by Matt Weik
It’s sad to think that I was around back when supplements had the taste profile of cardboard and chalk. You’d literally have to force a protein bar down by drinking a liquid with it or mixing together some thick and goopy protein powder and almost needing to chew it due to the thickness. Nowadays, we have evolved (thank goodness) and you can at least somewhat enjoy the products you are consuming—most of them at least resemble a little of what the flavor is supposed to be. But, consumers still aren’t happy with where the industry is and they demand better tasting products—especially when it comes to protein powders. While many are tolerant of flavor profiles, the question becomes why should they compromise with the advanced technology and skill we have today?
Supplement industry growing pains
As supplement consumers, we have come to accept the fact that not all powders taste amazing. However, as the supplement industry continues to move towards mass market and trying to be in every household rather than targeting athletes, bodybuilders, and gym rats, they are finding there is a drastic difference in feedback between those who are already active in the industry and those who are part of the general public and only dipping their toes in the supplement space.
Many of these individuals are looking to increase their protein content for the day or simply use the powder as a meal replacement, but aren’t going to a local supplement store to pick up a protein powder to try. Instead, they are going to places like Wal-Mart, Target, Sam’s Club, Costco, or even a local grocery store where they already shop. So, their overall experience purchasing the product is also going to be different since someone isn’t there educating them on the choices available and the differences. They are basically blindly choosing something that looks and sounds appealing to them—here’s where good marketing and copywriting comes into play to help pull the product off the shelf.
One specialist says, “The protein beverage market has been rapidly evolving in the past few years. In the past, it was almost exclusively for high intensity athletes with the occasional general consumer looking for a meal replacement. The current market is reaching to a much more broad demographic and type of consumer. This is forcing the market to evolve with the consumer. With the new-found consumers, taste is still king and will likely always be.”
She also mentioned, “When formulating with proteins, all developers have experienced challenges in flavor and texture with high levels of protein fortification. When you start to push the upper limits of protein addition, there can be inherent astringency, bitterness and other off flavors associated with the proteins. The level of off flavors is very dependent on the type of protein, any modifications, degree of denaturation, pH of the system and many other factors. Even within the same source of protein, you can see very different flavor profiles, which tends to be dependent on the processing of the protein.”
Another issue arising is that consumers don’t fully understand the differences between something like a whey protein concentrate or even isolate and a casein protein. Their taste and texture profiles are completely different as well as how they are broken down and absorbed by the body. Casein protein is a slower digesting protein that unfortunately is fairly chalky in texture whereas whey concentrate and isolate when mixed in liquid remain very watery and can be drank extremely easily without the need to try and force anything down.
Then we have the advent of RTD (ready to drink) protein shakes. These easy to carry and transportable shakes are making a splash in the industry with more and more brands launching their own versions. Personally, I love them. Toss some in the fridge for a quick on the go protein source when you’re in a pinch or post workout when you need something fast. This way you aren’t bothered with having to get your tub of protein out, grab a shaker, add water (or milk), shake it up to mix up the contents, drink your concoction, rinse out and wash the shaker bottle, etc. With the RTD shakes you simply grab the can or bottle, shake it up to make sure it mixes properly, pop the top open, and drink (recycle when finished). No mess, no prep, it’s simplicity at its finest. In our on the go way of life, RTDs are truly a no-brainer. People are willing to pay extra for the added convenience.
However, even with RTD’s, there are flavor issues and problems when it comes to texture and mouth-feel. Take RTD whey protein isolate beverages for example. Isolates when in an RTD seem to give a thicker and almost medicinal texture and mouth-feel. It almost leaves an odd texture in your mouth after you consume it. When finished you almost feel like you need something else to drink to try and get rid of the texture left in your mouth and the back of your throat. Compare that to something like a whey protein concentrate RTD and it has the taste and consistency of a similar flavored powder variety.
Flavor is now one of the best-selling points
Consumer experience is everything these days. If someone buys a product and doesn’t like the flavor or texture, the opportunity for you to sell something different to them is slim to none. You basically get one shot to pull them in and if you blow it, they’ll go try another brand to see if they like their products better. A manager for a flavor company was quoted mentioning, “You can pull from any data set you wish, Mintel or others, and among the factors that consumers say influence their purchases, flavor is definitely one of the top three. The process of producing milk proteins has evolved. Twenty years ago, dairy proteins could be challenging from a taste perspective. Now it’s really difficult to find a bad tasting whey protein in the market.”
Going from brand to brand you will see the normal staple flavors that everyone has—vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookies and cream, and sometimes even chocolate peanut butter. And I really don’t see a change happening where these flavors will ever be replaced. They are the “base” of many different options when making your own shakes in a blender and adding ingredients such as fruit, oats, peanut butter, or whatever else you wish. However, with technological improvements, flavor experts becoming more skilled, new and innovative flavors are coming to market. Cereal flavored protein powders, desserts flavors such as cheesecake and orange creamsicle, and other unique flavors like mocha cappuccino, chocolate mint, buttermilk pancakes, and others.
There is a downside to expanding out with different flavors, though, and that is the margins on protein are extremely small these days. So, when you have a brand who can get away with three or four flavors, expanding out to 10+ it could negatively hurt the overall sales if the newer flavors really never take off. You’re wasting money, production time, raw materials, etc. You also risk a flavor not being liked by a consumer and then you lose the sale for the lifetime of that consumer since they’ll never come back. It’s a gamble that sometimes pays off while other times you shoot yourself in the foot.
A business development manager for a flavor profile company said it best when he mentioned, “You have to understand what your consumers are looking for and build the product back from there. Finding the right flavor is like having a tool box. The tool box can be expensive or it can be cut down. If for example a customer comes to us and says they just want their protein product to taste great without a preference for flavor designation or sweetener system, we can make a great tasting flavor, no problem. If they are seeking differentiation with all-natural flavors or even organic flavors, then the tool box gets smaller. But that tool box for natural flavors has exploded in recent years and that has been driven by consumer demand.”
Schultz, Hank. “Consumer Demands Placing More Pressure on Flavor, Texture of Sports Nutrition Products.” NutraIngredients.com. 20 July 2017. Web.