source can be seen as the “way of the future.”


A Growing Segment


Still, another report backs the evidence that folks are seeking novel proteins in their diets. A Food Engineering article entitled “Study: Consumers Ditching Meat for Plant Proteins” outlines how a fast-growing segment of consumers rely less on animal proteins when it comes to meeting their nutrition needs. These consumers are instead trying (and liking) alternative plant proteins.


The growing market for plant proteins has also enabled some consumers to give up animal proteins entirely, according to a study from market researcher Packaged Facts.


David Sprinkle, Research Director at Packaged Facts

“Consumer interest in boosting protein intake remains strong, with more attention being paid to the specific types of protein being consumed,” David Sprinkle, Research Director at Packaged Facts, told Food Engineering. “The desire for clean labels, ease of digestion, the need or desire to avoid allergens, compatibility with vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, and concerns about sustainability among the general population are putting the spotlight on plant proteins. Consumer notions of what constitutes a good protein source are expanding to include a wider variety of plant protein ingredients. Subsequently, interest in plant protein ingredients among food manufacturers and foodservice operators is intensifying.”


Sprinkle has also presented at the Protein Trends & Technologies Seminars. In one of his presentations, “Consumer Market Opportunities in Protein,” he charted the evolving views of the American consumer on protein, as evident in nutritional attitudes, food purchasing behavior, food and beverage product innovations at retail, and menu trends.

"When investigating new and novel proteins, we need to know how to obtain desired protein ingredient functionalities through cost-effective extraction and processing techniques... If they don’t taste good, consumers won’t eat them."
B. Pam Ismail, Associate Professor, Dept. of Food Science and Nutrition, Director of Plant Protein Innovation Center

University of Minnesota

Opportunities Abound


Consumers continue to seek foods that provide a good source of protein, whether that protein comes from a traditional source or new, innovative products. Plant proteins, especially, are of interest to a wide swath of consumers. Trends driving consumer demand for plant proteins include health and well-being; the desire for plant-based and clean label products; and concerns related to food security and sustainability. The number of opportunities to use plant-based proteins will grow, as the number of novel protein types grows, as well.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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