The EWPA conducted a survey earlier this year in partnership with YouGov, which asked 7,396 adults interested in nutrition and exercise from eight European countries about their attitudes towards protein, specifically whey protein.
The survey revealed that a current key barrier to whey protein consumption is a lack of awareness and communication about its nutritional profile within the industry, EWPA said.
"The survey shows there is no doubt that clear targeted communications will create increased demand for whey protein in European markets,” EWPA Secretary General, Bénédicte Masure, said.
Familiarity of whey protein
While 75% of respondents actively manage their nutrition and 76% exercise at least once a week, many are not aware of the health benefits associated with whey protein with 34% of respondents surveying that they do not know much about whey protein and where to buy it.
Milk, eggs, and soy were listed as the top three most familiar protein sources and less than half (47%) of respondents were aware of whey protein as an alternative.
“Although we found that more people don’t know about whey protein than know about it, whey protein is still more familiar to these consumers than most alternative protein sources, such as pea, algae and hemp proteins,” Suzane Leser, chair of the EWPA Whey Protein Working Group and head of nutrition for Volac Human Nutrition, said at the International Whey Conference.
However, the more technical the protein-related marketing terms get (e.g. denatured protein, micellar casein), “the more the knowledge gap widens,” Leser said.
In addition, while 70% of respondents pay attention to nutrition labels, less than a quarter (21%) of respondents check for protein content, and 65% said that they look for the amount of fat and nearly half (49%) check for calorie content in a food or beverage product.
“It is no surprise that these consumers look for the ‘negatives’ first - such as sugars, fat and calories - before looking at protein,” Leser said.
“What this means to us is that these consumers won’t compromise on sugar, fat, calories, or even on certain ingredients, when buying a high-protein product.”
Untapped opportunity for whey
The majority of respondents (60%) are interested in “active nutrition” that will help them stay active as they age and 77% believe protein is an important part of their diet.
“Protein is important and they know it,” Leser said. “However, there is limited knowledge about the right amount of protein to consume. In fact, whilst more than half consumers said they don’t pay attention to the absolute amount of protein in their diets, a fifth have proactively bought a ‘high protein’ product in the last month.”
One of the most crucial missing links for the whey industry is that consumers interested in active nutrition do not automatically connect whey protein as a way to help them stay active as they age and prevent muscle loss.
“Whey protein is, in fact, the most efficient protein source for the outcomes that these consumers are looking for, however whey protein is not in the minds of these consumers,” Leser said.
“Overall, we just need more consumer buy-in into the benefits of whey protein, as not even half of these consumers are aware of any of the benefits of whey protein.”
Cheese was cited as the most frequently consumed protein source, followed by eggs, poultry and milk – showing a high consumption of animal proteins, despite the current plant-based diet push, Leser added.
A clear preference for whey protein formats also emerged from the survey.
“Most of our active nutrition consumers said they would prefer to consume whey protein as a food and around their meals, rather than as a supplement around their exercise, as generally adopted by the traditional sports nutrition consumers,” she said.
Whey protein viewed positively
The general attitude towards whey protein is also positive and has not been stigmatized by the body building industry, according to Leser.
“We tested the definition of whey protein with these consumers, and we found that the great majority – 80% - felt positive about whey protein, once they understood what it is,” she said.
The whey protein industry can capture an audience interested in active nutrition if it aligns itself as a way to keep muscles healthy and helps consumers stay active as they age.
“Our challenge is to bring whey protein to the minds of these consumers in a different way, to reinvent whey for active nutrition consumers, respecting their values, as these differ from the traditional sports nutrition consumers,” Leser said.