Not too long ago, mainstream consumers largely ignored protein on the Nutrition Facts panel. For the most part, protein is not deficient in the American diet, and efforts to consume additional protein were considered something for athletes and body builders.

This is no longer the case. Protein’s documented ability to assist with weight loss and management by helping control hunger, provide lasting energy, aid in sports recovery and maintain muscle mass with aging has made it one of the hottest nutrients of the decade. As a result, all types of food and beverage manufacturers are adding everything from algae to pulses to whey to give their products a protein boost, often claiming it to be a “good” (at least 5 g protein per serving) or “excellent” (10 g or more protein per serving) source of this macronutrient.

According to “Proteins — Classic, Alternative and Exotic Sources: Culinary Trend Tracking Series,” a report from Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, 62% of consumers agree they are “making a point of getting enough protein” from the foods and beverages they consume.

“Americans continue to seek out protein for a variety of health and wellness concerns, and to increase maintenance, growth and repair functions of the body,” said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. “With the popularity of diets like Paleo, Primal and Atkins, protein has been the darling of lean diets for more than two decades and ties more broadly into the consumer quest for health-and-wellness foods and beverages to address specific health concerns. This presents a unique opportunity for food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants.”

In the bakery

Bakers have taken note. Although baked goods are best known as a source of carbohydrates, through the use of new and novel ingredients, innovative bakers are able to give their products a boost of protein and increase their appeal with protein-savvy consumers.

“Because consumers associate protein with satiety and weight management, grain-based breakfast items are ideal food products to provide a protein punch since consumers connect the dots between breakfast and a healthy start,” said Sarah Wood, senior applications scientist, Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, CO. “Recently, the snack category exploded with a plethora of healthy options from ingredient inclusions to portion size,” she said. “Protein is one of several enriching approaches to create a healthy snacking experience.”

Toby Moore, baking professional, AIB International, Manhattan, KS, added, “The average non-vegetarian American already gets plenty of protein in his or her diet, so high-protein mainly appeals to very active 20- and 30-somethings. But breads and cakes are seen as old-timers’ foods by a lot of millennials, so cookies, bars and crackers may play better with that crowd.”

Portable foods are where the action is when it comes to protein fortification. “In addition to baked grain-based bars, protein-fortified biscuits, crackers and cookies could be appealing to athletes,” said Troy Boutte, PhD, group manager-bakery/fats and oils, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, KS. “These products are nutrient-dense, are light to carry and have long shelf lives. In addition, biscuits and crackers can be made with high protein levels while maintaining very acceptable flavor and textural attributes.”

Options and functionality

There’s a wide variety of animal and plant protein sources that bakers can choose from. They differ in key characteristics, including functionality, flavor and price. To get the best boost without impacting product quality, oftentimes a combination of proteins make the best sense.

Indeed, impact on finished product quality must be carefully considered because many proteins are not added invisibly to baked goods. For example, certain proteins function as emulsifiers, whereas others impact structure and texture. Some contribute color or opacity. Others will provide additional nutrients and, depending on the application, can be an added bonus or can have a deleterious effect on the finished product.

Another growing consideration is sustainability. While animal proteins have historically been considered the gold standard in protein quality, there is now much greater interest in plant protein sources because of their more sustainable attributes. In fact, plant protein production has been shown to offer a lower environmental impact compared with animal protein production by reducing energy consumption, emissions, land usage and water usage. Producers must feed plant protein to animals to produce animal proteins, and animals are not necessarily the most efficient converters of the proteins they consume. Further, because many baked goods can be readily formulated to a vegetarian or vegan format, plant proteins make sense from a product positioning perspective.

Plant protein power

Soy remains the most common plant protein source, but other sources are quickly gaining acceptance by bakers and consumers. In the past year, pea protein has proven to be quite versatile in various applications.

“Addition of soy protein makes sense in any baked product where specific protein requirements must be met,” Dr. Boutte said. DuPont supplies a complete line of isolated soy protein products including powdered, agglomerated powders, nuggets, flakes and textured proteins.

“The impact of soy protein on flavor and texture is important to consider,” Dr. Boutte advised. “This can be very different from formula to formula. We understand certain factors that influence texture and flavor, but some trial and error is usually required for best results. The moisture content, pH and sweetness of a product will all partially determine the protein to use.”

Soy proteins are often blended together to achieve the best texture, flavor, shelf life and, of course, protein requirements, according to Dr. Boutte. “Use of other ingredients, such as flavors, emulsifiers, hydrocolloids and enzymes, often helps,” he said.

AIDP, City of Industry, CA, markets a number of plant-based proteins including a sprouted brown rice protein that has recently become available in a certified-organic form. This ingredient addresses numerous issues including continually rising costs of other protein sources, a growing vegan market and rising awareness of whey, soy protein and other foods that lead to allergies and sensitivities.

Sprouting enhances the protein’s nutritional benefits, among others, over conventional rice protein, according to AIDP. And studies have shown that rice protein has similar muscle-building capabilities as whey protein.

The company also offers a proprietary blend of rice and pea protein that delivers a complete protein profile by boosting the low lysine level typical of rice-only protein. “We have been busy developing and expanding our collection of rice and pea proteins, each grade with unique characteristics for different formulation needs,” said Alan Rillorta, director, branded ingredient sales at AIDP. “Various colors, flavor profiles and textures are available.”

Edible bean powders from ADM Wild Flavors & Specialty Ingredients, Decatur, IL, can be used to increase not only the protein content of baked goods but also the fiber content.

“Edible bean powders that work well in baking applications are navy, pinto, black and chickpea,” said Cheryl Borders, manager, soy food applications, technical service, edible beans, ADM. “They are available as whole, pieces, grits and powders. Navy bean powder is the preferred choice when added color is not desired. In extruded snacks, 100% bean powder can be used to replace the cereal and starch ingredients.”

Stabilized rice bran is an ingredient that provides protein and fiber, as well as the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. It’s also an inherent source of essential vitamins and minerals.

“Bran is about 10% by weight of the rice kernel,” said Mark McKnight, senior vice-president, marketing and sales, RiceBran Technologies, Scottsdale, AZ. “This is also where 80% of the nutrition resides. We’ve patented a process to stabilize the bran to prevent it from oxidizing and, thereby, are able to provide an ingredient loaded with many nutrients lacking in today’s diet.”

The stabilized rice bran can be used as-is in baked good formulations. “Another option is a unique high-protein and high-dietary-fiber crisp extruded from our patented rice protein ingredients,” Mr. McKnight said. The crisps are 10% protein and 10% dietary fiber by weight.

Flax protein and chia protein are also a natural fit for bakery. Both these seeds are consumer-recognized ingredients in this category, according to Marilyn Stieve, business development manager, bars, Glanbia Nutritionals Ingredient Technologies, Fitchburg, WI.

An emerging vegan protein source is microalgae. “Our whole algal protein ingredient has a protected cell wall that limits its interaction with other ingredients, making it a versatile ingredient for a number of formulations, including breads, cereals, crackers, muffins and more,” said Sally Aaron, marketing director, Solazyme Microalgae Food Ingredients, South San Francisco, CA. “This protein also minimizes the impact on textural characteristics, due to low water binding and very low viscosity in solutions, allowing high protein content without thickening.”

As a complete cell, the whole microalgal protein supplies multiple micronutrients in addition to protein. “It delivers all essential amino acids and boosts dietary fiber,” Ms. Aaron said. “It can be used as a sole source or in combination with other proteins.”

The company also markets whole algal flour that can be used to replace dairy fats and eggs in baked goods. “By using both ingredients, formulators can create vegan baked goods while boosting protein and maintaining great taste and texture,” Ms. Aaron said.

Way beyond whey

Whey proteins are the leaders in animal protein fortification of baked goods. But a new snack product in the marketplace shows the industry that anything is possible.

Meat Chips, Tempe, AZ, combines ground corn and white chicken meat into a seasoned gluten-free ­protein-packed chip. Stripped away are all the unnecessary fats, chemicals and extractions in the namesake chip. What’s left is 21 g protein in every 2.6-oz snack bag, according to Danny Fillmore, founder. He said that despite readily available healthy snack options, many people still gravitate toward junk food, simply because the flavor tastes great.

“I like junk food as much as the next guy; in fact, I like it so much that it’s the inspiration behind Meat Chips,” he said. “This isn’t a health food company. We’re a snack company. We focus on using real ingredients and flavors that make people crave this stuff. Our goal is to make people love us for the taste and then benefit from the ingredients.”

To get the flavor and crunch of Meat Chips just right, it took more than eight years of research and development, according to Mr. Fillmore. The chips come in four flavors: Nacho, Pepper, Ranch and Salsa.

While chicken protein may be an emerging ingredient for fortification of baked goods, whey proteins have long been the go-to choice because of their very clean flavor profiles and versatility in use. They have also been shown to provide an anabolic advantage over most other proteins in promoting muscle health because of their higher level of leucine. Specifically, whey protein isolate is about 11% leucine, making it the best source of all protein ingredients.

Davisco Foods International, Eden Prairie, MN, markets a whey protein isolate containing even more leucine —13.1%. This translates to lower usage levels in products promoted for muscle health and recovery. Made from pasteurized cheese whey by ion exchange technology, the ingredient has been successfully used in extruded breakfast cereal and cookies. A prototype gluten-free peanut butter chocolate chip cookie has been formulated to be an “excellent” source of protein.

Whey proteins are compatible with plant proteins. “We have found great success in protein-fortified cookies and baked bars using a combination product that is a blend of whey and soy proteins,” Ms. Stieve said. “This synergistic combination protein contains strong water-binding properties, which result in superior crumb structure and excellent shelf life.”

There are a number of other innovative animal proteins proving to be useful in boosting the protein of grain-based foods, including gelatin and collagen. These ingredients can be easily incorporated into baked products for the sports nutrition market.

“Gelatin and collagen can be used in baked products intended for weight management, as well as other products intended to contribute to improved joint and bone health, even skin health,” said Felipe Chaluppe, president, Gelnex USA and Ingredients, Inc., Chicago. “With gelatin, not only is it a protein source, but it also provides functionality. It is widely used in fillings and toppings for baked goods because of its foaming and gelling properties. It produces stable fillings with unique textures and great sliceability in addition to showing good flavor properties and a melt-in-mouth sensation.”

And the truly exotic

Likely the most innovative animal protein option in the market is crickets. Yes, insects. Exo, Brooklyn, NY, markets Exo Protein Bars. The company works with domestic cricket farms that raise crickets specifically for human consumption. Harvested, cleaned crickets are dried and milled into a fine flour. The result is a slightly nutty-tasting flour that is high in protein and micronutrients. The company uses the flour to deliver 10 g protein in every 60-g bar, which is also free of dairy, soy and gluten.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to protein fortification. “Industry interest in new developments in protein-fortified healthy snacks is very high right now,” Dr. Boutte said. “With changing consumer dynamics around snacking and growing interest in protein, it is the ideal time to consider new snack formats that include protein. For bakers, it is certainly an exciting time to be looking at new opportunities in this space.”

Kathy Lund, vice-president business development and marketing at AIDP, summarized, “As the health properties of protein are better understood, the potential for growth is unlimited.”