From the Corners of the World: Alternate Source Proteins: Global Sources, Applications and Niches

By Paul Altaffer & Grant Washington-Smith | March 1, 2012

Product developers have many opportunities, and challengers, in this growing market space.

Proteins may compose the single largest nutritional supplement category, at least by volume. Most nutraceutical and natural product consumers have an awareness of proteins and the products they are in. There is an equally strong chance that these consumers have tried a protein supplement of some kind. 

This column looks at the protein market and some alternative sources of proteins that not only come from a variety of the corners of the world, but can also be used in a broad variety of applications.

Consumer Perceptions

While proteins are broadly recognized and consumed, the drivers behind purchasing patterns are a little more difficult to identify. Traditionally, bodybuilders and other athletes have taken protein supplements in an effort to build lean muscle mass. While sports supplementation is still a major driver, protein today is also easily identified with vegetarian and alternative diets, weight loss and meal replacements. 

For this column, we recently interviewed Alan Roberts, MS, founder of Nutrition Innovation, Inc., a consultancy firm that offers concept development and product formulation expertise. According to Mr. Roberts, proteins fit an important role for a variety of consumer needs. “Protein supplementation may indeed help the body build lean muscle mass, but proteins today perform many other functions as well. Proteins help curb appetite by promoting a fuller, more satiated feeling, along with a sustained replenishing feeling for the body. This is done with little or no glycemic impact—meaning no sugar spikes.” 

Innova Market Insights recently pointed to the “Boom for Protein” in its Top 10 Trends for 2012. As the world’s population continues to grow, major questions continue to rise concerning the capacity to feed the world’s people properly. In addition, with rising food prices and commodity shortages, there is good reason to be concerned. Innova suggested robust demand for proteins, especially looking for novel sources of protein, as a significant trend for 2012 and beyond.

Major Protein Sources

The traditional sources for nutritional protein have been meat, dairy, egg and soy. This column will not focus much on the traditional protein sources other than to discuss some of the issues with these sources. The two biggest issues to address, which help justify the use of alternate source proteins, are sustainability and health. 

The issue of sustainability refers in large part to the environmental and energy costs to produce meat, dairy and egg protein compared to vegetarian sources. These sources of protein take much more land, agricultural inputs, cost and energy, while producing a great deal more waste than the alternate source proteins we will be discussing.

Additionally, there are potential health reasons for considering alternate source proteins. Certainly, one of these considerations may be vegetarian or vegan choices. Meat, dairy and egg protein sources also tend to be higher in non-nutritional fats, saturated fats and cholesterol, and may be associated with allergies (e.g., lactose intolerance) and immunity issues.

While soy protein is still the top alternate protein source—especially for vegetarians—the issues with soy protein include the activity of hormone-like molecules (phytoestrogens) and thyroid related issues. Soy is also an allergen and often associated with GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) sources of supply. As a result, popularity of soy protein is waning and product developers are looking to other vegetarian sources of protein.

Alternate Protein Sources—Spanning the Globe

There are many new and repositioned alternate protein sources (APS) for product developers to consider. These proteins come from vegetable or micro-algae sources, can be found worldwide and have a growing number of applications and uses. Some of the more popular new or repositioned APS include (but are not limited to): rice, pea protein, potato, wheat, chickpea, artichoke, micro-algae (e.g., spirulina), hemp, flax, amaranth and chia.

The ancient grain sources like flax, amaranth and chia offer a novel approach to protein supplementation and are gaining significant traction with product developers. They have a great story and combine good, balanced sources of protein with nutritional fats like omega 3s.

Two of the major drivers for the use of APS are sustainability and health. Many of these protein sources can be cultivated with much less input, energy and cost, while producing much less waste than some of the traditional protein sources. They also feature a variety of nutrients that are becoming increasingly important to consumers, like nutritional fats, fiber and antioxidants.

The idea of combining vegetarian sources of protein with healthy nutritional fats, like omega 3 fatty acids is becoming a significant trend. Some of the ancient grains like chia, flax, hemp and amaranth, for example, have considerable amounts of nutritional fats as well as fiber and antioxidants. Yet not all is perfect. With the higher nutritional fat content of some of these protein sources, there are some potential rancidity issues with them.

Another issue with vegetarian proteins is that many of them are not considered to be complete proteins, meaning they do not have enough of certain amino acids such as essential amino acids in their profile, or those amino acids are not in the best ratio for human use. Pea protein, for example, is low in sulphurous amino acids (like cysteine and methionine), but rich in lysine. Conversely, rice protein is low in lysine but rich in cysteine and methionine. However, by combining different vegetarian proteins, one can overcome some of these issues and develop superior amino acid profiles. 

Considerations for Product Developers

When designing protein products, the challenges for developers are not usually in product execution, meaning the products perform well functionally with good consumer acceptance. However, there are a variety of other issues for product developers to work on, especially with price volatility. As the market grows, it has become more commoditized, competing with traditional protein sources for market share and price. This has driven the industry to commoditization and control by very few players. The high cost and barriers for entry into the market have the tendency to reduce competition and keep prices fairly high.

In addition to the commoditization of proteins and associated issues like tight supply and rising costs, there are other factors product developers must consider.

According to Nutrition Innovation’s Mr. Roberts, product developers must contend with a variety of different issues when formulating with proteins, including:

• Flavor
• Cost
• Health properties
• Sustainability (environmental, comparable energy costs, organic)
• Health issues (allergens, potential toxicity, digestibility)
• Suitability for different lifestyle considerations (vegetarianism)
• Animal rights
• Type of formulation
• Target consumer
• Distribution channel

Many consumers of alternate proteins do not need or require as much protein. This can allow product developers to use sources of protein that are not quite as high in total protein or formulate with other health ingredients. As a result, formulators are capable of making cost-competitive formulas that include the APS. It is also possible to formulate with specialty interests in mind, such as lactose intolerance, vegetarian and vegan, thyroid and hormone sensitivities, allergy sensitivities and attention to other healthy trends like healthy fats and omega 3 fortification.

Niche Applications—Digestibility

Mr. Roberts said one area for product development potential is to formulate protein supplements intended for people with digestive conditions such as Crohn’s Disease or Irritate Bowel Syndrome (IBS). People with these conditions need to balance proteins with nutritional fats like omega 3s. Western diets tend to be high in arachidonic acid (omega 6), and this tends to exacerbate gut-related inflammatory issues. By balancing with omega 3s, one can help mitigate some of this inflammatory risk.

As product formulators become better at combining APS and creating complete proteins, the vegetarian dilemma can be resolved. Alongside advances in processing technologies, such as treatment with enzymes that enhance amino acid activity and ensure digestibility, APS allow consumers to meet all their protein requirements with less saturated fats and cholesterol.

Opportunities Abound

As these protein sources become more developed and sophisticated, so will the application potential for them. Novel alternate protein sources will be used to create meat substitutes, mock dairy, yogurt, protein supplements, shakes, beverages, nutritional bars, cereals and a whole lot more. 

These products will help lead the way to global product development initiatives as they can be developed and sourced worldwide and customized for regional and dietary considerations. The future is bright for alternate protein sources, so stay tuned for future developments and prepare to formulate for success. 

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