A New Look at the Changing Protein Category

Originally Published: June 17, 2017
Last Updated: June 23, 2021
A New Look at the Changing Protein Category. Whey protein examples with the phrase "effective and powerful," representing the consumer trend toward sports nutrition.

A new look at the changing protein category reveals that protein powders show the greatest increase in plant-based protein use, with the multiple plant-based sources second only to whey.

Nutritional Researcher, Scott Dicker, SPINS, brought his perspective, which is backed by an expertise in sports nutrition and fitness, to the 2017 Protein Trends & Technology Seminar. “Sportification” of non-athletes is driving protein from the locker rooms to mainstream products, he believes, as more people turn to this macro-nutrient to help them with fitness and wellness goals. While protein traditionally has been marketed to young men as a means to get bigger and stronger, he pointed out that companies are re-positioning their products and using the same protein ingredients to market to women to help them get lean and toned.

Dicker referenced the “2017 IFIC Food & Health Survey,” which said 66% of Americans tried to consume more protein in 2016, up from 50% in 2014. “The overall desire to eat more protein is heavily influenced by consumer belief that calories from protein are less likely to cause weight gain than calories from carbs or fat,” he said. Also, 20% of Americans view plant protein as more healthful than they did in the previous year.

This trend is reflected in dollar changes and protein sources in sports products. Animal proteins, primarily from dairy sources, dominate performance bars. [Editor’s note: Performance bars include only those where protein is the primary component.] Whey protein is up 66.4% from the last year. Although the sales for pea-fortified bars aren’t high, he stressed the growth percentage can’t be ignored, and he noted that performance bars fortified with pea protein are up 4,696% from last year.

In ready-to-drink (RTD) protein supplements and meal replacements, use of animal proteins (whey, milk and casein) showed the highest gains. [Editor’s note: primarily whey/casein and whey/milk blends, while casein alone use was down.] In contrast, combinations of plant proteins declined 12.1%, Dicker said. However, among plant proteins, pea protein is again the one to watch, up 74.9% compared to 0.1% change for “soy foods.”

In the protein powder category, although whey protein dropped 5.6%, it still has a hold on market sales. “Products with a grass-fed labeling claim are still relatively new, but we believe the strong growth percentage [14.9%] will start to correlate to large dollar increases,” Dicker said. “Protein powders are also where we’re seeing the rise in plant-based proteins, with the multiple plant-based sources second only to whey, when looking at protein sources.”

While not a top-10 functional ingredient, he called out collagen as having 461% sales growth in this segment. Sports and wellness consumers are now using collagen for recovery and joint support. [Editor’s note: The “functional ingredient” term is here used as a nutritional, rather than a physiochemical, property.]

Three-year, cross-channel product sales growth shows that, even though these subcategories already have high dollar sales, they are still growing. Modest percentage growth still equates to large dollar increases. Year-over-year sales growth for performance bars are about 7 and 6% for the past two years, respectively. Sales growth of protein powders is also steady. When looking only at the RTD protein supplements, the growth rate is accelerating slightly—almost reaching double-digit growth over the last 12 months. “When dealing with such high dollars, double-digit growth can be extremely significant,” Dicker commented.

Examination of sales in the conventional, multi-outlet (MULO) and convenience stores show that all three are selling more protein powder and meal replacements in terms of dollars and units. Conventional retailers are picking up more SKUs of protein powder. Consumers of protein powder are looking for sales and may be less brand-loyal.
RTD sales are also growing, although stagnant in the natural channel. As retailers pick up more protein powders, they are starting to pick up less of the RTD. Performance bars hold the lion’s share of the market in conventional, MULO and convenience. Sales in the natural channel are up 18.5%.

Growth in the natural channel is often where trends begin, suggesting a sign that natural claims will continue to develop and take hold in the conventional channel. However, when looking at the conventional channel, products that are naturally positioned in the bar category are slightly down, over 4%. Products positioned in the specialty and wellness group are up 14%.

This supports the observation that the sport and wellness consumer niches are continuing to merge regarding protein use. Sports companies are adapting by highlighting the overall health and wellness benefits of protein to their products.

“A New Look at the Changing Protein Category,” Scott Dicker, SPINS Product Library, sdicker@spins.com

This presentation was given at the 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar — Business Strategies

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