Is ‘Protein’ always an advantage to include in products?
Let’s get this straight at the outset: I am a fan of protein. It fills you up, it’s a vital macro nutrient and as humans we need it to build muscle, repair tissues and ward off muscle loss as we age.
Protein is a fast-moving field of innovation as the new protein platforms emerge – pea, new dairy based proteins, nut, and algae proteins have all come in to offer choice beyond meat, fish and poultry options. It’s also good to see the focus of progressive supplement brands move to Essential Amino Acids and Collagen in recent years as that’s in line with what the science tells us.
But I’m concerned that we are over-using protein in recipes and on front of pack. I worry that eventually this will lead to the kind of wear out that we’ve seen happen to many trends in the past where shoppers start seeing these sorts of claims as just wallpaper.
We can all name a number of brands that are slapping ‘a good source’, ‘a source’, or ‘high in’ protein claims on products that are basically treats such as confectionary or salty snacks. It happens a lot. The game is a simple one and an old one – give the shopper the permission they seek to indulge. Of course, the push back to defend these propositions is ‘consumer choice’ and ‘the alternatives are worse’ and I get all that. But the fact is that overusing protein claims on treat products makes shoppers more sceptical in general and in that case, we all lose.
More broadly, there is more evidence emerging that protein cycling (effectively varying the timing of protein intake) is key, rather than just trying to eat more of it. Essentially, protein cycling is moving through phases of having normal, high and then low intakes of protein over say a week or a month. The thinking is that this variation mimics what our ancestors would experience in everyday life and therefore tricks the body into using what protein it is given more efficiently.
On a low protein day, as the body can’t make protein itself and isn’t getting much from diet, then it switches to recycling existing proteins. The bidy doesn’t start with munching your calves or biceps, it starts with the cellular recycling of tired, old and dysfunctional proteins – a process called autophagy which is increasingly seen as a way to live longer by slowing down aging. Think of autophagy as the process of ripping out the old avocado bathroom suite in your house to create space so you can install a shiny new one.
The other reason you don’t want to overdo protein consistently is that over a long time it can lead to a variety of health issues, where bad breath and stomach upset could be just the start of it. By cycling protein intake, paradoxically some of the latest science shows that growth hormone production increases significantly as the body detects that protein is scarce. Ironically then, eating less protein in a deliberate and carefully planned way could help you get stronger.
So, protein is a far more complicated topic than you’d think judging by what is out there on the shelf. More protein in products isn’t always better. If the latest science is right, there will be increasing numbers of shoppers who seek to maximise then minimise their protein intake and in the low protein phase will avoid products badged as high protein.
So brands need to be careful with protein, not using it to disguise poor macronutrients or seeing it as something that is always a positive. Those brands that get the balance right – seeing protein as a nutrient that shoppers could well end up consuming in phases or pulse their intake over days and weeks, will be positioned well for growth.