Have you ever blended a protein smoothie for breakfast or grabbed a protein bar after an afternoon workout? If so, you’re probably one of the millions of people looking for higher protein diets.
Protein-enriched products are ubiquitous, and these days it seems like protein can be infused into anything, even water. But the problem, as Kristi Wempennutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, pointed outis that “contrary to all the hype that everyone needs more protein, most Americans are getting twice as much as they need.”
Many of us who live in the most economically developed countries adhere to a myth protein deficiency created and perpetuated by food companies and a wide range of self-identified health experts. Global retail sales of protein supplements – usually containing a combination of whey, casein or plant proteins such as peas, soy or brown rice – have reached an all-time high. US$18.9 billion in 2020the United States accounting for about half of the market.
I am a food historian and recently spent a month at the Library of Congress trying to answer the question of why we have always been – and remain – so focused on dietary protein. I wanted to explore the ethical, social and cultural implications of this multi-billion dollar industry.
weight loss surgeon Garth Davis writing in his book “Proteinaholic” that “eating more protein” may be the worst advice “experts” give the public. Davis argues that most doctors in the United States have never actually examined a patient with a protein deficiency because simply by eating an adequate number of calories per day, we are most likely also getting enough protein.
In fact, Americans now consume almost twice the daily protein intake recommended by the National Academy of Medicine: 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women – the equivalent of two eggs, half a cup of nuts and 3 ounces of meat – although the intake Optimum protein may vary depending on age and activity level.
For example, if you are an avid athlete, you may need to consume higher amounts of protein. Generally, however, a 140 pound person should not exceed 120 grams of protein per dayespecially because a diet high in protein can stump kidney and liver function and increase the risk of developing heart disease and cancer.
Walter Willettechairman of the nutrition department at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, describes high protein intake as “one of the fundamental processes that increase the risk of cancer.” Beyond these concerns, processed supplements and protein bars are often high in calories and may contain more sugar than a candy bar.
As noted in The New York Times, however, “the market for protein supplements is booming among young and healthy people,” those who arguably need them the least. The retail protein products in the United States were $9 billion in 2020, compared to approximately $6.6 billion in 2015.
Fats and carbohydrates have, along with sugar, been reviled since the identification of macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) more than a century ago. As a food writer Bee Wilson points out, the protein has managed to remain the “last macronutrient left standing.”
Why has protein remained the so-called holy grail of nutrients, yet so many of us wholeheartedly join in the quest to consume ever larger amounts?
The scoop on protein products
The history of making and marketing protein-enriched products goes back almost as far as the discovery of protein itself.
german chemist Justus by Liebigone of the first to identify and study macronutrients, came to consider proteins”as the only true nutrient.” Liebig was also the first to mass-produce and distribute a protein-related product in the 1860s, “Liebig’s Extract of Meat.”
AuthorGyorgy Scrinis write this through “publicity and favorable publicity, [Liebig’s Extract of Meat] the company achieved “considerable success”. Especially for those who couldn’t afford meat, the extract seemed like a reasonable and satiating substitute.
Protein consumption has remained a central part of nutritional advice and marketing campaigns ever since, even amid recycled and recurring arguments about the optimal amount of protein and whether plant or animal sources are best.
Around the time Liebig launched his extracts company, John Harvey Kellogg, a staunch vegetarian, began to redefining traditional American dishes at his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Kellogg family invented flaked breakfast cereals, granola, nut butters, and various “nut meats”, which they produced, packaged, marketed, and sold nationwide. Kellogg wrote countless tracts denouncing high-meat diets and assuring readers that protein-rich plant foods could easily replace meat.
In an April 1910 issue of his periodical “Good Health,” Kellogg asserted that “beans, peas, lentils, and nuts supply a sufficient proportion of the protein elements essential for blood building and tissue building” .
How the protein regained its status
Alongside meat and grain companies constantly touting the high protein content of their foods, the first processed protein shake hit the market in 1952 with bodybuilder mogul Bob Hoffman. Hi-Proteen Shakes, made from a combination of soy protein, whey and flavors.
In the 1970s through the 1990s, protein products remained prominent but receded somewhat, with dietary attention firmly fixed on low-calorie, low-fat, sugar-free snack foods and beverages. following the publication of studies link between sugar and saturated fat consumption and heart disease. Those decades gave us Slimfast and Diet Coke as well as fat-free (and guilt-free) SnackWell cookies and Lay potato chips.
New research in 2003, however, suggested that high-protein diets could help with weight lossand protein quickly regained its former nutrient superstar status.
Whole diets followed, each offering a range of protein drinks and bars. Robert Atkins first published his low carb, high protein book “Dr. Atkins Food Revolutionin 1982. It became one of the 50 best-selling books of all time in the early 2000s, despite a New England Journal of Medicine article in 2003 clearly recommending that “longer and broader studies [were] needed to determine the long-term safety and efficacy of low-carb, high-protein, high-fat diets” like Atkins.
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The long-term search for protein in hopes of bigger muscles, smaller waists, and less hunger pangs shows no signs of slowing down, and there’s never been a shortage of those who are. willing to take advantage of the public’s dietary goals by handing out useless advice or a new high-protein product.
Ultimately, most people living in high-income countries get enough protein. When we replace meals with a protein bar or shake, we also risk missing out on the rich sources of antioxidants, vitamins, and many other real food benefits.