The pace of innovation in food and drink can be unforgiving. One moment you’re the hottest ingredient on shelf, then, suddenly, you’re behind the curve.

The protein trend is a case in point. Whereas five years ago big brands grabbed the headlines by launching protein-enriched versions of popular products, today it’s their plant-based NPD that’s making waves. Granted, many of these launches involve plant-based protein, but it’s their vegan credentials that are the big selling point, not their protein content.

Covid has created additional woes for protein. With gyms closed for months during lockdown, many Brits have ditched their memberships in favour of non-gym activities such as running, cycling or yoga. Such activities provide fewer opportunities for talking about protein than muscle-building gym workouts.

No wonder we’re seeing media reports asking pointedly if we’ve reached ‘peak protein’.

But hold your horses. It’s far too soon to write off protein. In fact, there are good reasons to believe the protein trend could be in for a resurgence in the ‘new normal’.

The pandemic has put health and wellbeing high up consumers’ agenda. In a study by GSK Consumer Healthcare and IPSOS across the UK, Germany, France and Italy, 65% of consumers said they are now more likely to consider their health in their day-to-day decision making. For many, this is tied to a sense of personal responsibility: 77% of UK consumers consider it important to take their health into their own hands to relieve pressure on healthcare systems.

Food and drink products with strong, established health credentials have an obvious role to play here, and protein is well-positioned thanks to high consumer awareness levels. Indeed, despite a drop-off in protein-focused NPD in recent years, Google search trends data suggests consumer interest in protein has remained stable over the past five years.

With consumer spending expected to rebound once lockdown restrictions are lifted, the reopening of gyms later in the year could well cause a spike in demand for protein products as fitness-conscious consumers embark on ambitious post-Covid workout routines.

That’s no reason for brands to rest on their laurels, however. Consumer preferences and habits are changing quickly and protein-focused brands need to adapt to keep pace – especially if they want to appeal to mainstream shoppers as well as committed gym buffs.

As consumers take a more balanced, holistic view of health and wellbeing (the Waitrose Food & Drink Report 2021 highlights growing interest in immunity-boosting food – new blog to follow on this next week - gut health and foods with high nutritional density), the days of relying on protein as the single – or even main – selling point are most likely over. Instead, future growth is set to come from combining high protein content with other credentials that reflect consumers’ changing concerns and priorities, such as natural, plant-based, minimally processed, ethically sourced, high-fibre, low-sugar, clean-label, gut healthy and immunity support.

Recent launches that speak to this trend include Bodyhero, a range of protein products developed by Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman. The products in the range are not only described as high in protein but also vegan, clean-label and 100% non-GMO.

UK-based Nutrapharma is also appealing to shoppers on multiple levels. Its newly launched range of protein-rich powders is made from surplus fruit and veg that would otherwise have gone to waste, speaking to shoppers’ health as well as sustainability concerns.

Meanwhile meat snacking brand Ember highlights its responsible sourcing credentials alongside its high protein content.

This is precisely the kind of innovation that will keep the protein trend alive and relevant. Protein may well be grabbing fewer headlines than five years ago, but it’s a trend that still has plenty of life and growth left in it – provided brands rise to the challenge, move away from single-issue messaging and keep reinventing protein for new audiences.

Get the next edition of our Ceres Newsletter

FRESH