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A Range of Clean Label Protein Ingredients Fortify Functional Foods and Beverages

The consumer demand for protein, an awareness and usage of plant-based proteins and store shelves lined with protein-fortified foods and beverage products are leading the charge in the development of a range of clean label protein ingredients. </p>

In response to the global outbreak of “protein fever”—the notion that protein is a deficient nutrient in most diets—consumption and usage of this nutrient in various forms is reaching groundbreaking highs. Consumers insist on increasing protein intake, and the food and beverage industry is responding by creating a variety of products fortified with animal- and plant-based protein ingredients.

“When it comes to protein sources, health and wellness, sustainability, allergen-free and clean label are four main drivers grabbing consumers’ attention,” said Jenna Mills, marketing communications specialist, nutritional beverages, Kerry.

Evidenced by the many protein-rich and -enriched products now available on store shelves, several trending, clean label protein ingredients are accessible to fortify functional foods and beverages.

Animal-Based Protein Ingredient Options

The human body requires “high quality protein for optimal growth, muscle health and overall organ function,” said Nathan Pratt, nutrition scientist, Kerry, making it essential to formulate with the best types of protein. At the heart of dietary proteins are 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential, meaning the body cannot produce them and they must come from the diet. Ensuring products have a “high PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score) of 1.0 adequately supports consumers’ protein needs,” explained Pratt. Animal proteins meet this goal.

“More consumers are becoming aware that dairy proteins are among the highest quality protein sources available,” said Kara McDonald, vice president, global marketing communications, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC). Dairy proteins are a “complete protein source,” because they contain “essential and nonessential amino acids, including branch-chain amino acids [BCAA], such as leucine,” McDonald continued. (BCAAs, especially leucine, are required for muscle protein synthesis.)

Of the dairy proteins gaining attention, whey protein isolate is a popular choice. According to Zion Market Research, the global whey protein market is expected to reach US$12.4 billion by 2021, most likely because of consumers’ growing interest in health awareness.

“Whey protein isolate has a superior amino acid profile, and is fat and carbohydrate free,” said Jordan Donohue, business development manager, sports nutrition and health foods, Arla Foods Ingredients. “Whey proteins are rapidly digested and fully absorbed by the body, ensuring optimal delivery of essential amino acids to tissues.”

Whey proteins are used to enhance the protein profile and nutritional value of many food and beverage products without compromising clean labels. In addition, Donohue pointed out the use of whey proteins helps reduce fat in yogurts, desserts and cheeses without affecting taste and texture.

Two other dairy proteins gaining traction are micellar casein and native whey, both of which contain high concentrations of amino acids.

“[Micellar] casein is a slow-release protein,” meaning it is “good for satiety and is used extensively in meal replacement products,” said Paul O’Mahony, product strategic manager dairy and plant proteins, Glanbia Nutritionals. Because of the slow-release, digestion rate is slower and will help keep a consumer full for a longer period, possibly helping with weight loss and management. And, with micellar casein’s slow digestion, “the amino acids are slowly dispersed into the blood stream, which aids muscle recovery,” explained Kate Sager, U.S. marketing manager, Ingredia Inc.

Native whey is said to be closer to whey’s original form compared to whey ingredients processed as byproducts of cheese production. With native whey, raw milk is dried at low temperatures and then goes through a filtration process, resulting in a more intact protein. This minimally processed protein is “high in BCAAs and essential amino acids so it is excellent for active lifestyle consumers,” O’Mahony said.

Because dairy comes in liquid or powder, mixing in these proteins to functional food and beverage products to meet consumers’ needs is easy. “Dairy proteins provide a range of functional properties,” McDonald explained, “including flavor, emulsification, foaming, heat stability, water binding and gelation, which provide structure, sensory and nutritional qualities.” This affords a wide range of applications—bars, beverages, baked goods, soups, dressings, candy, ice cream and more—all of which can glean clean labels because “dairy proteins remove hydrogenated oils and other avoided ingredients in formulations for a clean and functional label on innovative offerings,” McDonald concluded.

Some less considered, yet nutritiously sound, animal-derived protein ingredients include cricket powder and collagen.

“Cricket powder from farm-raised crickets is an emerging alternative protein and nutrition source,” said Aaron Dossey, Ph.D., founder, All Things Bugs. “It is a complete animal-based protein that is high in iron, B vitamins and omega-3s and 6s.”

Identified in the research paper “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security” (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) as “nutritional powerhouses,” crickets are high in protein and essential amino acids. Although eating insects is a bit of a foreign concept, especially in Western culture, it is gaining momentum in the functional food and beverage industry as consumers seek sustainability from their protein sources.

“Farming insects is more sustainable with lower levels of ecological/environmental impact, and with less feed, energy and water input,” Dossey said. “This means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, fewer pesticides, more clean water available and an overall healthier and cleaner environment.”

Cricket powder can also meet consumer demand for an allergen-free protein, for example, gluten free. Dossey said if the cricket’s feed does not contain significant amounts of wheat or gluten, crickets can be farmed to be gluten free.

Cricket powder can be used to enhance bars, ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, pasta, tortillas, baked goods and cereals.

Commonly known to help keep skin firm and youthful, collagen is a natural protein. “Of the human body’s total protein content, collagen accounts for 30 percent and benefits muscle metabolism,” said Oliver Wolf, head of B2B marketing, global marketing and communication, Gelita. Collagen contributes to total protein intake by breaking down into amino acids that enter the bloodstream.

In addition, collagen is recognized as a “foodstuff,” by the European Union. Wolf said this makes collagen a high-quality protein for consumers interested in pure, safe and naturally functional products. It is neutral in taste and odor with excellent solubility, making collagen a top choice for bars, drinks and confectionery products.

Plant-Based Protein Ingredient Options

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines encourage healthy eating patterns of nutrient-dense, plant-based foods that include a variety of protein sources while consumers are increasingly studying product labels, seeking simple, recognizable ingredients. These two factors result in plant-based protein ingredients rising in popularity.

“Plant-based proteins from nuts, grains, seeds and legumes are leading the clean label alternative protein trend,” said Cheryl Mitchell, PhD, VP  ingredient manufacturing, Steuben Foods.

Walnuts and almonds both contain proteins and when included in a functional food or beverage product formulation; each nut helps consumers achieve their protein goals.

According to the California Walnut Commission, a 1 oz serving size of walnuts offers 4 g of protein while Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, said the same serving size of almonds contains 6 g of protein. Beyond the nut vs. nut protein battle, a key takeaway is that each nut offers similar nutrient characteristics benefiting functional food and beverage products.

Consumer taste and preference for walnuts are on the rise as is demand for more walnut products, according to a consumer research study conducted in April 2017 by the California Walnut Commission. Results cited taste as the No. 1 reason consumers eat walnuts. Additionally, consumers recognize walnuts as “nutritious” and “all natural.” The study also found 80 percent of walnut users surveyed like trying new recipes, which could be applied to function food and beverage product purchase attitudes and marketing campaigns.

“In a survey conducted by the Almond Board of California, participants ranked almonds highest among nuts for being nutritious, a key source of energy and heart healthy,” Smith explained. “Almonds offer considerable nutritional advantages, such as energizing protein, and mesh with consumers’ increasing demand for convenience foods with health and wellness benefits.”

Both walnuts and almonds can be added in whole food format to food products, and almonds are popular in flour format for baking applications.

Proteins from the legumes pea and soy have become more kitchen-cabinet-worthy ingredients consumers understand and feel confident consuming. Paige Ties, technical service manager, research and development, Cargill, explained both proteins offer label-friendly ways to boost the nutritional profile of foods and beverages, creating “consumer-pleasing products with ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ protein claims.” The good or excellent designation refers to the amount of complete protein in a product, “five or 10 grams for each respective claim,” Ties said.

Most plant-based protein ingredients, including pea protein, lack one or more essential amino acids and are, therefore, considered incomplete. This doesn’t mean they are any less valuable in fortifying food and beverage products; it just means a combination of plant-based proteins should be blended together to create a complete protein. Soy, however, is a bit different.

“Soy protein is the only widely available plant protein that provides the necessary amino acids at concentrations shown to support normal growth and development,” said Greg Paul, marketing director, DuPont Nutrition & Health. “Providing a highly concentrated source of protein, soy helps improve the quality of food and beverage products by helping to soften high-protein nutrition bars and augmenting overall eating by providing texture and crunch, for example.”

Soy and pea protein both provide nutritional boosts to a variety of food and beverage products including cereal, baked goods, RTD beverages, vegan yogurts, ice cream and more.

Pulses as proteins have most recently been introduced to the market and Pat O’Brien, manager, strategic business development, Ingredion Incorporated, said pulses such as faba bean, lentil and chickpea are making their way into mainstream breads, pastas and snack products.

“Pulse proteins allow product developers to add the nutritional benefits of protein, fiber and micronutrients to a variety of applications to address consumer need for protein-rich, balanced, clean label products,” O’Brien said. “Additionally, these proteins allow for unique product positioning.”

Pulse proteins can be converted into flours for baked goods, bars, pastas and batter as well as used whole in soups, sauces and dressings.

With the “speed of consumer adoption of plant proteins, manufacturers are able to move quickly when creating products,” said Tyler Lorenzen, president, PURIS. This faster pace is great for meeting demand, but could cause an issue in the plant protein supply chain.

“Availability, consistent quality and stable pricing are issues manufacturers faced in 2017,” Paul explained, “and with the growing demand [for plant-based proteins], last year’s challenges are expected to be exacerbated in 2018.” With this in mind, an open and honest relationship between functional food and beverage product creators and their plant-based protein ingredient suppliers is key.

Fortification Challenges and Solutions

Fortifying food and beverage products by simply adding protein ingredients to starter recipes and bases is not beneficial to consumers; rather, it takes precision, trial-and-error and science to get it right.

Among the protein fortification challenges, the most noted is negative impact on taste and texture. Sager explained with dairy proteins, bars can become hard instead of chewy, and beverages can become very thick and gritty. “To circumvent texture and taste issues, it is necessary to hydrate powder dairy proteins thoroughly with a minimum of two hours of agitation,” Sager advised. “Also, using the correct type of dairy protein for each application at appropriate usage is necessary.”

Plant-based proteins can have a natural or beany flavor profile and because “proteins tend to hydrate and compete for water at different absorption rates, this can increase the density in applications such as puffed cereals and baked products,” Ties said. Learning how to keep water flow consistent mitigates formulators from dramatically changing the amount of water in their formulas while adding the appropriate amount of protein.

Ties also mentioned mouthfeel in beverage applications is critically important, and working with a plant protein ingredient with higher solubility, in combination with the right stabilizer system and formulation parameters, helps decrease perceived grittiness associated with the protein.

Fortification challenges “can be easily overcome with small tweaks to an existing formula, changes to the marketing strategy or adjusting the flavor and texture to highlight the product’s clean label [protein] ingredients,” advised Alison Raban, certified food scientist, BI.

Because consumers demand foods and beverages with great taste and high quality, it’s important for producers to “invest in and carry out extensive research on application of ingredients into food systems” and beverage products, said O’Mahony. New sources of protein are being developed and require ongoing research that allow products to be developed in parallel and alongside consumers, ensuring their demands are met.

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