Protein powders for an expanding consumer base

Protein powders are increasingly prevalent across multiple consumer groups, expanding the segment’s target market to a larger audience from fitness enthusiasts (of all types) to additional consumers looking to improve overall health.

Michelle Gillespie, Natural insights analyst

August 15, 2019

4 Min Read
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Protein powder use among natural consumers is on the rise, according to SPINS data. While the US$892.5 million protein powders segment grew 4.2% over the past year (the 52 weeks ending April 21, 2019), sales in the natural channel of retail grocers grew 8.8% to $156.1 million, outpacing growth for the greater cross-channel segment. Tracking the sales of naturally positioned products across multiple retail channels shows that natural items also outpaced the greater segment’s growth, up 13.2% to $350.5 million as consumers increasingly seek clean, high-quality protein without artificial ingredients in a broader range of outlets. Even within the conventional marketplace, demand for natural protein powders is significantly increasing. Overall dollar sales of protein powders in the mainstream conventional multi-outlet channel was up 3.2% to $724.2 million, with sales for naturally positioned products climbing at a much faster rate of 17.2% to $196.0 million, while more conventionally positioned products remained relatively stable with a slight 1.1% decline to $528.1 million.

Natural Attributes and Ingredients Fuel Growth

As further evidence of consumer interest in clean-label protein powder products, label claims such as grass-fed, non-GMO, and organic showed significant growth over the past year, as well. Sales for protein powders labeled as grass-fed grew 92.3% to $21.6 million as grass-fed becomes a benchmark for quality and an important production standard regarding animal welfare to the natural consumer. Protein powders labeled as non-GMO grew 9.8%to $235.6 million, while products without labeled non-GMO ingredients were in decline. Certified-organic protein powders grew 33.7% to $136.9 million, and protein powders with any amount of organic content grew 8.2% to $220.7 million. While use of artificial sweeteners in protein powders is still prevalent in conventionally positioned products, sales for products in the segment that contain artificial sweeteners showed decline, dropping 14.3% to $255.6 million. Protein powders sweetened with stevia (a natural, zero-calorie, herbal sweetener) or alternative sweetener blends containing stevia grew 6.4% to $223.2 million.

Cultural Influences Bring New Consumers to the Segment

In addition to the natural consumer, other shopper groups are jumping at the chance to use protein powder to meet nutritional needs. “Health and wellness is quickly becoming health and fitness, led by a newer wellness community culture that recognizes the importance of exercise and fitness to overall health,” said Scott Dicker, client support lead and subject matter expert in sports nutrition at SPINS. “This movement drives dedicated fitness enthusiasts and weekend warriors alike to fuel efficiently for exercise and looks to protein for workout recovery and to reduce muscle soreness.”

Popular exercise trends such as CrossFit often promote dietary strategies as part of a lifestyle, bridging the gap between wellness and fitness verticals, and increasing demand for products that support specific ways of eating, such as paleo- or keto-positioned products. SPINS data show that paleo-positioned protein powders soared 55.7%, to $34.1 million, as the popularity of paleo and related ways of eating remain strong.

No longer stigmatized or related to stereotypes of people looking to bulk up, protein powders are becoming more appealing to consumers who look to protein to increase satiety, help them lose weight or use as a meal replacement to fuel everyday life. Protein powder is also often offered as a convenient way to meet the needs of the aging population to minimize muscle wasting, and this under-developed marketing opportunity has potential to be a lucrative trend with the baby-boomer population.

Protein Sources Proliferate

The increasingly diverse consumer base for protein powders demands a wider assortment of protein sources, tailored to various preferred ways of eating. Protein powders containing whey protein (including whey/egg and whey/milk blends) are the most popular protein source with the highest sales volume at $273.5 million, but whey protein powders saw a decline of 3% over the past year with new entries to the market gaining share. Collagen-based protein powder products are on the rise with triple-digit growth, appealing to consumers also interested in injury recovery, joint support or the health and beauty vertical. A wider variety of plant-based options including chia, hemp, pea, pumpkin seed, rice, watermelon seed, and blends of plant-based proteins are also taking their places on shelves. Pea protein showed the fastest growth rate among plant-based protein sources, rising by 42.3% to $26.7 million. Many consumers prefer pea protein to other plant-based proteins, as it blends well with water and has a smoother texture than some others; it’s also free from common allergens such as gluten and nuts, so it aligns with many dietary needs.

As dietary strategies and ingredient trends continue to evolve, pushing innovation in the protein powder market, other emerging functional ingredients such as CBD and medicinal mushrooms will make their way into products as differentiators in the space. The protein powder segment has room to grow as more brands find their niche, appealing to expanding audiences that use the ever-important macronutrient in a convenient, on-the-go format that’s easy to incorporate into many different diets and lifestyles.


Michelle Gillespie is SPINS’ natural insights analyst.

About the Author(s)

Michelle Gillespie

Natural insights analyst, SPINS

Michelle Gillespie is SPINS’ natural insights analyst.

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