Leprino Foods’ first foray into consumer brands closes the manufacturing loop by using whey filtered out during the cheesemaking process.

An R&D project at Denver-based cheesemaker Leprino Foods in 2011 resulted in a protein the company dubbed Native Whey and was the impetus for launching Ascent Protein, a maker of protein powders and ready-made protein beverages.

Leprino launched Ascent in 2016 as a wholly owned subsidiary. Its protein powders and beverages have high levels of leucine — the key amino acid that triggers muscle recovery after exercise. Leprino, the largest maker of mozzarella cheese in the world, filters whey, a natural byproduct of cheese, directly from the milk. The result is a cleaner, purer protein that goes through half the production process other similar products do.

Photos courtesy Ascent Protein

But Leprino traditionally has sold its ingredients to other manufacturers, rather than directly to consumers. Ascent has closed that loop, targeting all-in, hard-working athletes who focus on clean eating.

“We exist to help athletes naturally improve their athletic performance,” Ascent General Manager Paul Vraciu says. “That drives everything we do from our daily production to our zero artificial ingredients.”

Ascent Protein isn’t thick and chalky like some other proteins on the market. Each scoop of its whey protein powders has 25 grams of protein, is gluten- and soy-free, and has been third-party tested for banned substances. Its ready-made protein beverages are the consistency of water and come in flavors like fruit punch, pineapple coconut and watermelon.

Ascent is one of the only sports nutrition brands that produces the protein in its products themselves — sourcing the milk from local dairy farmers in northern Colorado and filtering it in their own facilities. The company uses zero artificial ingredients and avoids harmful steps such as “bleaching.”

Some of the world’s top athletes use Ascent Protein products, including Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey and two-time CrossFit Games champion Katrin Davidsdottir. Ascent Protein also is the first-ever performance nutrition partner of USA Weightlifting.

Ascent Protein is sold in more than 1,000 gyms nationwide as well as in Whole Foods, Krogers, Albertsons, Safeway, Target, and Wegmans.

“Fitness is going to continue to evolve,” Vraciu says. “We love that people seek out and find great fitness opportunities in gyms and now, more so, at home. We want to be wherever all-in athletes are working out.”

Challenges: The company was getting fantastic consumer feedback after its February 2020 launch of a ready-to-drink protein recovery water but with businesses — including gyms — shutting down in March, Ascent’s efforts to market its new product were short-lived.

“As different states are facing different COVID restrictions, that has challenged what we do and how we go about our normal business,” Vraciu says. “If we can convince trainers and coaches and educate them about Ascent and why it was created, they would fall in love with the brand and recommend it to their clients.”

Opportunities: With the pandemic prompting more people to spend more time in the kitchen, people are making their own smoothies at home. And they’re paying more attention to what’s in the food they buy, which bodes well for Ascent’s clean products, which are tested by a third party to ensure there are no substances that are banned from use by athletes in their specific sports. “It has given people a reason to reexamine the products and ingredients they use,” Vraciu says. “Every single lot of Ascent products are tested before they’re released into the marketplace.”

Ascent also is forming partnerships with virtual fitness platforms such as Comp Train and Stream Fitness, where a banner ad promotes its recovery water.

Needs: Ascent’s continued success relies on getting the message out about its products, which it typically does at organized races such as the Spartan Race, a series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty. The company sets up a booth at such events so it can talk with the athletes when they finish the race. But with COVID-19, many of those types of events have been cancelled or postponed.

“We’re excited for the COVID situation to ease,” Vraciu says. “We love to connect with athletes at events. We’re finding ways to do it virtually for the time being, but I love the direct interaction you get with athletes at the events.”