A dive into high protein trends, claims and applications

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

Mint chocolate protein bars.  Pic: Kerry
Mint chocolate protein bars. Pic: Kerry

Related tags Wellmune wgp Probiotics Kerry High protein Dairy

Conor Power, director, proteins business development at global taste and nutrition company Kerry, gives Dairy Reporter the lowdown on the latest high protein trends.

Conor, what do you see as the current trends in high protein food and beverages?

The popularity of protein-based food and beverages continues to rise, including both those that are naturally high in protein such as yogurts as well as those that have been fortified with protein.

Consumers associate protein as a power nutrient, offering many benefits that lead to a healthier life, but top of the list is general health and wellness.

High protein is an influential claim when it comes to consumers, guiding their purchasing and consumption behaviors. This is driving innovation and leading to the growing number of products featuring high protein claims​. This is played out in the growth of new product launches featuring a high protein claim, with an overall 12% increase in such product launches from 2018 to 2020 (Innova July 21 data).

There are many trends impacting the high protein product market.

While consumers had already become dramatically more proactive over the past decade about health and wellness, the Covid-19 pandemic exponentially heightened their focus on nutrition and health. Consumers now have a much greater understanding of the link between our food intake and our overall health and are more determined to lead a healthier lifestyle. This is driving consumers to choose food and beverages that have a high protein claim.

Covid-19 has also increased consumer sensitivities to sustainability. They care about climate change and the environment and want to know that the choices they make are better for the planet. Consumers are increasingly following a more sustainable diet and indicate that they will make even more sustainable food choices when available.  While protein is well recognized by consumers as an essential nutrient, they now seek out information to understand the nutritional quality of that protein, for example if it is has been produced from cows fed on a diet of grass or if a plant protein, from what source it has been produced. This has led to an increase in “natural,” “grass-fed” and other claims relating to nutritional quality on front-of-pack.

According to recent research carried out by Kerry, 49% of consumers are now considering sustainability when buying food and drink while 42% of consumers globally now agree that “A product is not healthy if it’s not also sustainable” (Innova Nutrition & Health Survey 2020).

High protein food and beverages were previously mainly targeted at sportier consumers, who engage in active gym routines seeking performance and muscle building/toning gains. Whilst this consumer group remains the traditional heartland for high-protein products, it has now grown beyond this core group. High protein claims are becoming increasingly popular amongst mainstream consumers, who are looking for a quick and convenient way to boost their health.

Innovation is also propelling this market forward. In a move to offer something new, food producers are innovating with new protein sources, more advanced processing technologies and new applications. Even the more established brands are getting in on the game and placing a renewed focus on offering high protein products. The current fastest growing subcategory of food and beverage launches with a high/source of protein claim are baking ingredients and mixes, sports, milk, ice cream, yogurts and baby cereals/biscuits (Innova July 21).

The stronger focus on protein goes hand in hand with an increase of the average protein content. Average protein content per serving in grams (g) of food and beverage launches tracked with a high/source of protein claim risen from 15.1g in 2016 to 17.8g in 2020 (Innova July 21).

What are the new applications and formats?


The demand for high protein snacks has significantly increased over the past year, driven by consumers seeking out “better for you” convenient snacks as they look to adopt healthier approaches to snacking. Our eating patterns have changed, with many people working from home and snacking more frequently.

Healthier snacks containing protein are a good way to offer the same experience of a snack, but in a more sustainable permissible amount. 48% of consumers say they are now seeking out foods high in protein to boost their immune health (FMCG Gurus, 2020). 40% of global consumers say that they are now likely to turn to snacks fortified with specific health enhancing ingredients (FMCG Gurus, 2021).

In this space, we also have a lot of innovation focused on clean-label formulations.  48% of consumers say that natural claims are important in the protein bar category (FMCG Gurus, 2021). Considering the historic negative image of protein bars due to perception of being highly processed and with high sugar recipes, brands have an opportunity to reformulate with simpler ingredients and to be more transparent about recipes and on-pack information.

Functional beverages

The functional beverages market is on the rise as consumers seek out convenient beverages that will enhance their mental, emotional, and overall health and well-being. Today innovation is focusing on delivering new experiences to consumers, developing new categories of functional beverages, moving away from the classic RTD and RTM shakes. This has culminated in innovative protein fortified beverages formats such as waters, juices, carbonated beverages, or coffee being launched.

For example, an innovative product we launched recently is ProDiem Refresh, a clear plant protein developed for clear low-pH beverages (waters). This solution is unique to the market. A few years ago, fortifying a clear, low-pH beverage with plant protein would have been impossible because of solubility, taste, and texture challenges but through innovative protein ingredient processing technology, we have been able to create this first to market solution.

Ice cream

Ice cream is another application opening to high protein claims. Traditionally, a category driven by indulgence, it is witnessing a surge in “better for you” options that offer consumers permissible indulgence.


High protein baking mixes are coming to the fore offering consumers high protein content in an easy to use format that supports their diet and nutrition goals.

How do you see the growth of plant-based protein?

Dairy protein is still the number one source for food and beverage formulations as it is nutritious and easy to formulate. However, plant-based protein is rapidly growing. The pandemic also accelerated the move toward plant-based protein as consumers re-evaluated their diets and become more aware of the benefits of increased plant protein consumption.

A particular challenge with plant protein is its nutritional profile. When compared to dairy proteins, many plant proteins have a lower nutritional quality. One method to compensate for the lower protein quality of plant protein sources is to combine various plant proteins together, creating complementary protein blends that provide the desired amino acid profile.

Consumers are becoming increasingly informed of this challenge and as a result protein quality is fast becoming an important consideration early in the R&D approach to formulating new plant-based protein products.

Wellmune Ready to Go Protein Drink
Kerry's Wellmune in an RTD protein drink. Pic: Kerry

Our recent launch in this space is ​ProDiem Complete, a plant protein that combines pea and rice protein to deliver a plant-based solution ingredient that is fully equivalent in protein quality to dairy. ProDiem Complete was developed to support food and beverage manufacturers overcoming taste, mouthfeel and texture challenges associated with plant proteins.

Plant protein has a lot of potential and it will be a key protein source in the future as more consumers increasingly choose plant protein for their protein source.

Can high protein be combined with other claims, or is it best to just cover one, i.e. the protein?

“High in protein” or “source of protein” are very attractive claims. These claims have a strong healthy halo and are well perceived by consumers and they associate them, with an array of health benefits.

For example, 45% of global consumers say they will eat and drink healthily by increasing protein intake in Feb 2021, compared to 37% in April 2020 (FMCG gurus 2021), and 78% of global consumers say they associate protein with boosting their immune system in Feb 21, compared to 70% in April 2020.

The “high in protein​claims are certainly becoming more prominent on food and beverage packs given their appeal to consumers. However, there are a few other claims that work really well with high protein claims. These include:


72% of global consumers express interest in brands that actively communicate sustainability achievements (FMCG Gurus 2021). A significant cohort of consumers (23%) surveyed as part of Kerry’s recent Sustainability in Motion report​ said they expect manufacturers and brands to take the lead on sustainability. Consumers associate sustainability with a wide array of validated claims and actions including nutritional benefits, the environment, animal welfare and overall social responsibility. With dairy proteins, there has been a growing interest in claims relating to dairy farming practices including grass fed cows, a natural method of feeding cows, who subsequently produce more nutritious milk. Ireland’s grass-based system benefits from one of the lowest global on-farm carbon footprints, resulting in the production of low carbon dairy products. In general, Eco-labeling is growing as a means to inform consumers of the environmental impact of their food choices – both in terms of sourcing and processing.

Additional context on sustainability of dairy protein: It is important that along with the climate impact of food, we also consider the nutritional value, affordability, and accessibility. Dairy derived from grazing-based systems has significantly higher fat and protein yield and improved protein quality when compared with milk derived from cows fed a total mixed ration diet. (Nutrition Benefits of Grass-Fed Dairy Report, 2019)​Dairy plays a key role in providing sustainable nutrition globally and championing carbon efficient dairy products should be a priority in ensuring sufficient levels of sustainable nutrition required to feed the worlds growing population.

Natural / No additives or Preservatives

Clean label launches: There has been 18% average annual growth of no additives/preservatives claims of food and beverage launches tracked with dairy proteins and a high/source of protein claim (Global, CAGR 2016-2020 (Innova).

Nutritional Quality

For plant protein, there is growth in claims relating to the nutritional profile of the proteins. For example “contains all essential amino-acids” or “complete protein with all essential amino-acids” are starting to emerge as consumers are getting more educated on the fact that not all plant proteins are equal, and that most of them do not deliver a complete EAA profile.

Functional Claims

Our recent survey highlighted 42% of consumers had increased their purchases of functional or fortified foods and beverages, so we are seeing continued demand for products that offer health claims. In fact, the survey found many consumers do their own research on ingredients when evaluating an immune health product, and are more likely to make a purchase if they have seen scientific data supporting its claims ([1]Kerry Global Consumer Research, Digestive and Immune Health, 2021).

We also notice on the market products offering combined functionality such as protein + probiotics for example. Recently, Kerry undertook a human clinical study with its probiotic ingredient BC30 and its grass-fed dairy protein solution Ultranor. This study demonstrates adding BC30 to Ultranor is improving its amino acid absorption, therefore supporting protein utilization. This is an example of how combined functionality can bring enhanced benefits to consumers like aging populations because protein absorption takes place less efficiently in seniors, and higher intake is needed to maintain muscle mass and strength. Protein utilization is also a sought-after benefit for athletes, in whom it supports functions such as muscle repair.

With immune health top of mind, combining research backed immune health ingredients with protein also gives manufactures an opportunity to provide multifunctional products that meet demand. Beta glucans are quickly becoming a key ingredient in the diets of health-conscious individuals to support fitness goals and the desire for immune health.

Kerry’s recent case studies eBook “Reinventing Food and Beverages with innovative Protein Technology​” profiles new applications and formats to the high-protein products offer.







Related news