The Global Protein Market: What Consumers Want in 2020 glanbia nutritionals

The Global Protein Market: What Consumers Want in 2020

Demand for protein is on the rise worldwide. As consumers’ food needs evolve, protein is playing a bigger role in their purchasing decisions. From better 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.

Global Trends by Protein Type

The top protein fortification ingredients by volume in the global market continue to be soy and dairy, according to the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI), 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:


Plant-based proteins continue to gain traction, particularly in North America and Europe. While plant-based proteins are increasingly being incorporated into sports nutrition products, growth in flexitarian eating is also creating demand for plant-based proteins in meat and dairy alternatives. Soy protein remains the go-to plant protein for nutrition products due to its high protein quality and for plant-based meats due to the functional properties it offers.

However, issues of GM crop contamination (especially in Europe) and concerns around allergens and phytoestrogens are driving a shift toward non-soy plant proteins, particularly in premium products. 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, 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.


In North America, the growing demand for protein has launched an interest in alternative proteins which is as much about culinary adventure as it is about nutrition. Using proteins derived from other legumes, seeds, nuts, 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 chickpea, sacha inchi, hemp, flax, chia, pumpkin, and sunflower seed proteins.

The Global Protein Market What Consumers Want in 2020 spoons

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. Another trend is the use of plant-based protein blends formulated to have the right balance of amino acids to be a 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 plant-based proteins make up the vast majority of protein in the diet. Rising incomes in China, as with many other emerging economies, continue to drive an increase in protein consumption, in line with a shift toward the Western diet. 

Protein is undoubtedly an in-demand nutrient, and its consumption is closely linked to disposable income. In high-income countries like the U.S., this has resulted in 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 more than two-thirds of the population overweight or obese and a growing senior population that seeks 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 protein in their snacks, as well as in their meals, and they’re checking labels for protein claims and grams of protein. According to Nielsen, 55 percent of U.S. households reported high protein as an important consideration when they grocery shop.2

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 trends in protein for this year:


Packaged foods are a lifesaver for busy consumers around the world. With more people working outside the home and the demands of work and family leaving little time available for home-cooked meals, no prep and low prep meals are a top priority for today’s consumers. Consumers don't want to compromise on nutrition when it comes to feeding their families. 

Consumers are looking for convenient and tasty meal options that also deliver on protein. For manufacturers, this means boosting protein content where possible and using front-of-package call-outs to grab consumers’ attention. In the U.S., protein-rich pastas, soups, frozen entrees, and breakfast cereals are easier to find than ever. Protein is understood to be an important part of the daily diet for everyone from growing children to seniors.


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.


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., 54 percent of consumers think plant-based meat should closely mimic the taste of meat, according to Mintel.3 This indicates a shift in the consumer base for plant-based meats toward a more mainstream, meat-eating crowd.

The Global Protein Market What Consumers Want in 2020 plant based meat

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 challenge here. Plant-based meat that provides nutrition parity with animal-based meat is also on the radar, specifically with regard to vitamin, mineral, and sodium content.


The buzz around environmentally sustainable proteins has been largely driven by Millennials but is also supported by Gen Z. The top criteria currently used to assess a food’s sustainability is the land use, fresh water use, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food’s production. 

Crops with better resistance to climate change—like indigenous, drought-tolerant millets in India and quinoa in Bolivia—are also seen through a sustainability lens as favorable protein sources. Products derived from animal agriculture that is more connected with the land, such as grass-fed dairy, are also seen as having sustainability benefits. 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.


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.

In addition, there are protein-based bioactives available that 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 very diverse, there are fortunately a wide variety of 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 achieve 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 reformulating a product to improve its protein content, it can be helpful to lean on the ingredient manufacturer to learn about all the options available and the often nuanced differences among them. To create products that will be successful in the marketplace, it makes sense to seek out those with specific protein R&D expertise. To capitalize on the global growth of this in-demand nutrient, contact Glanbia. From dairy and alternative to bioactive proteins, we are here to help choose the right protein for your products.


1. American Dairy Products Institute. (2018). The Changing Protein Ingredient Landscape.
2. Nielsen. (2018). Protein: Consumers Want It, But Don’t Understand It. Retrieved from
3. Mintel. (2019). Plant-based Proteins – US. Retrieved from

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