Lenny and Larry's protein cookies
Lenny and Larry's cookies include 16 grams of protein.
The high-protein product category is growing, quickly. At IFT17 in June, amidst the large number of products with protein claims, interestingly, very few of them were baked. I issue a challenge to food manufacturers: Step out of the box, and go baked.

Baking with proteins isn’t easy. A high-protein product is one that consists of 20% protein by weight per a serving size or 10 grams of protein per 50-gram bar. Protein changes a baked food’s texture; it typically garners a dry mouthfeel. Some products become chewy or gummy as well. That said, baked foods, although dry in texture, often have a high-moisture content. High moisture means potentially high-water activity, which for a shelf-stable product is death. The water activity level (Aw) has to remain below 0.680, or you run the risk of molding.

Bakers must address such critical issues as dryness, texture, taste and the composition of the protein in baked products. How many of the nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are present? Amino acids are called essential because the body can’t naturally produce them. Proteins are rated using a scale called the PDCAAS system. A complete protein has a PDCAAS of 1.0. Many vegetable proteins fall short of this number; however, soy protein is probably the most common and has a PDCAAS of 1.0. Whey or milk, and egg proteins also have a PDCAAS of 1.0 and are the most common animal-based proteins used in formulations.

Protein powders like isolated soy protein (ISP) or whey protein isolates (WPI) typically love water. They absorb a lot when put into a dough and can drive the Aw up beyond a safe level if you aren’t careful. To get around this conundrum, use soy crisps that come in protein levels as high as 90%. They don’t absorb as much water and provide ample protein. However, keep in mind that they create a dry end product. Powdered protein can help.

The key to finding the right protein involves understanding how much water it absorbs. To screen them, perform a simple absorption test. I compare the proteins to pastry flour, adding equal amounts of water — typically around 80% — to each and see how they compare. If the protein’s consistency is close to or softer than the flour, it may work in a baked product. This lets you know it won’t require more water than normal when added to the dough. My experience is that when baked, the product won’t have as much of that mouth-drying effect. Ingredient manufactures are catching on to this absorption characteristic and developing lower-absorbing proteins.

The next step is to see how the protein or combination of proteins and crisps affects taste and texture. Some vegetable proteins can have flavor challenges when used alone. Also hydrolyzing proteins — chopping them up so they don’t absorb as much water — can create some unappealing flavors. So, if the protein description mentions “hydrolyzed,” be sure to ask how flavor is affected.

Despite the challenges, consumer demand for protein-packed foods means baked goods are next, and formulators need to know how to get in the mix.