Added protein isn’t just for gym rats and body builders anymore.
It’s in your Starbucks cold brew and now your water, too.
Starbucks’ new plant-based protein coffee is just adding to fervor one Tampa man predicted years ago. Bob Kral, the CEO of Protein2o, saw the protein trend poised to explode more than five years ago.
So, the former vice president of purchasing at Walgreens and v.p. of merchandising at GNC moved to Florida and paired up with son, Rob Kral, to work on the concept.
Now the Tampa men’s protein water is available across the country in Target, Sam’s Club and Walmart, and launched in more than 900 Publix locations this month.
“It was obvious to me what protein was becoming,” said Bob Kral, the company’s CEO. “I saw the increase of sales of protein (supplements) and also had an understanding of the low-cal protein beverages on the market: all the shakes, Muscle Milk… but they were more meal replacements than they were a beverage.”
The Krals launched their company in 2013. In 2014, New York research firm NPD reported roughly 71 percent of consumers said they wanted more protein in their diets. These days, companies are adding protein to items likes cereals or promoting the amount of naturally occurring proteins in foods like Greek yogurt and nuts.
“We expect protein to continue,” said Bob Kral. “It’s definitely here to stay and it’s just getting bigger. We were fortunate to get in at the right time.”
Whey protein, a milk by-product of the cheese-making process, has become a staple among body builders. It’s sold in pre-made milks and large tubs of powder. Gym regulars looking to build lean muscle will add scoops to a post-workout shake.
Whey isolate, which is what is in Protein2o, is created by separating the components of whey. Whey isolates have a higher percentage of pure protein and are essentially lactose, carbohydrate, fat and cholesterol free.
While the father and son live in the Tampa, the company’s headquarters is in Chicago. Last year, former PepsiCo executive Andy Horrow joined the company as president and former Gatorade president Sue Wellington joined its board of directors.
Protein2o reported sales up 300 percent in the first half of 2016 and now is in more than 20,000 stores.
Each bottle has 60 to 70 calories, 15 grams of protein and zero sugar.
“They’re really light and refreshing flavors,” said Rob Kral, the company’s vice president of manufacturing. “Peach-Mango, Dragon Fruit… and they’re the consistency of water, light and you can see right thru them.”
But is the average American lacking in protein to begin with?
Not really, according to nutritionists.
“Generally speaking, most Americans get plenty of protein in their diet without needing any extra supplementation, as long as they’re eating a variety of foods,” said Theresa Crocker, a professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida.
Meats, eggs, yogurt, nut butters, beans, lagoons, soy, tempeh, all pack protein. But just because you don’t need the extra protein doesn’t mean protein beverages and shakes are inherently bad.
Crocker said like anything else, it’s important to read the label and pay attention to sugar, calories, fat and serving size. She can see how protein drinks could be useful for picky eaters, while traveling or help patients dealing with cancer or other illnesses who may actually be protein deficient.
Rob Kral said Protein2o’s customer skew female. It was actually his mother-in-law who helped inspire the drink as it is now. When the Krals were first experimenting with low-cal protein option, they tried out “shot” drinks similar to Five Hour Energy.
That’s when Rob’s mother-in-law said she liked dumping the shot into a glass of water to drink. That was the light-bulb moment the father and son team needed. Protein2o is marketed to active people on the go who want to build lean muscle. It’s not a meal replacement, but an easy snack.
The Krals say that protein isn’t a passing fad. So they’re not surprised Starbucks is one of the latest big names to make its own protein-infused product.
Crocker compared the Kral’s drink to University of Florida-born Gatorade.
She said just as few people (outside of professional athletes) are exercising under the sun for hours at a time and in need of the electrolytes in Gatorade, few regularly active people need protein drinks.
But the fact regularly people might not “need” Gatorade didn’t keep it from becoming a brand Forbes values worth $4.8 billion.
That gives hope to the Krals, who bill their product as the biggest protein water in the market right now.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.