Insights from IFT 2014

There’s no Chobani in protein drinks; market up for grabs

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

RD Annette Maggi: “Regardless of the work by MyPlate to pile more vegetables and grains on the plate, the majority of consumers still look at meat as the center of the plate.”
RD Annette Maggi: “Regardless of the work by MyPlate to pile more vegetables and grains on the plate, the majority of consumers still look at meat as the center of the plate.”

Related tags Protein Nutrition Coffee

As protein appears primed to continue its meteoric rise, buoyed by a strong health halo among US consumers, where is there still potential for this macronutrient?

“In drinks,”​ said LuAnn Williams, director of research for Innova Market Insights, during a press dinner hosted by food flavor manufacturer Virginia Dare. Indeed, 2013 saw a 20% increase in the number of global new product launches with protein claims (with a 16.5% increase in the US).   

“Even Walmart displays Kellogg’s protein beverages in a special section. There’s more to be done,”​ Williams added. “But it’s fragmented. There’s no Chobani in protein drinks; it’s still up for grabs. Over the next year, we will see the market start to bucket and standardize more.”

Williams categorized the premium protein drink market into three buckets: sports nutrition, sports and weight management and weight management.

Yet the leading brands control little in the way of market share—GNC (4.8%), Dymatize (4.5%) and Cytosport (3.6%). Not only that, but sizes range from 74 to 500 ml; and protein sources likewise range from whey to soy, pea and even blends of various sources. The one unmistakable commonality among them is the amount of protein, which is typically displayed on front of pack (often in large, bold lettering) and carries a premium price.

“There’s no mistaking how much protein these products have, and high protein claims tend to come at a premium price,”​ Williams said. The average retail price for milk and milk-based beverages is $3.83 per liter. Those with a high protein claim typically cost 66% more, averaging $6 per liter.

“Protein has definitely gone more mainstream in drinks. We see it now even on jugs of milk.”

Consumer survey: protein more important for health than fiber, calcium and vitamin D

Much of this is due to consumers’ general association with protein and health, as was reinforced by data from a Virginia Dare survey of 694 US consumers earlier this year.

When asked about the foods or ingredients that they believe have the most health benefits, consumers listed vegetables and fruits first, followed by whole grain. “What’s fascinating is when you look at where protein is showing up, it’s fifth on the list—higher than fiber, omega-3s, calcium and vitamin D,” ​said Annette Maggi, RD, president of strategic nutrition marketing firm Annette Maggi Associates, who presented the results.

Two-thirds of shoppers say they’re intentionally seeking out protein when they shop for food and beverage, and more than half say they’re somewhat or very willing to pay more for protein fortification.

Consumers don’t know why protein is important

When asked why they choose protein, consumers said it contributes to a balanced eating habit. “Regardless of the work by MyPlate to pile more vegetables and grains on the plate, the majority of consumers still look at meat as the center of the plate,”​ Maggi observed. Consumers also said they opt for protein because it builds muscle (2), provides energy (3), contributes to fullness (4) and helps with weight loss (5).

But where does protein’s health halo come from? (It’s estimated that Americans consume roughly twice as much as needed—see here​.) Aside from being a traditionally central piece of the diet, consumers surveyed admit that they don’t actually know why protein is important. Many said they’re keen to add more because their friends are or they’ve read about it on food blogs.

Regardless, protein is here to stay. Other categories of particular promise include snacks—Nature Valley’s protein bar line raked in $100m in sales in its first year—and breakfast, as consumers still tend to associate protein primarily with the evening meal.

There’s even a yet-untapped market within the protein drink market—men. “CPGs have been looking for ways to target men,” ​Williams said. “You can definitely see gender targeting with these protein drinks just by looking at their packaging. The products are black with a grip and big bold letters. They’re definitely not feminine.”

Maggi added: “We’re seeing a shift toward men becoming the primary shoppers in the household. The protein trend lends itself easily to men. CPGs are smart to target men looking for different things on pack than women. 

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