Protein mania: the rich world’s new diet obsession

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Are you getting enough protein? The question provides its own answer: if you are worrying about the amount of protein in your diet, then you are almost certainly eating more than enough. This is the paradox of our new protein obsession. For many people, protein has become a kind of secular unction: it instantly anoints any food with an aura of health and goodness. On the menu at the gym where I go, a salad niçoise is now repackaged as “high-protein tuna”. It comes without the usual capers or olives – those are items that merely add flavour, and who needs that?

On Pinterest, the lifestyle-sharing site, you can now choose “protein” as one of your interests in life, along with “cute animals” and “inspirational quotes”. In 2017, there were 64m Google searches for “protein”. Anxiety about protein is one of the things that drives a person to drink a flask of vitamin-padded beige slurry and call it lunch.

You merely need to visit a western supermarket today to see that many people regard protein as some kind of universal elixir – one food companies are profitably adding to anything they can. “When the Box Says ‘Protein’, Shoppers Say ‘I’ll take it’” was the headline of a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal. In addition to the ubiquitous protein balls, protein bars and protein shakes, you can now buy protein noodles, protein bagels, protein cookies and – wait for it – protein coffee. Even foods that are naturally high in protein such as cheese and yoghurt are sold in protein-boosted versions. Strangest of all might be “protein water” – clear, fruit-flavoured drinks laced with whey protein, as if ordinary water was insufficiently healthy.

Around half of all UK consumers are apparently seeking to add “extra protein” to their diets, according to market research from the cereal brand Weetabix – which has also cashed in on our hunger for protein. The protein version of Weetabix – a 24-pack of which costs 50p more than the same-sized pack of original Weetabix – is worth £7m in sales per year.

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