How is whey protein perceived in Brazil?

How do Brazilian consumers see whey protein? And what obstacles prevent most of the country’s population from enjoying its health benefits?

Geórgia Alvares de Castro
Geórgia Alvares de Castro MSc. Ph.D
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Published: Apr. 04. 2018

Brazilian consumers inhabit the fifth largest country in the world both in population and geographic area. And healthy eating habits are important to them. But, like their counterparts in so many other parts of the world, their understanding of exactly which product types are likely to benefit their health is very limited.

And who can blame them? There's a constant bombardment of messages from media, food companies, family, and friends to eat well and exercise more: "Watch your fat intake," "focus on fibres,” “cut down on sugar,” “choose the good fats.” It’s hard to absorb so many (often conflicting) instructions and be able to prioritise and incorporate them into daily life. As an additional complication, new products regularly arrive on supermarket shelves with a wealth of health and sustainability claims attached – most of them too complicated for consumers to evaluate.

In a perfect world, consumers who want to live healthily but are bewildered by this strange landscape of food choices could turn to dietary supplements to ease their conscience about whether they are, indeed, getting the necessary nutrition.

Supplements are, in fact, recognised by Brazilian consumers as likely to be beneficial, but their pricing places them out of reach for many. The focus of female consumers, who are Brazil’s key food and beverage purchasers, is instead on providing for their needs and those of their families through daily meals based on more mainstream food choices.

Reaching these purchasers, who are a key force in introducing healthier options to their families, can be difficult. Typically, Brazilian women are well aware of the links between food consumption and non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity. But they don’t know which foods can help to reduce the risk of contracting such diseases.

We need to find ways to motivate more of them to read the food labels. And we need regulatory authorities to make nutritional and functional claims more understandable. Finally, the pricing of healthier food types needs to move within reach, too.

The mystery of whey protein
How does protein fit into the Brazilian marketplace and mindset? At a broad level, most consumers are aware that it is a necessary factor for the proper growth and development of children. And they associate milk and meat with protein. There are no clear connections, however, with the term ‘whey protein’, particularly among older generations – although the sporting population is likely to know of it and view whey protein as a speciality store item with a hefty price tag.

But that’s as far as the understanding of protein supplements tends to go: There is little recognition of the ability of such supplements to, for example, help manage satiety and body weight or to strengthen the immune system. In my experience, connecting these ideas comes as a surprise to most people. And as far as the global trend toward plant-based proteins (accompanied by the rising incidence of milk allergies) is concerned, few Brazilians are currently aware of the shift and even fewer would be able to afford to rearrange their diets to accommodate the trend. They still just want to buy affordable food!

Whey protein for hospital patients
Much of my current role involves studying bioactive peptides in biological models and clinical trials. I evaluate different proteins and fractions with a view to supporting hospital patients who need specific dietary interventions. And this is one of the areas where protein supplements play an important role in Brazil, as it does in many other parts of the world.

In particular, I work with preparing patients for orthognatic (buco-maxilo) surgery and helping them to recover post-operatively. In such contexts, patients can lose as much as 10 kg of lean muscle mass within 45 days of surgery. And such rapid weight loss can expose them to a higher risk of disease infections. Treating patients with whey protein has been shown to boost their immune response. But that's just one side of the equation. Maintaining muscle mass is another.

Recently, for example, I treated a patient who was preparing for oral surgery, which required her to refrain from ingesting anything other than liquids for a period of 40 days. Most people in this situation lose weight, including muscle mass. To prevent, or at least reduce this loss, I administered whey protein, whose muscle-synthesizing effects are backed by numerous studies. As a side note, it really says something about the Brazilian market that one of the patient’s key concerns was the cost of the supplement!

A lactose-wary market
Another characteristic of the Brazilian market for whey protein is lactose intolerance and milk allergies. People are generally cautious about dairy products and many claim they are intolerant to lactose without having been diagnosed as such. This perception seems to be on the increase, with more consumers starting to avoid dairy products – again without informed insight into the positive health aspects.

Among those who do have the understanding, money and motivation to purchase whey protein supplements, there is also a degree of concern around the quality of imported whey protein. Can they really trust that a product declaring 50 percent whey protein content truly does contain that level? Sanitary authorities are aware of the issue of adulteration of dietary supplements, of course, and are currently reviewing supplement regulations.

Proven benefits
As I see it, protein supplements, and whey protein, in particular, offer evidence-based effects that can help Brazilian consumers with a broad variety of health issues, improve their quality of life and even their life expectancy. Whey protein can be effectively applied to all stages of life from infancy, to adolescence to adulthood and to old age. But supplements are within reach of only a small portion of the population, despite most Brazilians recognising the importance of healthy eating. For this situation to change, there needs to be more easy-to-understand information available about the benefits of protein supplements and, as the Brazilian market is highly price-sensitive, more affordable options, too.

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.