Extra protein in your pancake or noodle soup. Chocolate pudding and chips with protein. Corn wafers and cornflakes: PROTEIN. And then always ‘protein’, or in English ‘protein’ and no ‘protein’. For that you have to go to the ingredients and nutritional values on the back. Protein is boring, protein is cool. Protein sounds like egg, protein is associated with being fit, sporty, healthy.
After the sports bars and shakes with extra protein first entered the supermarket, the protein procession moved on to the dairy shelf, gradually reaching all corners of the store. In the dairy category alone, turnover has more than doubled in almost five years from 58 to 122 million euros, according to market research agency IRI. In 2018, there were thirty dairy products with extra protein, which is now an average of 51 per store. IRI has not yet investigated other categories, but online Albert Heijn sells 113 products with extra protein (including regular cottage cheese) and Jumbo 163.
It’s a bit like previous trends: in the 1990s, light and low fat became a hype, fueled by ‘watch out for fat’ campaigns. Inevitably, the following fashion followed: products ‘without added sugars’ and low carb, low carbohydrate. The supporters of low fat and low carb fought each other over which was the greater evil, fat or carbohydrates. Food producers benefited from it. They could ask more money for products with less fat, sugar or carbohydrates.
And now it’s all about protein. With one important difference: fat and sugar had to go. Protein is right there. Of the three macronutrients, the ones that provide energy and that your body can’t live without, protein seems to have won the PR war. There are countless diets without fat and carbohydrates. But a diet without protein is hardly imaginable, except for specific disorders. The reverse is true: cutting carbohydrates often goes hand in hand with adding proteins. With the argument: protein saturates better than fat and carbohydrates and is good for muscles and bones.
All true. But is that why so many protein products are sold?
Protein as a carbohydrate substitute is one explanation for the hype. Another part of the popularity is undoubtedly due to the fact that more and more Dutch people occasionally visit a gym – fitness has become the most practiced sport in thirty years – and you can hardly ignore the protein powders and shakes. A free booster after training, why not use it if it’s in your subscription?
Every fitness trend will inevitably seep through to the general public one day, fueled by social media such as Instagram where the hashtag ‘protein’ alone has generated 28 million posts. An overwhelming stream of smoothies, bowls, sports bars and muscle selfies will meet you.
And if it didn’t start with the gyms, then with the shifting focus from food and foods to individual ingredients and nutrients. A trend that has been around since scientists tried to prove the health effects of antioxidants, amino acids, probiotics and so on. We may not know why you would eat tomatoes and spinach, after all, it doesn’t say exactly what’s in them. But if the cornflakes have iron, vitamins, fiber and protein added, then it must be healthy, right?
In the meantime, as a hasty consumer, you have no idea whether those proteins are vegetable or come from cow’s milk and how much you actually benefit from it per portion. You think you’re doing well with your protein cream cheese, but if you put 20 grams on your sandwich, it’s not much.
The focus on nutrients goes hand in hand with another trend: that of personalized nutrition. Everything can be measured and weighed with smart watches and telephones. If you know exactly how much you exercise, how much you burn, if you know all your personal ‘specs’, why settle for general guidelines for the average Dutch person, such as the Wheel of Five? Who wants to be average? So it’s not surprising to think that you could use a little more protein. The only question is whether you should do something for it.
British food writer Bee Wilson calls it the protein paradox: If you’re concerned about getting enough protein (and if the protein content of your tuna salad is more important than the taste), you’re probably already eating more than enough of it.
In some parts of the world, protein shortages are a serious problem, especially for children, but not in the countries where protein popcorn and sports peanut butter are available, and where people eat more than 75 kilos of (protein-rich) meat a year. Adult men in the Netherlands consume an average of 94 grams of protein per day, mainly from meat and dairy. For women, this is 71 grams. It is recommended that 0.83 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. That is 70 grams per day for an average Dutch man weighing 85 kilos and 60 grams for a woman weighing 72 kilos.
And then the need, the minimum you need, is even lower: you don’t actually need more than 0.66 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. The Health Council has already taken into account the fact that the Dutch are relatively tall in its recommendations from 2021.
There are groups that can use slightly more than 0.83 grams per kilo, such as children, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding. But even if the recommendation is to eat 20 to 30 percent more protein – that applies to vegetarians and vegans – you probably get it. Anyone who consciously does not eat meat usually also knows that there is a lot of protein in wholemeal bread, legumes and nuts.
The only group you can argue with are the elderly. For frail elderly, protein is extra important, a deficiency is more difficult when your muscles and bones deteriorate over the years. But at the same time, older people need less energy. Physical exercise aids in the absorption of amino acids into the muscles. If you exercise less, you need relatively more protein. In Germany, for example, a higher recommendation applies to the elderly. But according to the Dutch Health Council, the added value of this has not been convincingly proven.
The Health Council does not set an upper limit. Unless you have kidney problems, you don’t get too much protein quickly. By the way, protein is simply a source of energy: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. This applies just as much to protein as it does to fat and carbohydrates.
If you delve into it a little – and many athletes do – you can easily lose yourself in the world of leucine, isoleucine and valine. You can spend all day working on the optimal timing for muscle protein synthesis. And you’d almost forget how far some foods have drifted from normal eating: a dairy drink called the ‘vanilla cookie’, which has no fat in it at all, no cookies for that matter, and the sweetness comes from acesulfame-K. Or a jar of lentil-chickpea-bean soup that doesn’t say lentil-chickpea-bean soup but a ‘protein bowl’. It’s like selling yourself short with a cup of buttermilk and a plate of bean soup. As if ordinary food is not good food.
The marketing of all those protein products – often in sturdy black packaging – is clearly not aimed at vulnerable elderly people. The extra protein market seems to be mainly aimed at people with extra money, who are extra sensitive to health claims. Or on people who don’t have that money but are easily misled or misled.
A container of ‘Melkunie Protein Vanilla 0.2% fat quark’ contains 10 grams of protein and costs 1.55 euros. An equally large portion of Zaanse Hoeve low-fat cottage cheese (0 grams of fat) contains 8.5 grams of protein and it costs 34 cents. If you choose cheap protein instead of pricey protein every day for a month, you have already earned back your gym subscription.
Correction (July 23, 2022): An earlier version of this article stated that ‘Melkunie Protein Vanilla’ contains less protein than an equally large portion of Zaanse Hoeve low-fat cottage cheese. That has been corrected above.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of July 23, 2022