by Steve Myers
• The global meal replacement market is enjoying continued moderate single-digit growth, but faces competition from a movement toward more whole foods.
• Protein is the major ingredient draw for both the overall weight-focused and sports-specific meal replacement markets.
• Meal replacement formulators are incorporating fibers/prebiotics, probiotics, natural sweeteners and phytonutrients to address popular consumer health concerns and demands for whole food nutrition.
Control and convenience have been the drivers of meal replacement product growth, as bars and shakes pack increasingly more complete nutrition in enough calories to make a small meal. This has long been a great tool for consumers looking to lose or manage weight, but while most athletes and active consumers have ambitious body composition goals, meal replacement products in the sports nutrition category go beyond traditional dieting.
The endless waves of weight-control programs and fad diets is creating a bit of dieting fatigue, according to Euromonitor. The global market research firm reported the trend toward whole foods is outpacing weight-focused meal replacement products—packaged food is showing a flattening growth trend between 2015 and 2019, while fresh foods are moving slightly upward during the same period.
Sports-focused drinks, bars, powders and other products are cutting into the weight-focused meal replacement market, thanks to an ongoing protein trend that covers recent demands from a widening range of sports nutrition consumers, from hardcore athletes to active consumers. Euromonitor has noted, “Sports nutrition powder is moving away from its hardcore body-building image to a lean fitness proposition for weight management and well-being that is challenging meal replacement products.”
Euromonitor placed total global sales of weight-focused meal replacements at US$7 billion for 2015, with estimated revenues of $9 billion by 2020. Compound annual growth (CAGR) is expected to
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average more than 7 percent from 2016 to 2020, according to the market research firms Technavio and Infiniti Research Limited.
The increasing problem and prevalence of overweight, obese and/or diabetic consumers worldwide will help drive this growth, according to Technavio. Infiniti Research highlighted another driver: the rising popularity of protein bars, especially the formulations that are low-carb and low-sodium but high in fiber and boosted with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Conversely, Inifiniti Research cautioned a continued lack of consumers’ understanding concerning just what meal replacements are and how they can benefit health may challenge growth in this category. For its part, the firm defined a meal replacement as a fat- and sugar-free product containing 200-250 calories per serving and fortified with more than 20 vitamins and minerals.
In the early days of sports nutrition, meal replacements—think Met-Rx and EAS Myoplex—were high protein (dairy) and low fat; the carbs were commonly maltodextrose. These days, the value of additional fats and fibers has driven changes to sports meal replacement formulas, with mediumchain triglycerides (MCTs) and long-chain fatty polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), including omega-3s. Further, the rise in low-carb, paleo and other carb-concerned diets has impacted the amount and types of carbs included in meal replacements; athletes need carbs for energy, but a number of specialty carbs, such as polyglucoside (extracted from barley starch) and highly branched chain dextrin (HBCD), offer energy substrate that is more efficient than maltodextrin, while alternative sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit provide non- or low-caloric alternatives to sugar.
As in the case of carbs, protein types have changed over time. Today’s meal replacement drinks and bars, including those targeting sports nutrition consumers, incorporate different plant sources of protein. Pea, soy and hemp are popular plant sources of protein; formulators often combine several of these plant protein sources to achieve a more complete amino acid profile.
Still, using plant proteins brings different challenges and advantages. During the recent 2016 SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas, Ralf Jaeger, co-founder and partner at Increnovo LLC, explained dairy-sourced proteins contain simple sugars, mainly lactose (milk sugar), whereas plant proteins contain more complex carbs including fiber and glycoprotein. As such, meal replacements featuring plant protein will likely benefit from incorporating carbohydrase (enzymes catalyzing carbs) into digestive enzyme blends, which will also include proteinase enzymes to break down proteins.
A newer plant source of protein is the water lentil, the world’s smallest flowering plant, according to Parabel, supplier of LENTEIN protein. “The ingredient is perfect for sport and meal replacement powders because it has the highest levels of Essential amino acids and BCAA’s of all plant protein including soy or pea,” said Cecilia Wittbjer, VP of marketing for Parabel. “LENTEIN has an amino acid profile similar to whey and is high in leucine, which is rare for a plant protein.”
Although it is a minimally processed whole food, the protein from water lentil is very digestible— achieving a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 0.93. Wittbjer noted this plant protein also contains other important macro and micro nutrients such as fiber, omega-3s
antioxidants, vitamins and important minerals such as calcium. “It’s good in a protein powder/RTM
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because it’s dispersible and has a good mouthfeel but you can also use it in bars and other snacks,” she said. “The taste is sweet and mild and it’s also free of food allergens.”
While plant proteins continue to make inroads, the variety of dairy proteins available to meal replacement formulations also has advanced. Cow milk contains fats, sugars (e.g. lactose) and both whey and casein proteins. Milk protein concentrate (MPC) contains the same ratio of proteins found in cow milk, including both whey and micellar casein. Milk protein isolate (MPI) contains higher protein content than MPC.
Casein, in micellar form, is another top form of dairy protein and is known to block muscle protein catabolism, the breakdown of proteins. Casein is considered the slower absorbing of the two, releasing its amino acids over a longer period of time. Thus, casein may be more ideal for meal replacement products for times, such as in the evening, when protein absorption will have longer to be digested and utilized—while sleeping, for instance.
Conversely, whey protein is a fast-acting form of protein used to quickly increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process of building muscles. Whey contains all the essential amino acids (must be ingested via the diet) including branched chain amino acids (BCAAs); whey has a higher percentage of BCAAs than casein does. Whey isolate and whey concentrate are both derived from simple whey protein. Whey protein contains numerous biologically active compounds, including various peptides and polypeptides, as well as fats and carbs.
Whey concentrate ramps up whey’s moderate protein content—from around 35 percent to around 75 percent—and reduces the fat and carb content. Concentrate still contains the growth factors immunoglobulins and other immunoactive compounds of whey, as well as phospholipids and key weight management lipids such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Whey isolate uses multiple filtration steps to remove more fats and carbs (lactose), resulting in a higher protein content (90 to 95 percent). This is a good whey type for lactose-intolerant consumers and those strictly counting carbs. Ion exchange isolate to get the highest protein-containing whey ingredient, but it sacrifices most or all of the other biologically active immune compounds in the process.
Immune benefits are one of the key reasons why probiotics are another trend in meal replacements. In addition to digestive benefits, probiotics can help boost immune function tied to the gut. Intense exercise can depress immune function. Spore-forming probiotics such as Bacillus coagulans have become popular in bars and beverages due to an ability to remain inherently protected until they release their inner bacteria in the right place in the gut.
The fiber trend plays into the addition of probiotics, as several specialty fibers serve as food for beneficial bacteria. Oligosaccharides and inulin (from chicory root) are popular prebiotics, but pectin, resistant starch and arabinogalactan are other common prebiotics.
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North America, Europe and Asia Pacific are the top regions for meal replacement sales. According to Euromonitor’s analysis, emerging markets in Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe have contributed the most to meal replacement worldwide growth from 2010 to 2015, due to companies’ investments in those regions. On the other hand, growth in America was flat during the same period, as was also the case in Australia.
Still, Technavio noted the Americas region accounts for the largest share (~55 percent) of the global meal replacement market, and future growth leading into 2020 in this region will be driven by the increasing aging population and associated health conditions, as well as by a rising awareness of proactive healthcare.
In the United States, plant protein made big gains in the meal replacement market, with 27 percent annual growth in 2015, according to SPINS. The retail consumer insights firm reported pea protein isolate was a dominant plant protein due to being a grain-free and hypoallergenic source of lysine, arginine and BCAAs.
Echoing Jaeger’s report, meal replacements combining multiple types of plant proteins have been growing well in the U.S. market more than doubling in sales to reach $18 million in 2015 (SPINS). Emerging plant protein sources experiencing growth included cranberry, artichoke and sacha inchi (Incan peanut, from Peru).
SPINS also reported meal replacement manufacturers moved to better compete with the whole food movement by incorporating more fruit and vegetable phytonutrients into formulations.
Richard Kreider, Ph.D., a Texas A&M University researcher, highlighted several fruit and vegetable ingredients as part of a session on emerging sports nutrition ingredients at the 2016 SupplySide West trade show. He noted a lack of antioxidants in athletes can lead to excessive free radicals and oxidative stress that contribute to muscle damage, inflammation, suppressed immune function and prolonged recovery. Due to several challenges with consuming the right types and amount of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, concentrates and juices are popular with athletes and other sports nutrition consumers, he noted.
Montmorency tart cherries, pumpkin seeds, grape seeds, betaine (spinach and beets) and quercetin—a flavonoid found in onions, apples, berries, tea, grapes and red wine—were among the fruits and vegetables highlighted by Kreider as researched for antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory benefits to athletes.
Overall, the big competitors in the meal replacement space globally include Herbalife International, Abbott Nutrition, Danone, Amway, ConAgra, Kraft, Kellogg and SlimFast. Sports-specific companies involved in this market include Met-Rx, Vega, Glanbia, EAS, CytoSport, Probar and Labrada. Some direct-selling companies involved in weight and fitness meal replacements include Shakeology (Beachbody), IdealShape, Extend Nutrition and Shake that Weight.
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