Robert Boutin, president of Knechtel Laboratories, examines global interest in functional treats and touches on the use of whey proteins to deliver key benefits. 

Whenever one begins talking about confections and nutraceuticals, it’s useful to define terms. With confections, let’s be very liberal here and define them as treats that are easily carried and fun to eat. As for nutraceuticals, Dr. Paul LaChance from Rutgers University defines them as such: “Nutraceuticals are ingredients and products that affect healthy results.” Together these two form the functional foods or “better-for-you” category in which the Health, Energy and Sports Products market exists.

Although estimates on global confectionery sales vary, the most recent data available from Euromonitor International projected 2006 sales at $136.7 billion, with a compounded average annual growth rate calculated at 2.5% between 2006-2011.

Data gleaned from the Ian News SNN conference several years ago projected that the global functional food industry would grow to $58 billion by the year 2006. Of that, functional foods accounted for nearly 40% of all global consumer sales. Boring down even further, confectionery products represented 15.7% of every retail dollar spent on nutraceutical foods.

The latest figures for the organic/functional/better-for-you segment, as outlined in the accompanying chart by AENielson, projects that the category will approach $27 billion in global sales.

What do these numbers mean? Well, they are intended to provide a sense of movement more than pinpoint accuracy, a glimpse of an undercurrent that continues to gain momentum. And although its force and velocity are still being assessed, these information snippets do lead to some interesting observations.

First, not only is the estimated size of the nutraceutical market impressive, but more so is its universal appeal.

Moreover, while additives and flavors may change from country to country, the quest for “better-for-you” or “wellness” treats is global and growing.

It’s also important to point out that nutraceuticals and confections and the even broader functional food categories are extremely profitable and are such because of their high profit margins -frequently 50-100% higher than typical confections.

And this supports the oft-heard comment about nutraceuticals being “new life for old confections,” because with only minimal change, most companies can successfully and profitably manufacture a variety of nutraceutical items, be they chocolates, enrobed bars, chews or even the simple high-boiled sweets.

There are already plenty of examples out on the marketplace, with a host of companies selling electrolyte gums, energy and protein gels, energy cubes, chewable gels, sports jelly beans, fortified freeze pops, high-cocoa content chocolates, and reduced-guilt “good-for-you” bars, to mention a few.

Thankfully, nutraceutical treats can be developed to take advantage of many confectionery formats, be they bars, gels, drinks, caramels, chew, gummies, hard candies, tableted products or chewing gum. By targeting specific needs, be it high-protein, reduced- or low-calorie, energy, weight and meal management, low glycemic index, balanced nutrition, health or sports use, companies are mining these new niches for sales.

Today, there are three segments that are exploding with opportunity: health/well being; sports/energy; meal replacement and weight management.

While there are many herbal or nutraceuticals that have or may have claims that allow their consideration and use in these categories of products -- such as gingko and glucosamine for sports and performance, coagulated linoleic acids (CLAs) for weight and meal replacers and polyphenols or flavonoids for health – this paper’s focus embraces an ingredient base that has attributes in all three of these – dairy, which includes milk proteins, whey proteins and dairy minerals.

But let’s backtrack slightly and zero in on those growth segments. Once again, definitions help.

Health, Energy and Sports Products can be defined as any nutraceutical item that can aid in performance throughout the day be it after gym, on the field or at work. They are designed to improve a person’s health, energy and ability through ingredient (active) selection and delivery form. And they add convenience in that they can be used at any time for a “pick me up” or benefit when needed or required.

Research involving a whey proteins diet has shown that these ingredients can help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system; assist in lowering blood pressure in hypertension individuals; help control blood glucose levels; aid in controlling Type 2 Diabetes; and enhance a body’s immune system. Certain studies on whey diets have been linked to a reduction in bad cholesterol values in various animal and clinical studies as well as to lowering cancer risks.

The same studies have also revealed that whey proteins – when compared to other protein sources (even casein, which is from milk also) – allow the development of better lean mass muscles while reducing body fat; all without restricting food intake. So not only do these ingredients help generate muscle, but they burn/lose fat.

One of the benefits of whey is its composition. As a protein, it is made up of various amino acids, of which our body requires 20 or so for life. Whey proteins contain two that have specific benefits: glutamine and glutathione.

Glutamine’s claim to fame is that it is an essential fuel of the immune system; it controls protein synthesis rates in muscle cells; and is indispensable to the regeneration and replication of all cells.

Whey protein concentrates (WPC) and whey protein isolates (WPI) are the richest known sources of the amino acids essential to glutamine synthesis. Glutamine is also a pre-curser for another amino acid/tri-peptide named glutathione, which has shown to have clear associa-tions with anti-oxidative capacity (the ability to minimize oxidative damage to our cells), cellular aging; the onset of aging related diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Cancer); body composition (how much body fat and muscle we have); and exercise performance (fatigue, power output, muscle strength).

When it comes to performance and sports nutrition, whey proteins also deliver. Typically, athletes may require twice as much protein as normally recommended. Because whey protein is easily digested, it provides quick energy to the muscles. It’s also easily metabolized and aids in developing a lean, strong, and well-defined body.

WPCs are also an excellent source of Branched Chain Amino Acids, which help repair and rebuild lean muscle tissue damaged in exercise. Moreover, they also help maintain a healthy immune system.

Finally, let us not forget Weight Management and Meal Replacement applications involving nutraceuticals. Whey concentrates or isolates are an excellent source of protein (and in a very readily absorbable form) and their use in these types of products continue to grow.

WPCs are high in leucine (an essential amino acid), and studies have shown that leucine helps maintain muscle while accelerating fat loss. Recent studies have shown that WPCs contain two appetite suppressing hormones/enzymes - Cholecystokinin (CCK) and Glucagon-Like Peptide1 (GLP-1), both of which help reduce hunger.

And specific whey proteins have shown real value because of their ability to increase the consumer’s feeling of safety. They do so by increasing satiety, which makes one feel more satisfied even after consuming smaller meals. In addition, a high concentration of amino acids helps stabilize blood sugar, which reduces cravings and hunger between meals.

Both of these aspects help people to stick with their calorie-controlled diets and therefore, make weight loss easier.

Working with whey proteins

One can easily formulate various weight loss or meal replacement bar formulations (40/30/30 or 30/40/30) where these percentages represent levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates available. The exact percentages and levels will be somewhat dictated by one’s claims and ingredients selected.

Dairy ingredients are generally considered low glycemic and are well-suited for use in weight management products. Some of this is related to the presence of lactose and its relatively slow solubility and metabolism. And just as there are different types of proteins, there are different types of dairy or whey proteins as well, each with their own set of unique functionalities, benefits, nutritional qualities and rationale for use.

What makes whey protein interesting or exciting is not only the fact that it is a protein, but the make up of amino acids it contains. Besides glutamine and glutathione, which were mentioned earlier, there are others that are also quite important, such as beta lactoglobulin, alpha lactalbumin; immunoglobulins; lactoferrin; and glycomacropeptide.

Lactoferrin is extremely exciting because of its specific health benefits: It is an iron-binding whey protein; it protects against pathogenic bacteria and viruses; it enhances immunity; and it stimulates growth of beneficial intestinanal bacteria.

Some additional information about lactoferrin -- it’s part of the innate immune system and is the second most dominant protein in human milk, particularly right after birth of the infant. It also provides immunity and protects against harmful microbes.

At Knechetl Laboratories, a “Whey Good” or “Better For You” bar was created for the U. S. Dairy Export Council. The bar has 270 calories, is enrobed in real milk chocolate, contains approximately 17% whey protein (9 grams per bar) and 400+ milligrams of dairy calcium. Versions with 180 calories and 30% protein have been made successfully without losing the bar’s acceptable taste. Again, this bar was meant to be a “Reduced Guilt” or “Better for You” alternate to a regular candy bar.

Using some creativity, a number of alternate bar versions are possible; for example, it can be enrobed with a protein-enriched milk chocolate protein coating for additional protein or even a flavored yogurt flavored coating for possibly some other nutritional claims.