Hand-packed suggests homemade, wholesome, even possibly more nutritious than fast food and mass-produced pre-packaged meals. It’s no wonder that a growing array of commissary-prepared meals and sides have started touting nutrient contents, most notably protein, as protein has become the super nutrient of the decade.

Not too long ago, mainstream consumers largely ignored protein on the Nutrition Facts panel. Because, for the most part, protein is not deficient in the American diet and efforts to consume additional protein was considered something for athletes and body builders. This is no longer the case.

There are only three macronutrients—carbohydrate, fat and protein—and only protein has never been demonized, which is part of its growing attraction. Further, protein’s documented ability to assist with weight loss and weight management by helping control hunger, provide lasting energy, aid in sports recovery and maintain muscle mass with aging has made it one of the hottest nutrients of the decade.

Many food and beverage manufacturers are formulating with ingredients that give their products a protein boost, enabling claims such as “good source of protein” (at least 5 grams per serving) or “excellent source of protein” (10 grams or more per serving). Ingredient choices influence total protein content of hand-packed foods. Smart selections allow for package claims that attract today’s consumer who is making efforts to increase protein intake.

According to the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, the demand for protein has increased significantly during the past eight years. The research firm has data that indicates more than half (53 percent) of consumers sought out foods high in protein in 2014, up from 39 percent in 2006.

Other consumer studies suggest this figure is much higher. For example, according to the report entitled Proteins-Classic, Alternative and Exotic Sources: Culinary Trend Tracking Series, from Packaged Facts, 62 percent of consumers agree they are “making a point of getting enough protein” from the foods and beverages they consume.

“Americans continue to seek out protein for a variety of health and wellness concerns, and to increase maintenance, growth and repair functions of the body,” said David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts. “With the popularity of diets like Paleo, Primal and Atkins, protein has been the darling of lean diets for more than two decades now, and ties in more broadly to the consumer quest for health and wellness foods and beverages to address specific health concerns. This presents a unique opportunity for food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants.”

Including multiple proteins adds up

Innovations around high-protein product development have been driven by the snack and dairy segments, with snack bars and yogurts accounting for the bulk of high-protein launches, according to Mintel, Chicago. Efforts to spread protein consumption more evenly across the whole day presents opportunities for all types of foods to boost content, from breakfast sandwiches to entrée salads to snacks. This is fueling growth and innovation of protein ingredients sourced from both animals and plants.

Industrial ingredients, which are raw materials intended for consumption in a food application, are usually in powder form. These highly concentrated forms of protein can be derived from eggs, milk, legumes, pulses and whole grains. Other protein ingredients are whole foods and can be consumed alone or used as a component in hand-packed meals. This list includes cooked lean meats, hydrated beans, cooked eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds and prepared whole grains. (See table.)

Because many commissary facilities are assemblage lines, using fully cooked and prepared meal components, working with industrial ingredients is not typically an option. It does make sense, however, to source meal components either inherently a source of protein or formulated to be a source by the manufacturer who includes industrial protein ingredients.

For example, whole grain breads can be a good or even excellent source of protein when their recipe includes ingredients such as whey protein isolate and flax seed. The same goes for other grain-based meal components, such as pasta and wraps, as well as breaded chicken strips.

Other smart choices include salad dressings based on Greek yogurt, which provides some protein, unlike their oil-based counterparts. And leaner cuts of meat and lower-fat cheeses contribute more protein per gram, since when fat content decreases, protein content increases. Indeed, smart ingredient selection is all about boosting the protein, while keeping fat grams and calories in check. The good news is that protein provides only four calories per gram, whereas fat provides nine.

Today’s consumers are interested in a mixture of proteins, from both animals and plants. Mostly plant-based diets are gaining awareness, as they have been shown to have many positive health benefits including lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, balancing blood sugar and reducing risk of certain cancers. Rather than thinking of mostly plant-based diners as being animal protein avoiders, think of them as consumers trying to include more plant proteins, which makes garbanzo beans on top of a (ham and cheese) chef salad more appealing.

My Fit Foods, a Houston-based that provides fresh, healthful on-the-go foods emphasizes lean proteins, low-glycemic carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats in all of its meals and snacks. According to the company, a daily average of 40 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrate and 20 percent fat is the optimal macronutrient percentages for balancing blood sugar and optimal energy production and fat burning.

The culinary professionals at My Fit Foods make smart ingredient choices to boost protein contents. For example, a small serving (two) of breakfast tacos contains 370 calories and a whopping 29 grams of protein. This is achieved through the use of lean ground turkey with eggs and cheddar cheese.

For lunch or dinner there are enchiladas filled with chicken and spinach held together by nonfat Greek yogurt. They get topped with tomatillo salsa and cheese and come with a side of borracho beans. A small serving contains 360 calories and 25 grams of protein.

A small serving of Fit Nugget Nation, which is described as house-made almond-crusted chicken nuggets with a side of cauliflower mash and green beans, provides 29 grams of protein and 410 calories. Little tricks to increase protein include using almonds and ground flaxseed instead of breadcrumbs on the lean chicken and preparing the mash by blending cottage cheese with the cauliflower.

For a vegetarian option, there’s Supreme Pasta Pizza, which is medley of sautéed vegetables and vegan sausage (made with pea protein isolate) served over gluten-free pasta. A topping of shredded mozzarella helps make this entree an excellent source of protein, reporting in at 12 grams and only 250 calories. 

There are many little tricks to pack more protein into commissary-assembled meals. Including a single hard-boiled egg on a salad adds 14 grams, while sprinkling a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese on a pizza slice increases protein content by 2 grams. In chicken or tuna salad, replacing some or all of the mayonnaise with Greek yogurt not only boosts protein, but decreases fat grams and total calories.

The protein trend is expected to grow, as is the demand for hand-packed foods. Packing in the protein adds value and consumers seem willing to pay for it.