Decades of hype turned protein into a multi-billion dollar industry



Editor’s Note: This article is republished as it appears in The Conversation, a freelance news editor that works with academics around the world to disseminate research-based articles and commentary. The University of Oregon partners with The Conversation to bring the expertise and perspectives of its faculty members to a broad audience. For more information, see the note following this story.

Have you ever made a protein smoothie for breakfast or had a protein bar after an afternoon workout? If so, you are probably one of the millions of people looking for higher protein diets.

Protein-enriched products are everywhere, and nowadays it seems like protein can be infused into anything, even water. But the problem, like Kristi wempen, nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, points out, is that “unlike 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 buy 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 – typically containing a combination of whey, casein, or plant proteins such as peas, soybeans, or brown rice – have hit a record high. $ 18.9 billion in 2020with the United States accounting for about half of the market.

I am a food historian and recently spent a month in the Library of Congress trying to answer the question of why we have historically been and remain so focused on dietary protein. I wanted to explore the ethical, social and cultural implications of this multi-billion dollar industry.

Experts intervene

Slimming surgeon Garth Davis writing in his book ‘Proteinaholic’ that ” eating more protein ‘is perhaps the worst advice’ experts ‘give to the public.’ Davis argues that most physicians in the United States have never examined a patient with a protein deficiency, because just by eating an adequate number of calories per day, we are also most likely getting enough protein.

In fact, Americans now consume almost twice the National Academy of Medicine’s recommended daily protein intake: 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 Optimal protein may vary depending on age and activity level.

For example, if you are a dedicated athlete, you may need to consume higher amounts of protein. In general, however, a 140-pound person should not exceed 120 grams of protein per day, especially because a diet high in protein can kidney tension and liver function and increase the risk of developing heart disease and cancer.

Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, describes high protein intake as “one of the basic 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 reported in The New York Times, however, “the protein supplement market is booming among young and healthy people,” those who arguably need it the least. The retail sale of 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 vilified in turn since the identification of macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) over a century ago. As a culinary writer Wilson Bee points out, the protein has managed to remain the “last remaining macronutrient. “

Why has protein remained the so-called holy grail of nutrients, as many of us wholeheartedly join the quest to consume ever greater amounts?

The scoop on protein products

The history of manufacturing and marketing protein-enriched products dates back almost as far as the discovery of protein itself.

german chemist Justus von liebig, one of the first to identify and study macronutrients, came to consider proteins “as the only real nutrient. “Liebig was also the first to mass produce and distribute a protein-related product in the 1860s,“ Liebig Meat Extract ”.

Author Gyorgy Scrinis write this through “From publicity and favorable publicity the company (Liebig’s Extract of Meat) achieved ‘considerable success’.

Since then, protein consumption has remained a central part of nutritional advice and marketing campaigns, even amid recycled and recurring arguments about the optimal amount of protein and whether plant or animal sources are best.

When Liebig started his extract company, John Harvey Kellogg, a staunch vegetarian, set out to redefining traditional American meals in his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The Kellogg family invented flake breakfast cereals, granola, nut butters and various “nut meats,” which they produced, packaged, marketed and sold across the country. Kellogg has written countless tracts denouncing high meat diets and assuring readers that high protein plant foods could easily replace meat.

In an April 1910 issue of his periodical “Good Health,” Kellogg asserted that “Beans, peas, lentils and nuts provide a sufficient proportion of the protein elements essential for blood and tissue building. “.

How the protein regained its status

Alongside meat and grain companies consistently 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 flavorings.

In the 1970s until the 1990s, protein products remained visible but fell back somewhat, with the dietary spotlight firmly fixed on low-calorie, low-fat, and sugar-free snacks and drinks. following the publication of studies link between consumption of sugar and saturated fat and heart disease. These decades have given us Slimfast and Diet Coke along with Fat Free (and Guilt Free) SnackWell’s Cookies and Lay’s Crisps.

New research in 2003, however, Suggested High Protein Diets May Help With Weight Loss, and protein quickly regained its former status as a nutrient superstar.

Complete diets followed, each offering a range of protein shakes and bars. Robert Atkins first released his “Low Carb and High Protein”Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution”In 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 larger studies (were) needed to determine the safety and long-term effectiveness of low-carb, high-protein, high-fat diets” such as Atkins.

Long-term research for protein in the hopes of getting bigger muscles, smaller stature, and less hunger pangs shows no signs of slowing down, and there has never been a shortage of those who wish. take advantage of the audience’s dietary goals by giving unnecessary advice or a new protein-rich 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 benefits of real foods.The conversation

—By Hannah Cutting-Jones, Dhistory department


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