2012: the year that protein reaches its tipping point?

In just four years a start-up American company has achieved what much bigger companies have spent over a decade trying – and failing – to do: create awareness of protein in the mass market as a health ingredient. And the most important fact that everyone in industry has learnt from the experience – or rather relearnt – is that it is taste, texture and pleasure, more than health benefits, that made it happen. Insights from New Nutrition Business.

Every single supplier of protein has a PowerPoint slide which spells out their ambition to move protein from its current core market – the powders consumed by body builders and hard-core sports people – into the mass market. But exactly how to take protein away from its association with the body-building market and win more mainstream acceptance for protein-fortified foods and beverages was a problem that no one had solved – until Hamdi Ulukaya cracked the future of protein.

Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant to America whose family had been cheese-makers back home in Turkey for generations, launched yoghurt brand Chobani in America. It rocketed from zero to almost $1 billion (€795 million) in retail sales in just four years.

Its thick, satisfying texture was something that was new to American consumers and those benefits came from Greek yoghurt’s naturally high protein content – 15g per 100g. The presence of protein is a selling point to a small but increasing number of consumers. But we should not fool ourselves. Greek yoghurt is successful because it tastes fantastic – the protein is a secondary benefi t, and maybe not even that for most buyers.

What Chobani and other brands have done is to help raise awareness of protein among a wider audience – and it has done so at a time when protein’s image as a valuable part of a diet that helps people manage their weight has received several boosts, most recently in November 2010 following the publicity surrounding the results in the New England Journal of Medicine of the world’s largest diet study.

The large-scale randomised study, called Diogenes, investigated the optimum diet composition for preventing and treating obesity. The study was conducted by eight European research centres and headed by Thomas Meinert Larsen PhD, and Professor Arne Astrup, Head of Department at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE), University of Copenhagen, and it was funded by an EU grant of €14.5 million ($11 million).

The researchers found that high-protein, low-glycemic index (GI) diets were the most effective for weight management. It’s a significant study, not only because it challenges many strongly held beliefs but because Professor Astrup was previously not a fan of high protein and low GI – but the results of good science have made him change his view.

The researchers favour diets with 25% of calories from high-quality, low-fat protein sources – such as whey protein – and commented that “current dietary recommendations are not optimal for preventing weight gain”. Their recommendation is a higher intake of (high quality) protein than current guidelines recommend; eating this way, they say, means you can also eat until you are full without counting calories and without gaining weight.

Because of the quality and scale of the study it is already having an impact on the world of nutrition, on consumer beliefs and on consumer communications. And while the dairy industry has been slow to capitalise on the good news about protein, others have not.

Kellogg’s Special K breakfast cereal – the world’s biggest weight management food brand – communicates about Diogenes on its Australian website, while the UK’s biggest weight loss programme – “Slimming World” – has switched to recommending low-fat high protein quark in all its recipes in place of cream. Quark is a soft, cheese-like product that’s widely used as a dessert in northern Europe and with a protein content of 15g per 100g it’s comparable to Greek yoghurt, although it is a lower-fat product.

Although dairy is a natural source of protein and there are naturally high-protein dairy products, too many timid marketers rely on consumer research that tells them consumer awareness of protein as dairy is very low as a support for doing nothing.

Which is a pity, because we are at Day One of a new market, and the successful companies will be the ones that realise that still-low consumer awareness is an opportunity to get established and start educating consumers and building their awareness. For dairy in particular that job is made easier by the fact that dairy has already established itself in most countries as the most credible product form for health benefi ts of all kinds.


In fact consumer knowledge is advancing rapidly, more rapidly than most companies realise, as higher protein/lower carb – and in particular lower sugar – diets quietly become as everyday as low fat used to be.

A few companies in leading markets are seizing the opportunity. In Finland Valio Dairy found consumers paying more attention to protein in their diet than had been thought – among more than 1,000 consumers 70% were either paying attention to the levels of protein in their diet or wanted to get more protein into their diet. Before this survey was carried out, Valio was already aware that protein was a nutrient of growing interest to Finnish consumers. But it was nonetheless surprised at the extent of this interest.

“I thought: ‘I can’t believe this, it cannot be true’,” said Taru Pilvi, who is vice president, Blue Ocean, at Valio and manages the PROfeel brand. In response Valio developed and launched PROfeel, a high-protein dairy range designed to appeal not so much to committed athletes and body-builders – as is the case with many other protein products – but to the wider population.

“We have found there is a big need for products like this,” Pilvi says. “We have seen people’s consumption patterns shift towards products like quark and cottage cheese, which contain high amounts of protein naturally. But natural quark and cottage cheese get kind of boring and don’t taste too good. So there is a need, which has not been fulfilled. This is something consumers in Finland are really missing.”

Many companies are attempting to jump on the Greek yoghurt bandwagon – and most will fail. Those that have the best chance of succeeding in the long run will be those that, as Valio Dairy has done, find other ways of making dairy a credible source of protein – such as using other types of high-protein dairy in their products, such as quark. But although we are at a tipping point, it’s not going to be a development of explosive growth – which is what shareholders are always hoping for.

Rather it will be slow steady progress, with the growth curve each year getting a little steeper. It will be 20 years before protein is as strongly associated with dairy as calcium is today. The Greek experience should only be taken as a guide in that it reminds us that creating delicious products is key to success (along with some luck).

And that’s why a long-term view of strategy is key to success. As many companies have already found to their cost, creating success with protein will not come quickly.


The growth opportunities for new products will initially have to come from the “lifestyle consumer” segment. These are the 20-25% of consumers who are most health-conscious and willing to pay a premium for something that supports their wellness. They are willing to experiment with new food formats and ingredients if they support their health goals. This consumer group forms the beach-head from which brands can later evolve into the mass market.

Brands will need to begin by targeting this segment and gradually evolving towards the mass market. Smart companies will make their brands successful in the lifestyle niche, where they can earn higher margins. Create consumer familiarity with the concept of protein and evolve into the mass market from there.

And it’s not just dairy that can be a credible way to deliver protein in a good tasting form to this important consumer group. Fast-growing and innovative juice beverage start-up in California, FRS, sees the “sweet spot” of consumers for its high protein fruit drinks as those people somewhere in between what chief marketing officer Matt Kohler describes as “the typical energy-drink consumer” and “hard-core athletes”.

FRS High Protein drinkFRS customers are “healthy and active,” he said, evenly split between men and women – a significantly greater female cohort and a somewhat older demographic than dedicated athletes. These consumers’ shopping baskets might also include nuts, yoghurt and soy milk.

“They’re concerned about the things they put in their bodies and are willing to pay more for those kinds of things,” Kohler said.

Recent years have seen an increasingly intense competition between dairy protein and various vegetable proteins, led by soy, for pre-eminence in this new market. So far, dairy has been bedevilled by volatile pricing and high cost. Vegetable protein has sold itself on lower cost – but on the other hand vegetable proteins have taste issues.


Dairy protein is about to get a huge advantage in this battle. This comes from two things:

• a change in the scientific test methods for protein have showed that dairy protein is much better absorbed by the human body than vegetable protein, giving dairy a big marketing advantage

• major dairy companies, such as Arla, are introducing new forms of protein which are clinically proven to be rapidly absorbed by the human body, thus making them even more effective.

Tipping points are often subtle things and this is no exception. The trend will continue to evolve slowly but this is the time to look closely at the role of protein in your product portfolio.

First published in NNB’s July 2012 Newsletter

About New Nutrition Business

Julian MellentinNew Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.

The strategies and success factors it  has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.

New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.

He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See