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Food companies keep pushing protein. How much do we actually need?

By Brooks Johnson, Star Tribune
Published: May 6, 2024, 6:00am

Wheaties is getting yoked.

The Breakfast of Champions is releasing a new line of cereals with more than 20 grams of protein per serving “to serve today’s modern athletes who are striving to be better everyday,” General Mills recently announced.

But it’s not just athletes looking to boost their protein intake, as the grocery baskets of many American consumers will show. Protein-enhanced foods now include the usual bars and shakes as well as cereals, pastas, dairy products and pancake mixes made by a number of food companies.

Yet while protein is an essential nutrient, everyone has different needs — and more is not always the right answer.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an all-bad thing, but the problem is people are using these protein products as their main source of protein,” said Brenda Navin, a registered dietitian and CEO of Minneapolis-based Launch My Health. “The rule of thumb is whole fresh foods first for protein, then those convenient protein products should be used on an as-needed basis.”

It’s quality over quantity, says registered dietitian and University of Minnesota professor Joanne Slavin.

“Most people don’t need more protein, but you can’t ignore it,” Slavin said. “You just can’t add protein powder to your diet and expect to gain muscle. Any extra calorie can make you fat.”

The popularity of protein also cannot be ignored — 67% of consumers say they are looking to add more to their diet, according to the International Food Information Council, and a third of consumers say protein content is an indicator of health. Google searches for “high protein” have surged in recent years.

So food companies are cashing in. Those high-protein Wheaties, boosted with gluten and soy, will retail for $8.99 per box.

“Consumers want meals and protein products that prioritize convenience and provide shortcuts,” according to a recent Cargill report on protein. “This mindset affects every aspect of mealtime: meal planning, grocery shopping, product selection, food storage, meal prep, eating and clean-up.”

Minnesota-based General Mills recently released high-protein varieties of Yoplait yogurt and Annie’s macaroni and cheese. Kellogg has a high-protein Special K cereal and “protein meal bars” in addition to high-protein Kashi waffles. Quaker has a line of protein-packed instant oatmeal. And Fairlife sells ultra-filtered (concentrated) milk with a higher-than-normal protein supply.

And then there are the bars, nutrition shakes and powders that have grown significantly in recent years in response to protein-heavy keto diets, a general health-and-wellness trend and interest in plant-based eating.

“We’ve seen an uptick in interest around protein-rich diets, and consumers are interested in boosting this nutrient any way they can — even the unconventional,” said Alyssa Pike, senior manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council.

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Federal guidelines for protein consumption amount to 0.36 grams per pound of body weight at minimum, so that’s 54 grams a day for a 150-pound person and 72 grams for a 200-pound person. Additionally, protein should account for 10% to 35% of daily calories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a more precise calculation through an online tool.

Everyone’s needs are different, however, and that’s why it’s rare to find a daily-value percentage alongside a food label’s protein content like there is with fat, carbohydrates and vitamins.

The minimum daily requirement may not be the optimal amount from person to person. Protein becomes more important for children, pregnant and nursing mothers and for people eating less or with less reliable access to food. Athletes need more than sedentary people.

“If you’re on a really low-calorie diet it should be mostly protein,” Slavin said. “The average person gets more than enough eating a small amount of meat, fish, peanut butter, soy.”

Protein can generally aid weight control by increasing the feeling of fullness and satiety after a meal, Navin said, but it’s not a quick fix.

It’s also not a shortcut to building muscle.

“Although adequate protein throughout the day is necessary, extra strength training is what leads to muscle growth — not extra protein intake. You can’t build muscle without the exercise to go with it,” writes Mayo Clinic dietician Kristi Wempen. “The body can’t store protein, so once needs are met, any extra is used for energy or stored as fat. Excess calories from any source will be stored as fat in the body.”

Harvard Medical School advocates a whole-foods approach and cautions against blanket advice consumers may encounter: “Research on how much protein is the optimal amount to eat for good health is ongoing, and is far from settled. The value of high-protein diets for weight loss or cardiovascular health, for example, remains controversial.”

Consumers are increasingly savvy and looking beyond labels to make food decisions. But there is a mess of conflicting information to sort through, including social media, advertising and food labels.

According to a Washington Post investigation, General Mills has been promoting misinformation about the science of dieting via social media influencers.

“There’s a lot of passion and controversy in nutrition,” Navin said. “A lot of it is left up to the consumer to try to figure out.”

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