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How an innovative whey protein can contribute to sports nutrition market growth

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The evolution of the sports nutrition market is creating a huge, untapped opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers. Today, a new, growing group of consumers want the health and performance benefits of protein-rich products but are unwilling to compromise on taste. Recognising the need for products that better serve these consumers, Volac has developed an easy-to-formulate whey protein ingredient that delivers on both taste and nutrition.

Volac developed the whey protein, Volactive UltraWhey Velicious, after analysing the composition of the market for sports nutrition products. In its early days, the sports nutrition market served people who were focused solely on optimising their performance and physique. This group of consumers is willing to consume products with suboptimal sensory properties if they have the desired nutritional composition and deliver fast results.

Performance-focused consumers remain an important part of the sports nutrition field but in recent years the addressable market for protein products has expanded. Now, there are millions of people focused on optimising health and countering aging, not just enhancing their performance and physique.

This burgeoning subcategory of people, dubbed active nutrition consumers, exercise several times a week to improve their general well-being, increase energy and age healthily. To meet these goals, active nutrition consumers eat healthy, balanced diets with occasional treats. These consumers know the muscle benefits of protein and understand different proteins have different values but are wary of supplements and look to their diets to deliver all the nutrition they need.

Active nutrition consumers’ interest in protein and wariness of supplements has created demand for foods and drinks that deliver the desired macromolecules. Whey protein is one option for companies that want to formulate products to meet this demand. The neutral taste, excellent amino acid profile and familiarity of whey protein are well received by consumers.

However, the formulation properties of whey protein concentrate and isolate, plus the demands of active nutrition consumers, complicate matters. Notably, whey proteins gel when heated, creating a problem for manufacturers of products that are pasteurised or cooked, such as ice creams, cakes and smoothies.

Manufacturers have found some complicated workarounds to the instability of whey proteins, but these are hard to implement and yield products that can fall short of consumer taste and texture expectations. Many active nutrition consumers think protein products are chalky and grainy. Unlike their performance-focused peers, active nutrition consumers are unwilling to tolerate suboptimal sensory properties, creating a conundrum for food and beverage manufacturers.

Big rewards await manufacturers that solve this conundrum. There are an estimated 75 million active nutrition consumers in Europe. These people are 28 to 55 years old and split evenly between men and women. Importantly, they are willing to spend €3 billion a year on protein products.

The benefits of Velicious

Volac, a manufacturer of nutritional whey proteins and lactose ingredients, responded to the need for great-tasting, protein-rich products by tasking its researchers with developing a better whey protein. After more than two years of research, Volac has unveiled Velicious.

The ingredient has retained the neutral taste and amino acid profile that make whey protein popular with consumers. Velicious is vegetarian, halal, kosher and GMO-free, too. In other regards, Velicious is different from whey protein concentrates and isolates.

Crucially, Velicious is stable at high temperatures and in acidic conditions, making it easy to formulate into pasteurised products, fruit drinks and other foods and beverages. Volac has also prioritised the particle size of the ingredient to deliver a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, and reduced the amount of water it absorbs to make it easier to use in bakery products.

Volac has picked out four applications of Velicious to showcase the significance of its modifications. In each case, Velicious enables the simple protein enrichment of products that are extremely hard, in some cases impossible, to enhance with standard whey protein without sacrificing taste and texture. 

The first use case highlighted by Volac are products that require consumers to add hot water, such as instant pastas, soups and hot chocolate. Standard whey protein gels when exposed to boiling water, rendering it unsuitable for use in these products. The only workaround is to make consumers add cold water first but this complicates and disrupts a process consumers are familiar with.

Velicious enables manufacturers to retain that familiar process. As Velicious is heat stable, food and beverage manufacturers can simply add a scoop of the protein to their products. For consumers, the process for making the resulting food or drink is identical to that for non-enriched products. They just add hot water. The difference is the resulting product is a little creamier and a lot richer in protein.

Volac is also highlighting the use of Velicious in ice creams. These products undergo pasteurisation at high temperatures, making it very difficult for manufacturers to use standard whey protein and retain the indulgent sensory properties consumers expect of ice creams. Velicious is free from these issues. Using the ingredient, Volac has easily made ice creams that are high in protein and fibre, low in sugar and have the indulgent sensory properties consumers desire.

The final two applications singled out by Volac — bakery products and drinks — also benefit from the heat stability of the protein. Baked goods are cooked at high temperatures and fruit drinks require pasteurisation to extend their shelf life, making it hard to enrich either type of product with standard whey protein. Velicious eliminates this barrier to protein enrichment.

That is not the only reason Velicious is well suited to use in drinks and baked goods, though. The other advantage Velicious offers to beverage companies stems from its stability in acidic conditions, such as those found in fruit drinks. As Velicious tolerates both heat and acidic conditions, it can be used to make protein-enriched drinks that have the taste and nutritional benefits of real fruit, plus the shelf life that only pasteurisation can achieve.

In bakery applications, another property of Velicious comes to the fore. Whey protein concentrate absorbs four times its own weight in water and continues to take on moisture over time. This makes the protein very hard to formulate into baked goods without harming sensory properties. Velicious, in contrast, only absorbs its own weight in water.

To explore the implications of this difference in water absorption, Volac added Velicious and a similar amount of water to a commercial bread mix. The resulting loaf looked and tasted comparable to bread made using the standard commercial mix. The only major change was the amount of protein in the loaf.

Bringing protein products to market

Volac has put its belief in the desirability of products made using Velicious to the test. The blind taste test enrolled active nutrition and performance-focused consumers and gave them Velicious products and existing, market-leading protein-enriched food and beverages. The Velicious products were the clear winners. All the participants preferred the Velicious ice cream over the alternative, and around three-quarters of them favoured the Velicious baked goods and smoothies. 

The findings validated Volac’s belief that Velicious can add protein to products without sacrificing sensory properties. Volac now wants to help manufacturers develop commercial products that build on this validation.

To get the effort underway, Volac’s dedicated R&D team has created recipes to show manufacturers what Velicious can do. These recipes will provide starting points as Volac’s experts work with food and beverage manufacturers to develop products that get the best out of the ingredient, although, given the nature of Velicious, in many cases minimal reformulation of companies’ existing recipes will be needed.

Through these efforts, manufacturers stand to deliver products that map onto the demands of the 75 million active nutrition consumers in Europe. These products will be high in the ideal mix of amino acids but still taste excellent, giving them the attributes needed to drive growth in sports nutrition.