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“There’s a real hyper-focus on protein right now. ... People want everything to be a magic bullet. Temporarily it may help, but in the long run it’s all about balance and moderation.”
— Amy McLeod, staff dietitian, Brookshire Brothers
Look in any supermarket aisle and there’s evidence of America’s deepening love of protein. Whether it’s frozen entrees, meal bars or yogurt, protein is the call-out ingredient on the package.
“There’s a real hyper-focus on protein right now,” said Amy McLeod, staff dietitian at Brookshire Brothers, a Lufkin, Texas-based chain.
And like any love affair, the more the better. Kashi Go Lean cereal has 13 grams of protein per serving, an amount unheard of in a grain-based food; PowerBar’s ProteinPlus bars weigh in with 23 grams; and an 8-ounce container of Voskos’ nonfat plain Greek yogurt contains 20 grams.
The post low-carb-diet-fad reemergence of protein as an ingredient list favorite can be traced directly to the national fight against obesity. Protein expert Donald Layman, a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, says the diet and fitness messages sent by the public health sector have been heard by the food industry.
“The topics everyone has gotten interested in involve protein for weight control, protein relative to aging, and protein for satiety and appetite control,” he said.
Protein-rich foods have seen impressive gains over the past year. According to SymphonyIRI, bar sales alone are up 8.6% through June, to $3.5 billion in the food/drug/mass channel (excluding club stores and Wal-Mart).
Sales might be up, but so is concern that consumers don’t understand the science of protein. Layman credits food manufacturers with responding to consumer need with products designed to manage weight. But he thinks their products should reflect better science.
“There are a lot of companies just sprinkling protein on their products like a dessert topping with little purpose,” he said.
To enjoy the full nutritional benefit of protein, a typical person requires roughly 60 grams a day. Researchers have found that for protein to have any real effect, the eating occasion needs to include a minimum of 30 grams.
“Anything of 20 grams or less brings no benefit at all,” said Layman.
Such science talk is often difficult to translate for consumers. Supermarket dietitians addressing the topic can simply remind their shoppers that protein isn’t a cure-all.
“People want everything to be a magic bullet,” said McLeod. “Temporarily it may help, but in the long run it’s all about balance and moderation.”