For the last few years, the high protein movement has reigned as one of the most prominent trends in the food and beverage industry. Whether paleo, keto or vegan, consumers with all dietary needs are chasing protein. While protein powders sales remain stable as ever, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in drinks and snacks featuring high protein as a selling point on package. Conventional staple foods like yogurt and jerky are calling out protein content on front panels more often, and in some cases position their entire branding around it. However, as the topic of supplementing protein comes into question, it’s likely that the protein bubble is about to pop.
In an age where transparency between food producers and consumer is everything, companies are held to a high level of scrutiny. Some plant-based protein products are proving to be not all that meets the eye. The USDA mandated PDCAAS (which stands for Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score) determines the completeness and quality of different types of protein. This system tells a different story about protein content than some product messaging might imply. The highest score on the spectrum is a 1, which is fulfilled by whey and soy proteins. In contrast, pea protein concentrate comes in at a 0.893 and other peas/legumes at a 0.70 – a decidedly lower amount. While it is acceptable for callouts on front of package to claim the actual amount of protein, the nutritional facts panel must use the PDCAAS method to calculate the correct percentage of daily value – which can be considered misleading to the consumer. (Source)
Falsely representing protein content has already led to legal action. A rash of lawsuits against protein powder manufacturers cropped up a couple of years ago, when third party testing exposed the true percentages of protein content in their products. Several companies were under scrutiny for allegedly passing off amino acids and other ingredients as complete proteins. From a health standpoint, this isn’t dangerous – but if true, it is dishonest to the consumer. Companies accused of practicing “protein spiking” could be swaying consumers to believe that they are receiving significantly higher percentages of protein. “For instance, test results showed “Giant Delicious Protein Blend” made by privately held Giant Sports contains only 12 grams of the 27 grams of “High Quality Protein” it advertises, only 44% of the stated amount.” (Forbes)
While there is a lot of dialogue about how protein is represented on package, another factor is a topic of discussion: you can actually have too much protein in your diet. According to nutritionists, the typical American intakes more protein than necessary. By eating legumes, beans, meat, yogurt and other foods that naturally pack a high protein punch you are getting all you need without introducing concentrated powders or bars. According to some studies, overloading on protein could exacerbate existing kidney damage (Washington Post). Additionally, the body is only capable of processing a finite amount of protein, so at a point, it might not be registered at all. According to New York Times, “the recommended intake for a healthy adult is 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams for men… Most American adults eat about 100 grams of protein per day, or roughly twice the recommended amount. Even on a vegan diet people can easily get 60 to 80 grams of protein throughout the day from foods like beans, legumes, nuts, broccoli and whole grains.” The trope of protein as the cure all for health and fitness is entirely called into question with this.
As with low-carb foods, superfoods and other dietary fads, the trend of high protein will be eventually be surpassed in favor of something new. We predict that this movement will be yet another case of consumers finding out that different foods and their attributes shouldn’t necessarily be villainized, but always consumed in moderation.