Consumers are driving an increase in whey protein options

As understanding of protein’s distinctive role in health and performance becomes widespread, nutrition and food companies are responding to the call for more protein-laden products.

Robert Wildman
Robert Wildman Ph.D., Founder of

I interact extensively with consumers, food companies and researchers about nutrition, and I’m increasingly seeing a lightbulb go on in peoples’ minds when it comes to the contribution of protein to health and performance. There’s an enlightenment underway, and it’s going to fuel exponential demand for different ways to consume protein.

Here, I’ll firstly discuss why consumers are increasingly turning to protein, and then I’ll outline what’s available and important to them in terms of products.

The lightbulb moment
We often think of food as a source of energy, and, of course, it is. Our bodies need fuel to move and operate – but they need more than just fuel. Our bodies must also build, repair, maintain, adapt and remodel themselves on an ongoing basis. The true “fuel” macronutrients, carbohydrate and fat, contribute comparatively little beyond energy to the repair process with the exception of certain fatty acids.

Meanwhile, it’s protein that is the heavy hitter when it comes to providing the building blocks that serve as the structural and functional basis of our body, especially those that are largely built of protein: muscles, bones, skin and organs.

For instance, over 85 percent of skeletal muscle’s dry weight is protein. When muscle works hard, its protein is broken down, however, the body has no inert storage reserves of protein to call upon like it does with carbohydrate and fat. Rebuilding muscle to improve strength, growth and endurance requires extra protein, and the only way to do it without detriment to other tissues is to obtain it as dietary protein.

And while protein has legendarily been the concern of bodybuilders, it’s just as important for endurance athletes. In them, protein won’t necessarily show up as bigger muscles, but it will create better aerobic capacity as well as become a fuel source during long training and competitions.

A well-trained endurance athlete consuming additional protein will maintain or increase their muscle protein. They’ll also be able to make other protein-based adaptions, such as enhanced blood vessels supplying muscle as well as haemoglobin in the red blood cells. It is critical for athletes and anyone exercising for better fitness and performance that while training creates the stimulus for adaptations in muscle, it is protein in particular that will provide the enhanced nutrition to optimise the change.

So what should I eat?
After people realise the distinct role of protein in their bodies, they start to examine how much of it they’re eating and what they really need. Serious athletes can require at least double the protein stipulated by recommended daily allowances (RDAs) around the world. This doesn’t mean they have to take protein supplements, but they should become aware of how much they’re getting and where their protein is coming from. In general, performance can’t be lifted without increasing protein, so it’s a question of whether someone’s able to get enough protein via their habitual food consumption. Moreover, if someone is restricting calories at the same time, he or she are trying to build muscle and/or enhance performance, protein requirements increase further still.

Refining protein
Food companies are expanding their range of protein products that have minimal amounts of other macronutrients. They separate the protein by various processes such as filtration to remove most of the carbohydrate and fat. Furthermore, various proteins can be hydrolysed, which breaks it down into smaller units.

Hydrolysation can specifically make the protein more functional in different food recipes and supplement formulations. This includes making protein more water soluble at certain conditions. This has opened up a world of protein drinks and shots. Protein hydrolysate can even be made to hold more moisture so that it works well keeping a protein bar soft for a longer time. These convenient ways to boost protein intake are being welcomed by consumers all over the world.

So this is an exciting time for protein products and for people wanting to meet their protein needs. Companies are spending a lot of money and energy to create ingredients that enhance a food’s protein content and also provide pleasant sensory attributes.

Whey protein is particularly special in what it has to offer. It’s the most powerful protein that nature ever created because of its high content of leucine, an amino acid with a powerful effect on body protein synthesis. It comes from milk, of course – so why aren’t we simply recommending milk? There’s certainly no need for people to avoid dairy products if they can tolerate them, but remember that milk also contains lactose (a type of carbohydrate) and fat. Only 20 percent of the protein in milk is whey protein (the rest being casein). So for someone looking for a strategic dose of whey, a specially formulated whey food or supplement might align better.

Functional foods
We’re increasingly seeing whey protein being added to foods that people have long enjoyed, such as oats and pancakes. This is a common solution to the quandary of how to consume enough of what science tells us is essential: a decent helping of protein at breakfast time. The addition of whey protein transforms common dishes into functional foods that are better for people both physiologically and nutritionally. It’s an approach that people can adopt in their own kitchens, and whey protein is also being widely incorporated into products by sports nutrition companies and major food producers.

As I discuss and observe protein trends around the world, I see these product developments growing fast. However, consumer awareness is yet to spread to enormous markets, like China, where the benefits of protein are yet to be realised.

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.