Powering up the market with protein

Hybrid sports drinks, weight-management foods and products that put whey at the centre of their marketing strategy are breaking the mould in the protein sector. Lynda Searby reports on this new generation of functional products

A few years ago, protein, in many consumers' minds, was associated with thick, bitter-tasting shakes slurped by bulky bodybuilders. There's still a trace of truth in this stereotype, as sports-nutrition products continue to represent a massive growth area for protein ingredients. But thanks to advancements in ingredients technology, lumpy shakes have been relegated to the history books.

One area of sports nutrition that has become a hotbed of innovation in recent years is beverages. Historically, athletes rehydrated after sport by consuming carbohydrate-rich drinks. Now a greater understanding of the science behind nutrient supplementation during athletic training is spawning a new generation of sports drinks that combine protein and carbohydrates for muscle recovery and regeneration. Netherlands-based DSM Food Specialties has been at the forefront of this protein revolution with its PeptoPro protein hydrolysate ingredient. In contrast to sports drinks that supply the body with fuel in the form of carbohydrates, products containing PeptoPro deliver protein in the form of peptides, which, as connected amino acids, are easily absorbed by the body.

The ability of PeptoPro to assist with muscle recovery has been proven in several studies conducted at Netherlands' University of Maastricht, in which athletes felt less exhausted and their muscles felt less stiff after consuming PeptoPro-based drinks instead of carbohydrate sports drinks.

DSM says its proprietary production process means PeptoPro overcomes taste issues that have traditionally precluded the inclusion of proteins in sports drinks. Milk-derived casein was chosen as the basis of PeptoPro, as it offers a complete source of amino acids, making it more effective for protecting and building muscle.

"There are 20 amino acids in protein, but if you look at the amino-acid balance of various protein sources, with plant-derived protein there is always an amino acid missing," says Reto Rieder, national account manager, PeptoPro, with DSM. The casein hydrolysate is treated with an enzyme that cleaves the peptide chains within the protein into a di- and tri-peptide combination, allowing immediate uptake in the gut while supplying the essential amino acids intact.

Two commercially available drinks formulated with PeptoPro are the combined protein and carbohydrate beverages RAD Endurance and RAD Recovery from NutriBev Science, an affiliate of California-based Nationwide Beverage Bottling. Available in a ready-to-drink format in the US, the two drinks contain 6.25, and 12.5g of PeptoPro protein respectively, as well as 5.5 per cent carbohydrate. They are designed to be consumed before, during and immediately after exercise.

Another ingredients manufacturer to exploit opportunities in hybrid carbohydrate and protein sports drinks is Ireland's Glanbia Nutritionals, whose citrus-flavoured recovery drink Provon Revive has been named official recovery drink for the Leinster rugby team.

Provon Revive works by replenishing the glycogen and branched-chain amino acids lost during energy-intensive activities. In studies, when consumed post-exercise, the drink was found to improve performance by 69 per cent compared to water, and by 20 per cent compared to carbohydrate-only beverages. The drink contains Provon whey protein isolate, which is extracted in a purified, under-natured form using cross-flow microfiltration.

If proof were needed that these hybrid carbohydrate-protein sports drinks are destined for commercial stardom, it came in February 2006 when soft-drink giant Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages (CSAB) swept into the category, purchasing the rights for the protein and carbohydrate drink Accelerade from PacificHealth Laboratories in New Jersey.

Accelerade, which contains a patented 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to speed the movement of carbohydrate into the muscle, was first introduced in the US in powder form four years ago. Under PacificHealth it wasn't sold at the retail level, but was marketed directly to sports teams. Under the management of CSAB, the brand is expected to establish a nationwide retail presence, especially if, as it has hinted, the beverage manufacturer launches a ready-to-drink version.

Whey beyond sports drinks
Sports drinks aren't the only foods in which the nutritional and physiological benefits of protein ingredients are increasingly coming to the fore. With whey protein's ability to promote fat loss and create a feeling of satiety now well documented, Hilmar Ingredients, a California-based manufacturer of whey-protein isolates, hydrolysates and concentrates, believes weight-management and body-tone products are two areas that are poised for growth.

Gwen Bargetzi is director of marketing with the company. She explains the science behind the mechanisms responsible for this 'slimming effect.'

"Peptides in whey known as lactokinins have been shown to inhibit a compound called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE). If unhindered, ACE encourages fat cells to grow. The calcium in whey, meanwhile, suppresses a different set of hormones that also stimulates fat cells. In combination with branched-chain amino acids, the lactokinins and calcium work to direct the body's energy away from producing fat and into producing muscle.

"Another whey-protein component, glycomacropeptide, may act as an appetite suppressant by stimulating cholecystokinin — an intestinal hormone that reduces gastric secretion. The combined effect of these ingredients in whey protein appears to have a much stronger slimming effect than any of them alone."

Glanbia Nutritionals is another ingredients supplier that believes weight-management products offer a lucrative outlet for whey proteins. The company has developed a whey protein-derived milk mineral complex specifically for weight-management applications. Branded Prolibra, it works by promoting fat loss and maintaining lean body mass. Besides being rich in protein and dairy calcium, it contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids such as leucine, associated with building and maintaining lean tissue.

One example of a protein-rich product being marketed on its satiating properties is Bounce Premium Protein Ball, a 49g snack product available in the UK. It targets professional sports clubs as well as busy people who require a satiating snack on the run. The balls are packed with low-GI peanuts and contain 15g of whey protein per ball (30.6g per 100g).

Whey for immunity
Whey protein might be attracting lots of attention for its ability to create a feeling of satiety and promote muscle growth and repair, but these are by no means the only health benefits associated with the ingredient. Laurie Davis, director of analytical research and application sciences with Minnesota whey-protein manufacturer Davisco Foods International, outlines some of the other health benefits.

"Whey protein enhances the immune system via the increase in glutathione due to the amino-acid profile of the whey protein; as a complete, high-quality protein, whey also supplies all the essential and non-essential amino acids for the human body. Specific whey-protein ingredients can have nutritional applications for hypertension and cardiovascular-health products; renal nutrition; PKU [Phenylketonuria] nutritional products; and products for improving sleep, mood and memory function."

The growing realisation of these health benefits has prompted manufacturers to look at whey in a new light. In the space of 20 years, whey has gone from being a by-product of cheese production, considered fit only for pig feed, to a functional, nutritional, value-adding ingredient.

"Whey protein is entering into an exciting time in its product lifecycle," says Bargetzi. "I think manufacturers are now starting with whey protein and looking to develop food and beverages around it."

Perfectly Protein Mocha Cappuccino from California's Bolthouse Farms is proof that putting protein at the centre of a product concept can and does work. The ready-to-drink iced coffee contains Arabica coffee, cocoa, Madagascan vanilla extract, low-fat milk and whey protein. It is marketed as being 'packed with 10g of whey protein per 8oz serving' and 'containing 18 amino acids'.

As the science behind the benefits offered by amino acids becomes more widely understood, another trend is formulating products with combinations of individual amino acids.

Amino acids are the molecular units that make up proteins, so all proteins are various compositions of 20 naturally occurring amino acids, nine of which are essential.

Amino-acid functionality
Ajinomoto offers the full range of amino acids. The advantage of this is that manufacturers can tailor formulations to specific users — fine-tuning that the Japanese company says cannot be achieved with protein ingredients.

For example, studies have shown that consuming the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine before and during exercise improves performance and recovery times. The Aquarius Freestyle drink from Coca-Cola Japan contains just the right amount and combination of branched-chain amino acids to achieve this physiological effect.

Another example where a customised blend of amino acids offers consumers maximum functionality is in Amino Supli + 9, produced by Japanese manufacturer Kirin Beverage. The drink, which is endorsed by the World Health Organization, contains all nine essential amino acids.

Ajinomoto says the second benefit of using amino acids instead of proteins is that they do not need to be broken down by the body. "Proteins must be digested into individual amino acids by the body before they can be used. This can lead to digestive discomfort and have a negative effect on athletic performance," a spokesperson explains.

Ajinomoto says the number of finished products with amino acids is on the rise, led by the rapidly developing Japanese and US markets.

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