Meal Replacement Powder vs. Protein Powder: The ‘What’ and ‘Who’ Every Formulator Must Know
Looking to develop and market a meal replacement powder (MRP) or protein formula (Protein)? Like a Rocky Balboa fight scene, there have been times within the industry’s past where each has been victor apparent; one dominating while the other takes a beatdown.
The original MET-Rx®, and then EAS® MyoPlex® shakes, for example, revolutionized protein supplementation and the entire diet and sports nutrition categories; putting MRP packets into the everyday lexicon. Before their rise to fame, poor tasting and even worse mixing Protein powders were the norm; or, insulin-shocking maltodextrin bombs marketed as weight gainers. However, when ephedra went away and the industry transitioned consumers to everything low-carb, MRPs took it on the chin for several punishing rounds. Protein with minimal carbs ruled the ring.
Now it seems the segment is realizing another stage of its lifecycle whereby both can coexist successfully. However, if you don’t formulate correctly, you could find your product and brand hitting the mat harder than Apollo Creed after an Ivan Drago knock-out punch.
What makes an MRP different from a Protein?
Generally speaking, a product that’s sold as a Protein will provide little more than supplemental protein as the primary nutrient. The protein may be derived from just one or a blend of sources, but carbohydrates and fats are typically provided in low quantities; and sugar is especially avoided whenever possible. A Protein powder often won’t exceed 0.5 grams of total carbs for every 1.0 gram of protein.
An MRP, on the other hand, may be formulated with as high as 4-6 grams of total carbs for every one gram of protein, based upon the target consumer and recommended timing relative to exercise. Digestive enzymes or other ingredients may be included within a Protein product to address stomach discomfort or affect amino acid absorption; but otherwise, very few other active ingredients are added to most Protein powders.
An MRP, however, is intended to serve as a complete, nutrient-dense, high-protein snack. In addition to protein, it’s not uncommon to find an MRP formulated with a blend of “fast” and “slow” carbohydrates, functional fats, and an MRP almost always contains a blend of major vitamins and minerals (typically around a 20-50 percent RDA premix).
In addition to a higher carbohydrate-to-protein ratio (1:1 to 6:1 is the range), MRPs often include a variety of other supplemental ingredients too. Added polyphenols, specific flavonoids, fiber, pro- and prebiotics, and any number of category-specific functional ingredients are fair game for an MRP.
Cost per serving and packaging are also common points of differentiation between an MRP and Protein. Because an MRP is often used to replace a meal, it’s not uncommon for the end cost to a consumer to run $2.50-$5.00 per serving. For the same amount of supplemental protein, a Protein powder typically only costs the consumer about $0.75-$3.00 per serving.
And because of cost, as well as how MRPs versus Protein powders are typically used, the packaging for each is also different. Protein powders are most often sold in bulk powder form; an MRP is generally packaged in individual sachets and sold in boxes of between 10-20 packets per box. If your product is meant to be resold in a typical brick-and-mortar store, then those boxes should double as a display tray so that retailers can sell your MRP by the single packet or sample your product to customers.
Who’s your target consumer?
I don’t know who said it first, but ever since my brand management days, I’ve followed the marketing motto of, “If you try being everything to everyone, you’ll be nothing to no one.” Know, and remain focused on your target consumer. Begin believing everyone in the world is your core demographic, and you’re formulating to fail.
In sports nutrition, for example, physique, strength/power, aerobic, and cross-training athletes present remarkably different product demands. People who train to look better naked don’t train with enough duration to significantly deplete glycogen stores during exercise. For these folks – which is the majority of people who join a gym or exercise recreationally – a whey Protein powder with minimal carbs provides enough of a post-exercise insulin response to support their needs and move toward achieving their goals.
However, if that same person has a lot of excess bodyweight to lose and struggles with controlling their eating, then a nutrient-dense MRP that doesn’t exceed about a 2:1 ratio of total carbs-to-protein (e.g., no more than two grams of total carbohydrate for every one gram of protein) may be a more effective product to get such a consumer on the right path to achieving success. An advanced trainer or competitive athlete, however, may very well benefit by taking both an MRP and Protein; the time of day and specific training phase being what differentiates when and how one is consumed versus the other.