Protein powers on: the health trend that's still going strong

Emma Brown | 29 Jun, 2018

You can't fail to notice the increasing popularity of protein over the last few years. Once protein drinks and powders were the domain of body builders, but not so now as protein has found its way into mainstream food products. The number of products with a 'high protein' claim hitting supermarket shelves seems unstoppable. You can now find higher protein versions of just about anything – yogurt, cereal, bread, noodles, pizza and even ice cream!

So what's the big deal about protein?

It's no secret that protein is important to a healthy diet. Its satiating benefits are proven – making it a highly useful addition to weight loss diets. Body builders have long been a fan of protein to help build a muscular physique, but it was never considered so important to the average Joe. So why the sudden demand?

There are several contributing factors. In our ongoing search for solutions to the growing obesity crisis, anything identified as helpful for weight loss becomes the food or nutrient of the moment. And popular diets such as Atkins and Paleo, which focus on high protein, have kept this nutrient in the spotlight. Whatever the reason, protein is hotter than ever right now and finding its way into the most unlikely food products.

Is it necessary to increase the protein content in lots of foods?

Boosting the protein content of products will make it easier for people to get more in their diet – but this isn't a nutrient that most people are lacking in the first place! According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the average daily intake of protein for adults in the UK is 88g for men and 64g for women. These levels exceed the recommended minimum of 56g and 45g for men and women respectively, suggesting we've long been eating more than enough protein. But the message about protein is a positive one: it can help weight loss and is important for building muscle, so the more you eat the better, right? The 'eat more' message is certainly more popular with us than the usual weight loss rule of 'eat less'. And from a marketing perspective, while there is still an appetite for protein, getting a 'high protein' claim on pack is a great selling point.

Are we at risk of overdoing it?

Can you have too much of a good thing? In the case of protein, yes you can. Eating an excessive amount over time can put strain on our liver and kidneys as our body works to remove the unnecessary protein. So we should be mindful of not overdoing it if our lifestyle doesn't call for large amounts of protein. For the average person who is moderately active, eating the recommended amount is absolutely sufficient for health. If your aim is to lose weight, then including more protein in your diet – even up to double the recommended amount – will be fine. But trying to eat as much protein as possible is not only unnecessary, it may be harmful – and it's also likely to work out quite expensive.

Are 'protein enhanced' products just a gimmick?

The question is: Do customers lead new product development, or is it the supermarkets? Whoever is driving it, the plethora of food products show manufacturers are clearly cashing in on our protein obsession. This is interesting because the nutritional need to increase the nation's protein intake just isn't there. If we were talking fibre, there IS a strong argument to pack as much as possible into food products, because we're failing to get anywhere near the daily target. Maybe it's a cynical thought, but adding more protein to a product adds value, which often means the product costs more – so better profits for supermarkets?

That said, opting for a higher protein ice cream brand, in place of your usual Ben & Jerry's, isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the high protein version of your favourite meal or snack has other benefits such as less calories and sugar, then it's a better choice.

The demand for protein-enhanced foods doesn't seem to be slowing. However it's worth remembering that overconsuming calories, albeit from 'healthy' products, will still result in weight gain. You can still have too much of a good thing!

To keep track of your daily protein intake, download the Nutracheck App. You can track calories, protein and 5 other nutrients.

Nutritionist Emma Brown, MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.