High protein foods and drinks are big business in the United States, which accounted for 19% of global new product launches featuring ‘high protein’ claims last year, but in Europe, the trend is just taking off. According to Mintel, high protein claims are most common in the snacks, cereals and bars category, and in Europe, new products positioned as high protein have nearly tripled from 12% of the category in 2010 to 35% last year.
However, very few Europeans (or Americans) have a protein deficiency. The World Health Organisation recommends that adult women consume about 48 g of protein a day, and adult men about 56 g. In Europe, average protein consumption ranges from about 99-115 g a day, and the WHO has said that protein deficiency was eliminated from the European Union after the Second World War.
So is there a benefit to consuming more protein even in the absence of deficiency?
According to Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian on the Meat Advisory Panel, extra protein is only necessary for the elderly and those recovering from illness, and could be beneficial for athletes – but too much is unlikely to be harmful unless you already suffer from kidney disease.
‘No benefits’ - except in special circumstances
“Unless you are elderly and have muscle wastage (sarcopenia) or you are recovering from illness, there are no benefits to eating high amounts of protein,” she told FoodNavigator.
“A regular European diet provides more than the recommended amount of protein for maintaining health. People who take part in moderate exercise every couple of days don’t need any additional protein. However, those taking daily high intensity exercise could benefit from additional protein from foods and drinks.”
There is evidence that protein can improve satiety too, but that doesn’t mean that eating a higher proportion of calories from protein is necessarily a good idea.
“It is better to space out the protein consumption as you need around 3:1 carbohydrate to protein in meals to utilize the protein in the body,” Ruxton said. “High protein without carbs results in excretion (and wastage) of the protein, usually in urine.”
Sports nutrition hits the mainstream
However, food and drink makers are still betting on high protein products, as consumers look at the foods consumed by elite athletes and equate them with health.
The sports nutrition sector – with a major whey protein basis – has boomed in recent years. In the UK alone, sports nutrition has grown by about 18% a year to reach £260m in 2012. However, whey protein-containing products are beginning to appear beyond the sports sector.
Arla Food Ingredients is one ingredients firm that has seen a shift in protein preferences – especially as the industry has improved the flavour of high protein products, and has found ways to avoid sedimentation in products like clear drinks.
Susie Hjorth, president of the company’s North American division, said: “It seems like clear beverages will be a huge trend in the protein industry. It is not easy, but the industry is getting better at developing proteins that you can put into clear beverages….It will just naturally build from those high performance sports drinks to something that is more mainstream.”
Clear, high protein drinks are still primarily intended to target athletes, she said, as they have the advantage of being refreshing to drink after exercise – unlike other high-protein drinks targeting sportspeople, such as chocolate milks or protein-fortified dairy drinks.
“It is an easy product (for drinks companies) because you don’t need refrigeration,” she added. “It’s easier for storage, not as sensitive as a yoghurt drink or a milk drink.”
However, despite its current positioning, Hjorth pointed to coconut water as another example of a drink positioned for its post-exercise benefits that has been widely adopted by mainstream consumers.
Dietitian Carrie Ruxton added: “There is also a point about convenience as protein needs to be consumed straight after exercise in order to be effective and, often, it isn’t convenient to have a bit of chicken or fish handy. A high protein drink can be useful for this need.”