Brits are chowing down on 2.2% more protein than they did back in 2013. Now big brands are muscling in. Is this a fad or the future? 

Food is always getting the blame for something. Carbs make us all obese, sugar is the devil and fat gives us heart attacks. But standing there all sweet and innocent is protein.

Despite some reports linking high levels of protein to kidney damage and digestive health problems, protein consumption is booming. In fact, we can reveal that the average Brit is now eating 25.1kg of protein at home a year [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 13 August 2017]. That’s 69g a day and a rise of 2.2% since 2013. Carbs and sugar are down, by 2.8% and 3.4%, as the demonisation of the white stuff and the low-carb trend continue.

“There’s always something made the villain in terms of food groups, but protein has always slipped under the radar,” says Holland & Barrett head of sport Nick Janda.

Many experts say this is no fad, an accusation that’s been levelled at the low-carb movement, which could have contributed to the rise in Brits’ protein and fat intake (if you’re not eating carbs, you have to get your calories somewhere). After all, human beings are made of protein. It helps build and maintain muscle and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.

“Protein is the future,” says Rick Hay, nutritionist and lecturer in weight management at the College of Naturopathic Medicine. “It’s been heading in this direction for years, due to growing concerns about weight management and body image. More companies will be emphasising the wider health benefits of protein. More products are on the way.”

Drinks brands, bakers, confectioners and more have been “adding protein to their products to appeal to everyone from sports nuts to those who merely want to stay sated for longer,” says Juliet Barratt, CMO and co-founder of Grenade. “At the moment, consumers are grabbing anything with ‘protein’ on the label as it’s the new buzzword.”

Everyone is at it. Snacks like Peperami now boast ‘high in protein’ on pack messaging, as does Morrisons’ range of own-label cooked chicken mini fillets. And this October Kerry Foods relaunched the packaging for the new range of Go-Go’s launched earlier in the year to play up its protein rich credentials.

“We went back to our consumers and asked about the packaging and protein came out as a real motivator for them, so we have tweaked the packs to dial up the protein message a lot more,” says Amanda Collins, senior brand manager at Kerry Foods. “We have a really exciting pipeline and there are lots of opportunities there, different products for different missions across different channels that can all deliver protein.”

It’s why Warburtons launched a new high-protein range in September 2016. It says it has sold 2.7 million units to date. In September it added a fourth product to the range (Protein Thin Seeded Bagels). More examples of suppliers cashing in on the protein trend can be seen in the nut butter aisles.

Nut butters

“Peanuts are high in the essential amino acid methionine, and proteins in general help build and repair muscle tissue and improve the condition of our skin and nails,” says Kirstie Hawkins, Whole Earth brand controller at Wessanen UK. “Whole Earth’s peanut butter packs plenty of protein, over 25g per 100g. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the positive health benefits of a high-protein diet and this has had a direct impact on the nut butter category. Whole Earth is enjoying a period of continued growth.”

It’s not just nut butter brands, of course. “Adverts such as Heinz Baked Beanz are very tongue-in-cheek about the growing protein trend,” says Barratt. “Any product with protein in can refer to itself as a ‘protein’ product. Food items like cereal bars with nuts, breakfast cereals, all sit in the protein space.”

So do eggs. Adrian Gott, MD at Clarence Court, says it is looking to raise the profile of duck eggs as they have higher levels of protein than those laid by a hen. “Our Braddock white duck eggs have naturally higher levels of protein so we want to work with influencers within the health and wellbeing community to demonstrate that it is possible to find natural products that are protein-rich.”

It might be a better idea to sell them hard boiled, says Suzie Walker, founder of Primal Pantry. “Convenience is king, so suppliers of naturally high protein products are diversifying into more convenient lines. It’s not easy to consume nut butter or chia seeds on the go, the same applies to eggs. In order to meet the convenience needs of consumers, brands are starting to provide ‘convenient’ versions of products they already sell.”

Indeed, Whole Earth and Meridian are now making peanut butter snacks and Pip & Nut have developed single serve squeezy sachets of its nut butters. But in terms of the growing appeal among consumers for natural protein, many say it doesn’t get any more natural than plant proteins. Dr Victoria Hare, of superfood brand Naturya, says Brits are prioritising fruits, veg, nuts, seeds, grains and botanicals as they aspire to healthier diets.

Plant proteins

“More manufacturers are releasing or promoting formulations that centre on plants and the flavours, fortifications and functionalities they can add to food and drink products,” she says. “The growing mainstream appeal of vegetarian and vegan products, according to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD), has seen a 25% increase in vegetarian claims and a 257% rise in vegan claims in global food and drink launches between September 2010 to August 2011, and September 2015 to August 2016.”

And the trend for “consuming more plants is still very much in the emerging phase rather than established,” adds Ali Wilde, marketing director at Naturya. “So there is opportunity in the market globally for product innovation. We favour organic hemp protein as our chosen plant protein due to its broad nutritional profile (it contains all nine essential amino acids). It is also one of the most sustainable and useful plants on the planet, and it is the tastiest of all the plant proteins in its minimally processed form”.

 

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But there are issues with plant protein, says Rafael Rozenson, founder of protein water brand Vieve. “The biggest barrier is taste. Plant-based proteins are very bitter, which is very difficult to mask in a protein drink. Also, the colouration from plant-based proteins isn’t very appealing, making a water-based plant protein drink impossible.”

Plus, plant and animal proteins are not the same. “Animal proteins tend to have a higher quantity of the amino acids necessary for muscle growth, like leucine, and also tend to be more concentrated, so you have to eat a lot less,” says Rozenson. “You’d have to eat a 18 cups of broccoli to get the essential amino acids found in four ounces of steak.”

But if you can get past that, he says plant-based proteins “do carry the benefit of giving you the vitamins, minerals, fibre that plants have to offer. And you can use an ‘all natural’ claim, opening distribution opportunities in vegetarian and organic retailers.”

Janda says plant protein manufacturers have “significantly improved” plant protein flavour profiles over the last 18 months. “We’ve been listing plant-based protein for 10 years or so, like soya proteins or spirulina, but there has always been a trade-off where people know they don’t taste great but they want the nutritional benefits. One thing they are doing now is blending multiple plant proteins together, like pea and rice protein, because in isolation pea protein can taste very bitter. Mix it with rice protein and it softens the edge, giving it a better taste profile.”

Veganism

It’s also important for Holland & Barrett to be catering for consumers chasing the “whole foods lifestyle” it has always espoused. “Veganism and vegetarianism is growing - it’s still a relatively small amount of our customers but more of them are becoming flexitarian,” says Jand. “So from a perceived health perspective, an ethical and sustainable living perspective, and from a business perspective, it makes sense for us because they are our consumers.”

Plant-based proteins will continue to rise as more people become aware of the “proven” benefits, adds Hay. These include “helping with weight management and digestive health in particular, and with cardiovascular health. It also assists in reducing cancer risk and can help with brain health, too.”

Social media is loving it too, says editor of healthista.com Anna Magee. “It’s the trendier way to be flexibly vegan without the militant undertones the words ‘I’m a vegan’ have previously come with,” she says. “We’re finding lots more people prepared to say ‘I’m plant-based’ now, and the hashtag #Plantbased is hugely popular on Instagram, with nearly 10 million posts a day.”

But whether it’s animal or plant based, protein comes at a price. And as more and more brands jump on the bandwagon, it’s a challenge to ensure customers don’t baulk at the price. For instance, a regular 51g Mars bar (30.5g sugar) costs 60p at Tesco but the protein-enriched bar (slightly bulkier at 57g and with 13g of sugar) costs £2.49 - an insane markup of 315% to the untrained eye. “Adding protein to a product inevitably increases the cost,” says Rozenson. “Like any added benefit product, consumers will pay a premium if they understand the value and benefit, but manufacturers and retailers still have a job to do as one in four consumers are unsure about how much protein they need.”

Price

Generally speaking, the average shopper won’t be interested in paying such a premium for a Mars bar if they aren’t looking for a protein hit, but for those who are, especially those who understand the nuances of the world of protein, the higher price tag can be justified, says Rory Lawson, founder of coconut water and protein hybrid drink CocoPro, which sells for £2.50 for 330ml in Waitrose.

“With CocoPro there is a direct correlation between the price and the amount of protein in the water,” he says. “This is a really easy way to get 20g of protein, and we use whey protein isolate, which is a premium protein. Manchester Utd buy the product from us. The All Blacks buy the product from us. That gives us a lot of belief in what we are doing. We could go for a cheaper, inferior protein and still make a good tasting product but I want it to be credible. The margins will improve with volume. We want to maintain a premium product with premium ingredients.”

There are two questions to ask, says Janda: “How much added protein is there and which source of protein is it? That can vary. Some products are fortified with collagen. You digest and process a much lower amount of protein with collagen compared to whey protein. That’s not to say it has no benefit, but there are different levels of premium protein you can use. From a consumer perspective, if they’re attuned to the benefits of protein and they look at a product and recognise high quality and quantity of protein, they will pay a premium for that.”

And there isn’t really any way to cut costs or prices other than by increasing volume or lowering quality, says Rozenson. “There are two cost implications for fortifying a product with protein: the cost of the protein itself and the manufacturing process, which often involves an added level of pasteurisation,” he says. “There isn’t really a way to mitigate this other than to reduce the quantity of protein in a product. However, this would reduce the efficacy of the product in the eyes of the consumer. There is also the option of sourcing cheaper proteins from China and the Far East, although the quality and safety of this as well as the logistical complexity involved often isn’t worth the effort.”

Besides, having to charge high prices for protein-rich products isn’t putting retailers off stocking them. “Tesco, Co-op, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Ocado and Waitrose stock Fuel10K up and down the country in the breakfast aisles,” says Barney Mauleverer, co-founder of Fuel10K. “Supermarket buyers see that we bring innovation to their cereal shelves and are building the category rather than cannibalising existing sales. Added-value breakfast offerings like those with protein or less sugar are the only growing areas within breakfast aisles.”

Convenience

Outside the supermarkets Lawson says convenience is a “fast growth area - whether its Spar or Co-op, or forecourts, they are absolutely perfect for us. The number of times I’ve stopped at a garage over the years and wanted something healthy-ish to have and stared down the barrel of deep-fried/sugar-laden/fizzy drink instead. They are the worst, but there is a bit of a shift, which is encouraging, and it comes from consumer demand.”

The other avenue where retailers can take advantage of the protein trend is to produce own-label versions of popular protein products themselves. Mauleverer believes the “proven success of Fuel10K and the likes of Weetabix” means it “won’t be long before own-label offerings will be on offer”.

But Janda says he’d be “surprised” if a supermarket started to do own-label versions. “It will be judged on how protein-enriched products do in that space, but I don’t see it being a big thing right now. Brands are doing it for us. And from our perspective, it’s not a shopping mission in its own right. If you look at the sports nutrition category, that’s high protein anyway, so we already have that shopping mission covered.”

Ultimately, whether it’s brands or supermarkets manufacturing the products, the protein category is a “really hot space and I don’t see that changing” says Lawson. “Consumers in general are becoming much more aware of protein as an ingredient, and how to build it into their diet. And as long as you add genuine value to the consumer, it will continue and prosper.”

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