Image: Protein beverages appeal to health conscious consumers. Photo courtesy of Syda Productions

Protein is a winner when it comes to nutrients. In the International Food Information Council's new 2016 Food and Health Survey, protein topped the list of 38 nutrients and food ingredients that American consumers say they are trying to ingest. Approximately 64% of American consumers say they are trying to consume protein, beating the 60% response for fibre and 59% figure for whole grains – the top three nutrients on the list. The percentage of Americans saying they are trying to consume protein rose an incredible ten percentage points between 2015 and 2016, from 54% to 64%.

Protein is at the top of the nutrient heap because it delivers functional health benefits that consumers’ value highly. When asked which health benefits they are most keen on getting from foods, 46% of American consumers selected weight loss or weight management, making it the top choice among ten different options. Increased energy was the second-most popular choice, selected by 35% of respondents. Healthy aging, the number-four response, was chosen by 30% of respondents. Protein delivers all three of these high-interest health benefits.

Dairy-free options open up consumer reach

Protein beverages have normally meant dairy-based drinks, but those are a non-starter for consumers who are lactose-intolerant or just do not like the taste of milk. Those difficulties can be avoided with a new wave of protein-enhanced coconut waters that bring protein into the refreshment beverage realm. MusclePharm Corporation's new Coco Protein coconut water and protein drink delivers important electrolytes, minerals, and 20g of protein per serving to help build lean muscle, increase endurance, fuel body recovery, and enhance hydration. WheyCoco whey protein and coconut water beverage also targets post-workout hydration and muscle recovery. Both drinks are available to US consumers, while new Coco Pro high protein coconut water takes aim at the UK market. This product delivers 20g of whey protein per serving.

"Protein2o signals the growing warmth that refreshment beverages are feeling for protein."

Judging by the massive size of its displays in American Walmart stores, Atkins Lift protein drink may be signaling that post-workout protein drinks could be the next great opportunity in sports drinks. Pack copy describes the beverage as a "refreshing fuel source" with 20g of whey protein, 2g of net carbs and 0g of sugar per bottle. The line is offered in traditional sports drink flavors like berry, orange and lemon and four-pack packaging that looks very much at home in the sports drink aisle.

Walmart seems to have come to the conclusion that protein drinks in the US are nearing an inflection point, primed to cross over from a specialty store offering to a mass-market product. Less than a year ago, the chain began stocking Protein2o, a line of flavored waters infused with electrolytes and 15g of protein. While more of an enhanced water drink than a sports drink, Protein2o signals the growing warmth that refreshment beverages are feeling for protein.

Another brand enjoying that warmth is Trimino protein-infused water, which combines 7g of whey protein with B-complex vitamins and amino acids. In January 2016, the brand announced a distribution deal with Polar Beverage, a company claimed to be the largest independent bottler of sparkling and carbonated beverages in the US. According to Ralph Crowley Jr,, CEO of Polar Beverages: "We're always watching developments in the market and the growing acceptance of protein-enhanced products is becoming a foundation for a new category of beverage. We have watched Trimino's growth and believe the timing is right to help accelerate the brand in a big way here in the Northeast."

Revitalising the coffee market with protein cold brew products

Drinkable protein is also being looked at as a new way to energize ready-to-drink coffee sales, although the category is not exactly in need of sales stimulation. According to Canadean, iced and ready-to-drink coffee drinks were one of only two soft drink categories (the other being energy drinks) that saw per capita consumption in the US double for the 10-year period from 2005 to 2015.

Whether or not protein can help sustain this torrid rate of growth will not be known for a while, but coffee companies are looking for protein to give them a sales boost. Kraft Foods' launched Gevalia Kaffe iced coffee with almond milk in 2015, a lactose-free, ready-to-drink product high in protein (9g of protein per 330ml serving). More recently, UK-based Reflex Nutrition is debuting a canned Arabica coffee drink with 25g of milk protein and 75mg of naturally occurring caffeine in each 250ml can. Managing director James Phillips says: "We've gone to great lengths to deliver the highest quality protein along with some of the finest coffee you will ever taste."

"Coffee companies are looking for protein to give them a sales boost."

Protein is even moving into the fast-evolving cold-brew coffee sector. California-based Califia Farms is out with new Full Shot, an unsweetened cold brew coffee with almond milk and coconut cream offering 6g of protein and 80mg of caffeine per 310ml bottle. The protein comes from ingredients like pea protein isolate and sprouted brown rice protein. Labeling for the chilled drink also indicates it contains 2mg of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) per bottle, a relatively novel nutrient callout for ready-to-drink coffee. Califia claims the drink is a "powerhouse source for nutritional energy."

Even beer is jumping on the drinkable protein bandwagon. UK-based MuscleFood Brewery recently introduced Barbell Brew, a 3.6% ABV wheat beer with 21.8g of protein per 330ml bottle and just 92 calories. As high as the protein content is, however, the company does not go out of its way to disclose the source of the protein, and that could be an issue going forward.

According to the 2016 Food and Health Survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, one in five Americans has had their opinion of the healthfulness of plant protein improve over the past year. At the same time, 15% of US consumers now consider animal protein to be less healthful than was believed one year ago. These findings indicate that the protein landscape may be changing more quickly than expected. They also hint that consumers may now be more information-seeking when it comes to protein than they have been in the past, a potential issue for beverage-makers to consider when jumping onto the protein bandwagon.