November 9, 2017

Will Whey Win the Protein Battle?

 |  By: Fran Howard

Sports nutrition drinks and other high-protein whey-based products have become big business. According to various estimates, the global whey protein market in 2016 was estimated at $7.8 billion and is expected to grow to between $11 billion and $12.4 billion by 2021, a compound average annual growth rate of more than 7%.

In addition to strong market growth, whey proteins could soon get another big break. In late October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it planned to revoke the health claim that consumption of soy proteins (which have competed with whey proteins for years) can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

“The soy industry has benefited from its claim since 1999, but the dairy industry has been compiling research to demonstrate that soy proteins may not be as beneficial as whey proteins, and it appears the dairy industry’s science-based approach could finally pay dividends,” says Sara Dorland, analyst with the Daily Dairy Report and managing partner at Ceres Dairy Risk Management.

“The basis for FDA’s proposed change to rescind soy’s health claim is that there is no longer ‘significant scientific agreement’ related to the consumption of soy protein and coronary heart disease,” Dorland explains. “Without a scientific conclusion that soy protein consumption reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, manufacturers would have to qualify those claims.”

Affected products could include soy beverages, protein bars, smoothies, and tofu. To date, FDA has only authorized 12 health food claims, making this proposed change significant, notes Dorland. FDA made another significant change in 2015, when it removed the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status from trans fats. “Butter demand has never been the same,” says Dorland, adding that consumers returned to butter in large numbers after FDA’s action meant margarines containing trans fats no longer held GRAS status.

Studies have shown that whey proteins can help with weight management, post-workout muscle recovery, and muscle building. Consumers also view whey proteins as a healthy choice, according to survey conducted by the European Whey Processors Association.

“Supplementing food with protein is a trend that’s not likely to change, and that could present an opportunity for whey proteins,” Dorland notes. “Whey proteins have always held a flavor advantage over their soy counterparts, and if soy lacks a significant health claim, some manufacturers could switch from soy proteins to whey proteins.”

FDA’s announcement comes at a good time for the whey markets because production of whey protein is rising and demand is not quite strong enough to take up the slack, Dorland says. Prices for whey and whey protein concentrate (WPC) with 34% protein have been declining, and prices for higher-protein products have also reportedly softened. For manufacturers considering alternatives to soy proteins, now is a good time to switch to whey proteins, she adds.

“FDA’s rule is not finalized yet, and it likely will take time for manufacturers to decide whether to qualify their soy health claims or switch to alternative proteins like whey,” Dorland says. “By no means is a switch to whey guaranteed, but if the demand upswing that occurred in butter after trans fats lost their GRAS status is any indication, FDA’s decision to revoke soy’s claim that it can help reduce coronary artery disease could be very good news for the future consumption of whey proteins.”