How does vegan protein stack up against traditional dairy protein bars?

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

“I think consumers are looking for more in their bars, for ingredients that provide them with a little bit more benefits." Pic: Getty/Moussa81
“I think consumers are looking for more in their bars, for ingredients that provide them with a little bit more benefits." Pic: Getty/Moussa81

Related tags Protein protein bar plant-based Sports nutrition plant protein

The protein bar landscape has evolved beyond tradition, blending protein sources and improving taste quality. But dairy still holds the most share in bar formats for sports nutrition.

Food and beverage brands focus on improving their health and wellness appeal to consumers. Protein has played a major role in this, added as an ingredient from a variety of sources. Milk protein now competes with - among others - brown rice, pea and soy protein.

Nick Morgan created Nutrition Integrated Ltd, based in the UK, an online database for information on sports, active and lifestyle nutrition products. It analyzes the positioning and nutritional characteristics of the products and helps consumers make sense of the trends.

He told DairyReporter bars are the fastest growing area in sports nutrition, and the Nutrition Integrated database ‘epitomizes’ how the industry is going mainstream. They collect the nutritional information, claims, positioning and ingredient usage across all bars that are available in Europe and North America.

Brands consult Morgan and the industry data about whitespace opportunities, while ingredients suppliers often want to know how their ingredient is being used and what share of the market it has.

Morgan said some of the most popular questions he is asked regarding protein bars are about the influence vegan claims have on the bar market, if that is increasing, and which dairy protein source is missing out.

They don’t focus as much on covering new product launches, but rather analyzing the current landscape. Morgan said the biggest trends happening in protein bars right now are centered on taste and texture, inclusions like crispies, layering formats, and ingredient function.

A two-pronged bar approach

In traditional protein bars, dairy is still the majority choice of protein. Morgan said there are a large amount of brands also using soy in combination with dairy, so they are not classified as vegan.

There are more non-dairy options coming into the market, but Morgan believes it is still a relatively small percentage of the traditional protein bar industry. But a new category in bars is growing fast, that leverages more nutritional whole food ingredients.

Trendy brands like RXBar, This Bar Saves Lives and KIND Bar all emphasize on packaging that they are made with whole food ingredients like seeds, nuts and fruits. Then they add protein, which tends to be more vegan than dairy based. Hemp, pea and brown rice protein are all common.

Morgan believes the bar market is defined by two tactics: “You’ve got two very clear approaches to the market that take a different view on what healthy is. One is that it is not about food, it’s about controlling macronutrients.”

“The other is not worried about macronutrients, it’s about providing food. And they’re equally as important as each other.”

Overall, the bar landscape is now less about being low sugar and low calorie, and more about including ingredients that provide function. Morgan noted that bars that contain brain benefits and probiotics are trending more in the US than Europe.

“I think consumers are looking for more in their bars, for ingredients that provide them with a little bit more benefits. I think traditionally it was about what you didn’t include, it was about being ‘free-from,’” ​Morgan said.

“In the end you ask, what does it include? I think now the consumer is moving more to a positive nutritional approach.”

Though protein source is a concern, taste and texture are still the most important factors to consumers. Traditional protein bars have not been known for their taste quality, and those using simple, whole food ingredients run the risk of drying out and hardening toward the end of their shelf life.

Morgan said ingredients suppliers and supply chain representatives are working hard to innovate these problems. Inclusions like crispies now come in different colors and varieties, and flavors are branching out beyond sweets like caramel and into savory profiles.

“When you think about it on the basis that there’s only so many manufacturers of bars, the one way to differentiate in bars is the taste factor. It’s becoming more confectionery,”​ Morgan said.

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