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The Global Protein Market: What Consumers Want in 2022

The global protein market is expanding and evolving as consumers’ demand for protein grows. From next-gen plant-based meats to on-the-go protein snacks to dairy protein bioactives for sports performance, protein is checking all the boxes for today’s consumers. Here’s a look at the 2022 global protein market trends.

Global Protein Market Trends by Protein Type

According to the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI), the top protein fortification ingredients by volume in the global protein market continue to be soy and dairy, followed by pea, wheat, potato, and rice. While advantages in cost, availability, nutrition, and functionality will keep soy and dairy in the lead, other proteins have strong appeal in specific applications, such as wheat protein in baking and pea protein as a non-GM, allergy-free alternative to soy.

Global Supply of Protein Fortification Ingredients (estimated)

Protein Ingredient Metric Tons
Soy 2,000,000
Dairy 890,000
Pea 140,000
Wheat 70,000
Potato 65,000
Rice 11,000
Other 10,000
Source: ADPI1

Consumers’ strong and growing interest in protein is creating new opportunities that touch on the functional benefits of different proteins, protein diversity in the diet, and new protein sources. Here’s a look at emerging themes by protein type:

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Demand for Plant Proteins Growing

Plant-based proteins continue to gain traction, particularly in North America and Europe. As more consumers adopt a flexitarian lifestyle, demand for plant-based meats is soaring. In the US, for example, nearly half (45 percent) of consumers have tried or regularly eat plant-based beef.2 The top reason for choosing plant-based meat is that it makes them feel healthier.3 Mintel reports more than half (54 percent) of US consumers think restaurants should carry more plant-based protein options.4

Plant-based dairy also continues to do well globally, with FMCG Gurus reporting the top consumption drivers as the environment (63 percent), health (62 percent), and taste (60 percent).5 Sports nutrition products made with plant-based proteins are also expanding. While soy protein remains the go-to plant protein for nutrition products, issues of GM crop contamination (especially in Europe) and concerns around allergens and phytoestrogens are driving a shift toward non-soy plant proteins. 

Pea protein is the up-and-coming plant protein of choice for manufacturers who wish to sidestep the issues surrounding soy. Though the pea protein market is still small, at just a fraction of the soy protein market, it’s rapidly expanding to meet demand. A key challenge will be in finding an outlet for the pea starch produced as a by-product to help bring down the cost.

Dairy Proteins Leading in Premium Products

Dairy proteins, which include whey and milk proteins, will continue to lead in premium applications, such as sports nutrition, clinical nutrition, and infant formula. Known as a complete protein source, dairy proteins also offer important advantages over soy proteins in taste and functionality. Dairy proteins are expected to gain share in niches that emphasize protein quality. Examples include fresh dairy products like yogurt and ice cream, products for infants and children, and sports nutrition products like protein-fortified ready-to-drink beverages and bars. 

The sports nutrition category, in particular, is characterized by nutrition-savvy consumers that are likely to understand not just the concept of protein quality, but also the performance implications associated with different types of proteins. For example, fast-absorbing whey proteins are popular for post-workout muscle building and maintenance, while slow-absorbing milk proteins are known for providing sustained release and satiety. In the U.S., dairy is the preferred protein choice for beverages.

Alternative Proteins for Product Differentiation

In North America, the growing demand for protein has launched an interest in alternative proteins as much about culinary adventure as it is about nutrition. Using new proteins derived from seeds, nuts, legumes, fungi, or algae is a way to add excitement, as well as the health benefits of protein diversity, to any product. Manufacturers can choose from a variety of newer protein ingredients, such as sacha inchi, hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, flax, and chia seed proteins.

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Blends of animal and plant proteins or animal and fungal proteins are another approach to addressing consumers’ interest in protein diversity. These types of protein blends allow a consumer to have the complete protein benefits associated with animal proteins along with the superfood benefits of certain plants and mushrooms. Beef and mushroom “blended burgers” and dairy almond milk are early examples of this trend. Plant-based protein blends are also on the rise, especially in vegan sports nutrition products formulated to be a source of complete protein.

Understanding the Mainstreaming of Protein

North America and Europe lead in per capita protein consumption, with both animal and plant proteins popular among consumers. The lowest per capita protein consumption can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asian countries (with the exception of China), where most of the diet’s protein comes from plants. Rising incomes in China, as with many other emerging economies, are driving an increase in protein consumption, in line with a shift toward the Western diet. 

In high-income countries like the U.S., the demand for protein combined with high disposable income has led to a consumer base that has come to expect protein. Protein is not just for sports nutrition consumers anymore. Mainstream consumers understand that protein supports satiety, weight loss and management, and muscle building and maintenance. With over two-thirds of the population overweight or obese and a growing senior population that looks to nutrition to mitigate the effects of aging (such as age-related muscle loss), it’s clear that protein meets mainstream needs.
Consumers are looking for more protein in their meals, as well as in their beverages and snacks. As a result, many regularly check labels for protein claims and grams of protein. According to Nielsen, 55 percent of U.S. households say high protein is an important consideration when they grocery shop.6 

Consumers’ Top Protein Needs

While food, beverage, and supplement manufacturers are well aware of consumers’ interest in protein, understanding what they’re looking for in terms of protein type, format, and health benefits is not always as clear. Here’s a review of the top consumer-driven global protein trends manufacturers should know:

Flexitarians: Blending Dairy and Plant Options 

Across the world, a growing proportion of consumers are shifting their diets to include more plant-based options. Plant-based dairy products are a popular way to do this, with 41% of global consumers saying they eat or drink dairy alternatives.7 However, research by FMCG Gurus shows most of these consumers are not foregoing traditional dairy but are instead embracing a flexitarian diet.

Consumption of Dairy and Dairy Alternatives by Region

Region Percent Consuming Dairy Percent Consuming Dairy Alternatives
Africa/Middle East 91 50
Asia Pacific 83 52
Europe 82 34
North America 86 46
South America 79 57
Source: FMCG Gurus8

The overlap in the proportion of consumers who use dairy and dairy alternatives indicates a significant proportion of consumers switch between the two. Factors influencing product choice include consumers’ motivations for consumption, as well as where and with whom they’re eating and drinking. This flexitarian approach lets consumers add the plant-based dairy benefits they’re seeking (such as sustainability, health, and taste) to their diet, without eliminating their favorite dairy products.

Portable Protein Snacks

Busy consumers are also on-the-go consumers. A grab-and-go protein snack is a format that works well with this lifestyle. Portable protein snacks can be consumed at work, in the car, at the gym, at school, or outside while jogging or hiking. A snack with protein offers consumers a healthy snacking option and provides satiety, as well as exercise support benefits.

Protein-fortified bars and ready-to-drink beverages are perennial favorites among on-the-go, snacking consumers, with protein waters as an important emerging category. Seed and nut snack packs, jerky, string cheese, and squeezable nut butters and yogurts are other easy options for portable protein. Small portion sizes and single-serve packaging are key in supporting portable snacking.

Better Plant-Based Meats

The plant-based meat market has expanded rapidly, with the U.S. taking the lead. New industry players have doubled down on product optimization to address the shortcomings of earlier plant-based meats, with a focus on texture and taste. In the U.S., 71 percent of consumers prefer plant-based meat that closely mimics the taste of meat, according to Mintel.9 This indicates a shift in the plant-based meat consumer base toward a more mainstream, meat-eating crowd.

woman eating burger

Taste isn’t the only improvement in plant-based meats that consumers crave. Clean label plant-based meat is another emerging trend that addresses consumers’ concerns over the long, complicated ingredient labels often found on plant-based meats. Shortening ingredient statements while maintaining an acceptable texture is the main challenge here. Plant-based meat that matches the nutrition of animal-based meat is also on the radar, especially for vitamin, mineral, and sodium content.

Sustainable Proteins

The buzz around environmentally sustainable proteins has been largely driven by Millennials but is also supported by Gen Z. Foods and beverages made with more sustainable proteins give consumers a way to support products that align with their values. Sustainable proteins might require less land or fresh water to produce or may be associated with fewer greenhouse emissions.

Protein from climate-resistant crops—such as indigenous, drought-tolerant millets in India and quinoa in Bolivia—can also be seen as more sustainable, as well as protein from animal agriculture more connected with the land, such as grass-fed dairy. Upcycled proteins (from food production side streams), proteins associated with regenerative agricultural practices, and marine-based proteins like algae can also have compelling sustainability stories.

Bioactive Proteins

Sports performance consumers are driving the demand for protein-based bioactives. This is due to the range of benefits they can provide related to muscle synthesis and endurance. However, weight management is another use for protein-based bioactives that has important mainstream applications—for example, milk protein isolate modified to reduce the rate of digestion and increase satiety. With obesity rates rising globally, the use of bioactives in weight loss products is a key opportunity area.

There are also protein-based bioactives to support immunity and even skin health. These bioactives aren’t limited to the food industry. Demand is also surging in the personal care market, where collagen-boosting bioactives are used in anti-aging facial products. Science-based skincare ingredients like these are especially popular among higher-income Asian countries.

Choosing the Right Protein Solution

While consumers’ protein needs may be diverse, there are fortunately many protein ingredients on the market to meet these needs—including protein concentrates, isolates, hydrolysates, and bioactives, available from both animal and plant sources. There are protein options suitable for all types of foods, beverages, and supplements, as well as personal care products.

The simplest approach to choosing the right protein ingredient for any product is to first determine which benefits are needed to make the best product for the target consumer. All proteins are not created equal. Differences in nutrient quality, functionality, flavor, cost, health benefits, and consumer perception will influence protein selection. What works the best in a nutrition bar may not be ideal for protein water or plant-based meat, for example.

In developing a new protein product or boosting the protein of an existing product, it can be helpful to lean on the ingredient supplier to learn about all the options available and the nuanced differences among them. To create protein products that will address today’s top global protein trends—from sustainable plant-based and dairy proteins to cutting-edge protein bioactives, choosing an ingredient supplier with protein R&D expertise is key.

Contact Glanbia Nutritionals to learn about choosing the right protein solution for your product.

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References

1. American Dairy Products Institute, The Changing Protein Ingredient Landscape, 2018.
2. Glanbia Nutritionals, Plant-Based Meat Survey, January 2020. N=801.
3. Glanbia Nutritionals, Plant-Based Meat Survey, January 2020. N=430.
4. Mintel, US Foodservice Trends, January 2020. N=2,000.
5. FMCG Gurus, Top Ten Trends 2021 – The Power of Plants, July 2021.
6. Nielsen. Protein: Consumers Want It, But Don’t Understand It, 2018. 
7-8. FMCG Gurus, Top Ten Trends 2021 – The Power of Plants, July 2021.
9. Mintel, Plant-based Proteins – US, May 2020.
 

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