Protein products are increasingly being marketed in supermarkets to ordinary people. Do they serve any real purpose for non-athletes?
The “sport-related” protein product sector is booming. It’s estimated that the world will be chewing and gulping down £8bn a year of bars, drinks, and other supplements by 2017.
But there’s now a wave of products where the branding marks a departure from the traditional world of the protein supplement.
The classic protein drinks have usually been characterised by displays of over-sized bottles and tubs, often with labels depicting rippling torsos. The powders and bars targeted hardcore gym-goers and amateur athletes.
The typical customer was someone who wanted to build muscle and aid recovery after a serious workout.
But the latest generation is positioned more around healthy lifestyle.
In the UK, a “high protein dairy drink” called Upbeat is the latest product to get a big marketing push. It follows the path blazed by For Goodness Shakes, a drink primarily aimed at gym-goers and athletes that was picked up by a wider pool of buyers.
Similar lifestyle protein products can be seen in the US on the shelves of the likes of Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Walgreens, and CVS.
But there’s an elephant in the room. People in the West usually already get more than enough protein.
Healthy protein intake depends on weight, with a recommended intake figure of 0.8g per kg of weight per day often cited. Age is also a factor. Over the course of a day, the average man should be eating around 55g of protein, while a woman needs 45g, says the British Dietetic Association. In the US, the national public health body, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends 56g for an average man and 45g for a woman.
In the UK the mean intake for men is 86.5g per day, with women consuming 65g, says nutritionist Dr Helen Crawley. The CDC says “most adults in the United States get more than enough protein to meet their needs”.
In the US, UK and most of the rest of the West people have diets that easily supply enough protein. A chicken breast might contain around 40g of protein, a cod fillet 30g, a helping of tofu 15g and an egg 6g.
Topping up with supplements can see substantial amounts of extra protein enter the diet, with some shakes offering up to 35g per serving.
Everybody needs protein in their diet on a daily basis as it is essential to body tissues, is necessary for growth and contributes to muscle mass and bone health.
But processing excess intake can put pressure on the kidneys, says Crawley. Excess animal protein is linked with kidney stones. In people with a pre-existing condition, excess protein can accelerate kidney disease.
Only vulnerable groups, such as those recovering from surgery or frail older people, tend to need more protein – something for which medical advice should be sought.
“There’s no reason to have added protein in food, because we already have it,” says Crawley.
There are those who advocate higher protein ratios in diets, arguing that the mainstream nutritional advice is outdated and that active people might need considerably more. Even the CDC allows a range of between 10-35% of daily calories coming from protein.