The protein sector is a classic case of watching some perish while others prosper. In particular, the global dairy sector is in a significant decline. Farmers and co-op members are experiencing misfortune as befitting the Great Recession, with many going out of business because the price for milk will not cover their costs.
"On the other side, those buying dairy ingredients are finding them more affordable than in the recent past," says Alan Reed, senior vice president, US manufacturing & ingredient marketing, Dairy Management Inc (DMI).
Dairy giant Fonterra echoes those comments: "As long as we keep our margins, it's okay for us," says Keith Schafer, Fonterra's vice president of technical/applications. "Stockholders, co-op of farmers, it's not so good for them — they're struggling with lower prices."
When you look past the general dairy market, the clear silver lining is in the whey sector. Whey-laced functional drinks, bars and the enormous tubs for the sports sector are all enjoying tremendous growth. In mainstream markets, 2009 whey-protein sales are up 27 per cent over 2008. Sales growth is much more modest in naturals stores, which merely indicates that whey has gone mainstream, away from the typical weight-lifter set.
"It's going \[mainstream\] — it's not gone but it's going," hedges Schafer. "Beyond bodybuilders, there are other segments of the population we'll be teaching that protein should be consumed throughout the day and not just for dinner. This is an important message, especially to the ageing generation — we expect more product development in that sector."
Reed is more sanguine about whey's performance. "We continue to see whey sell because core consumers want it — it repairs muscle and aids weight loss better than other products, and we're seeing companies in the industry respond with new and exciting products," he says. "We are certainly seeing whey protein showing up in health and fitness aisles of Target, for example, and it's growing at club stores like Costco. The fact is whey is easy to work with and tastes great."
Not to be entirely overlooked, soy is another major player in the protein world. However, soy-product sales are declining across the board. SPINS data says it's down 14 per cent in mainstream markets from mid-2007 through mid-2009. It's about an 11 per cent drop in naturals markets. Some of the decline has to be attributed to various groups questioning soy's ballyhooed efficacy for heart health.
However, recent research is pointing to the lunasin soy peptide as being responsible for lowering LDL cholesterol. When studies indicate lunasin is present in the soy, the result is positive. Where lunasin is not characterised, there are negative results. As this important fact gets talked about even more, soy should get its groove back.
With latter-day research showing protein enhances recovery more than carbohydrate drinks, sports drinks have begun adding protein. Still, Schafer says current product launches are stalled until the economy itself recovers. And when consumers see a benefit, they'll vote with their pocketbooks.
"People are doing development but not launching until the economy improves," he says. "I suspect whenever things improve and money is freed up and the market sustains, we'll see a lot of launches."
Protein: whey booming in mainstream markets
Protein: Natural markets provide early-adopter venues