Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: A closer look at protein’s rise to popularity and where it is headed

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Americans’ love affair with protein shows no signs of cooling in the coming years with a compound annual growth rate projected at a steady 5.6% for the next three years, bringing sales to a predicted $39.08 billion, according to Markets and Markets research. 

But as the overall market grows, consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about what type of protein they want, how much and in what form – creating both opportunities and challenges for the industry.

On the one hand, protein’s rising popularity has attracted more consumers to the category, with roughly 53% of the general population in 2015 seeking foods that are high in protein compared to just 39% in 2006, according to Natural Marketing Institute. It also has opened the door for more sources – including plant based options –  and innovative platforms.

But on the other hand, the protein craze has prompted a plethora of me-too products and attracted manufacturers who are willing to compromise quality in order to cut prices to appeal to more consumers.

As a long-time player in the category who specializes in soy-free plant-based protein, the CEO of Sunwarrior, Russ Crosby talks in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast about these and other changes he has seen in the category’s competitive landscape during the last almost ten years as well as where he thinks the market is saturated, where it has room to grow and where it is headed.   

A changing landscape

“When we talk about competitive landscapes and where we are at, you know today versus back in 2008, it has shifted dramatically. I go back to the beginning and it was kind of like a swimming pool with just a few of us in there and there was plenty of room for everyone we really didn’t see the competition as competition. We kind of looked at each other as people in the same league, just different teams, and together we were kind of blazing this new trail towards sustainability and so it was kind of fun at the beginning,” Crosby said.

But, he added, “when you look at it today, the competition is just ravenous…. People have seen the trajectory of plant-based protein and they want their piece of it. So a part of me is just happy that the founders had some foresight early enough to get in when they got in. You know, really at this point part of winning in this business is just holding on to the ground that you already earned.”

He says a lot of the newcomers are me-too products, but that any pressure from them has been offset by an increase in the amount of shelf space available at retail.

“Back in the early days of all you could do was find [protein in] what we called the dark back corners of the health food stores. Whereas today it is not just in your mom and pops, it is in national chains like Whole Foods and Sprouts and in sports channels like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe and Vitamin World and it is crossing over even from that to where now you can find it in some big box locations like Costco or Target,” he said.

As excited as Crosby says he is about the positive changes in the category, he is also wary of some of the newcomers who he feels are upholding the high standards set by more veteran companies.

“Maybe one caution as the competitive landscape has shifted, is you have all these new players and one has to wonder you know with the increased demand, does this permit a lesser quality? We know consumer pricing is the first driver of sales, and so the quickest way to reduce the price to consumers is to cut costs on your end … which means reducing your ingredient quality. And so I do have concerns that with all of these others entering the market that they might be bringing with them maybe reduced quality to compete at the price level or to undercut some of us who have been here longer,” he said.

Education is a growth driver

Another key strategy Sunwarrior uses not just to hold its ground but to continue to grow, is providing consumers with much-needed education about protein, which Crosby says has been a major driver in the category’s overall growth.

Looking forward, Crosby expects the protein category to continue to evolve not just in terms of source, but also with regards to delivery platforms.

What’s next after protein powder?

“Is protein powder going to be the solution five years from now? Two years from now? I don’t know. But I have to believe that people want their protein in more and more convenient packaging,” he said.

He also suggested the next step in innovation might be savory protein products that can be added to sauces or soups, or protein pantry products, such as pancake baking mix. Another idea is a decadent dessert that is still sugar-free, like all of Sunwarrior products, but also delicious and satisfying.

While Sunwarrior develops these ideas, it also is launching new products and platforms now, including a new meal replacement and a protein bar line designed to make it even easier for people to consume clean, healthy proteins.

These include a meal replacement powder called Illumin8 and ready to eat Sol Good protein bars, both which launched in the past year.

How long will protein reign?

While protein is riding high now, Crosby says he can’t help but wonder how long it will last – especially when he looks back at other nutritional trends that once reigned-supreme but have since faded from view.

To protect protein in the long-term, he suggests industry needs to transition it from a specialty nutrient it to an ingredient with pantry-staple status which is woven into recipes the same way people now use milk, butter and eggs.

“Protein, at least in our culture today, is tremendous. It is posted up everywhere and people appreciate it. And so I am thinking now back in the ‘90s when it seemed liked calcium was riding this wave … and all we heard about was calcium, calcium. And now … I think calcium still has its benefits, nothing has changed there, but the emphasis isn’t on calcium anymore. It has moved elsewhere and so you wonder if that will happen with protein 10 years from now – not that it will become less needed in the body, but maybe there is something trending in the future that we are not familiar with right now,” he mused.

“I am also hopeful that with this greater understanding of protein, people will learn how to use it as kind of a staple in their kitchen, as an ingredient that can simply be pulled out along with [the other ingredients] to make pancakes,” he said.

For this to happen, industry likely will need to show consumers how to cook with protein – so coming back to those bakery mixes or the soup and sauce blends Crosby mentioned, and also working with bloggers and influencers to develop recipes that their readers can make.

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