Shining a health halo over protein

by Keith Nunes
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As the protein trend continues to evolve, product developers are seeking sources that have a natural, clean label positioning. For some consumer groups it is no longer enough to highlight added protein on packaging. They are looking beyond the nutrient.

The trend was on display during the Natural Products Expo West trade show, held in Anaheim, Calif., March 6-8. Many new food and beverage products were supercharged with higher levels and innovative sources of protein, ranging from crickets to peas, as well as combinations of plant- and animal-derived protein. Fit Patties from Pulmuone Foods, for example, have 17 to 18 grams of protein from chicken and soy. Chickpeas and pea protein in Banza dry pastas provide 14 grams of protein per serving, twice as much as traditional pasta. From D’s Naturals comes a line of vegan, gluten-free high-protein nutrition bars with no added sugar or artificial ingredients.

No Cow Bars contain organic brown rice and pea proteins, prebiotic fiber, monk fruit and stevia, with 20 to 21 grams of protein and 160 to 180 calories per bar. Varieties include peanut butter cookie dough, mint chocolate chip and blueberry cobbler.

“Food is becoming even more functional as we see the blurring of the lines between meals and snacks,” said Nicole Peranick, director of culinary global consumer strategy for Daymon Worldwide, New York. “New eating occasions are emerging, and protein benefits related to satiety and sustainable fuel.

“We are seeing packaged goods really amplify the protein messaging. Retail is breaking the rules, with breakfast making inroads beyond the morning day part. Eggs and dairy are being used as primary sources of protein throughout the day, and consumers are looking for that message and benefit to provide all day fuel and energy to get them through their days.”

Ms. Peranick added plant protein is taking over the center of the plate.

“People are looking at alternate sources,” she said. “We are seeing many consumers globally who are looking for or following a no meat, meat-free diet, and the industry at large is capitalizing on this consumer movement.”

She cited as an example Chef Jose Andres’ soon-to-open fast casual chain Beefsteak that will focus on plant protein as its center-of-the-plate staple.

“We’re also seeing other restaurants follow suit,” she said. “And we are seeing the trend migrate into retail, with many companies offering plant-based protein options.”

Pinnacle takes the plunge

In November, Pinnacle Foods acquired Garden Protein International, Vancouver, B.C., the manufacturer of Gardein branded meat alternatives, for approximately $153.8 million. Gardein offers a broad range of frozen substitutes for traditional animal-based protein formats, such as chicken strips and beef crumbles.

“The acquisition of Gardein is a key enabler to continue building Birds Eye into the leading health and wellness brand focused on helping Americans eat more vegetables,” said Bob Gamgort, chief executive officer of Pinnacle Foods, at the time of the acquisition. “By bringing Gardein under the Birds Eye umbrella, we will accelerate growth through expanded distribution, marketing and innovation. We believe that plant-based protein is at the tipping point of becoming mainstream, making Gardein an exciting new growth platform for the Birds Eye business.”

This past February, in a conference call with financial analysts, Mr. Gamgort expanded on the potential he sees Gardein’s plant protein capabilities have to offer Pinnacle Foods.

“If you take a look at the plant-based protein segment, its potential to do, for example, what plant-based milks have done in the dairy segment is significant,” he said. “It is a very small percentage of meat consumption. When you take a look at the plant-based milk area, it is about 10% of sales. So there is tremendous upside in the category.”

Mr. Gamgort added Gardein has a strong presence in organic and natural food retailers, but that the brand has gained traction in mainstream supermarkets as well.

“If you take a look at a Publix store in the southeast or if you look at Target, they have some of the highest levels of distribution in terms of variety of Gardein of any retailer in the country,” Mr. Gamgort said during the February conference call. “And so this is something that was in place and building when we made the acquisition. Given that we have strength in traditional channels and the Gardein organization has strength in natural and organic, that is the point about being able to build off of the best of both organizations to expand the coverage — distribution coverage of both brands.

“The other piece that we are able to do is fuel the expansion through manufacturing capacity expansion, both in terms of investing in the plant in Vancouver to expand its output, as well as we are in process of looking for another manufacturing site to fuel the kind of growth that we’re talking about.”
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