The U.S. Dairy Exporter Blog: Market Analysis, Research & News

  • Most Consumers Don't Know Whey Comes from Milk

    By Véronique Lagrange June 9, 2015

    add_whey1The survey finding illustrates the need for more consumer education about whey protein.

    One-third of consumers have no idea where whey protein comes from. More than one-third believe it is plant derived (from wheat, soy or corn). In all, only about 30 percent of the population identifies milk as the source of whey protein.

    Those numbers might surprise you considering whey has been one of the rising stars of the dairy business for more than a decade. Yet they were some of the findings from the 2014 Consumer Whey Protein Tracker Study, a research project backed by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and the Whey Protein Research Consortium. The study, guided, managed and summarized by Dairy Management Inc., revealed a clear need for further education to maximize the appeal of whey protein among U.S. consumers, particularly given that a whey-related wellness claim is on the horizon.

    For the past 12 years, the Whey Protein Research Consortium has been working to document the unique benefits of whey proteins with a focus on body composition for an eventual science-based claim on package labels. The consortium is a pre-competitive, international group of whey suppliers, global customers and associations that includes USDEC and USDEC members.

    With clinical research results obtained over the past year (adding to a critical mass of other studies), that claim is nearing reality. But to ensure the communication of benefits is effective, we needed to better profile the target audience, determine consumer attitudes, awareness and knowledge of whey protein, and address misconceptions and concerns.

    The 2014 Consumer Whey Protein Tracker Study, modeled after similar projects in 2009 and 2011, found a number of good results:

    • Overall attitudes on protein remain very positive.

    • A growing number of consumers are willing to pay more for a food or beverage product with added protein (23 percent vs. 18 percent in 2011).

    • Nearly a quarter of respondents are increasing the amount of protein in their diets, a big jump from 17 percent in 2011.

    • Unaided consumer awareness of whey protein is rising.

    At the same time, the study revealed ample room for improvement. As the confusion over whey’s origins attests, sizable knowledge gaps remain.

    whey1-1

    Whey protein still lags behind other non-dairy protein sources—including peas and soy—in terms of familiarity.

    When given a choice of protein sources and asked which were high-quality, complete proteins, consumers not only put meat, eggs and nuts at the top of the list, they did so at significantly greater percentages than in 2011. Whey protein actually slipped a bit between 2011 and 2014.

    Some consumers also expressed concern that eating too much protein was dangerous, and some female consumers in particular worried that too much protein consumption would over-bulk muscles. (We are conducting further sub-analyses to better understand these misconceptions and their source.)

    The way forward

    The study suggests the industry could resolve most of the questions, misperceptions and knowledge gaps surrounding whey and protein in general with education.

    When researchers informed study participants of the facts, opinions changed significantly in whey’s favor. For example, when asked for their opinion of whey protein (unaided, without any definition or clarification), only 42 percent of respondents expressed favorable feelings. But when researchers defined whey protein—explained that it derives from milk, contains no fat, lactose or cholesterol and is a rich source of amino acids—consumers’ favorable feelings jumped to 81 percent.

    Similar educational efforts such as defining high-quality, complete proteins in terms of digestibility, amino acid profile, etc., would clarify exactly why whey is superior to alternatives like soy and pea protein.

    The potential for increased consumption is strong. More adults are looking to increase the amount of protein in their diets and actively making food choices to ensure this happens.

    The study defined four main demographic groups that could be “targeted”: protein enthusiasts, fat-loss believers, athletes/exercisers and consumers 55 and older. It also provided much needed insights on the target audiences for potential claims.

    We are actively engaged in sharing this information with manufacturers and multi-nationals, allowing them to fine-tune communications and promotions to better target consumers with messaging and products.

    The study’s results will also guide the scientific committee of the Consortium as it continues to gather evidence on the health benefits of whey protein.

    Read more blog posts about whey protein here.


    The U.S. Dairy Export Council is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy farmer checkoff that builds on collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to build global demand for U.S. dairy products  

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