The appetite for protein bars gives much to chew on

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By Katherine Latham Business reporter

From snack bars to shakes, bagels, coffee and even bottled water, food manufacturers are adding protein to an ever-growing list of products.

This protein-supplements industry is now worth billions, but does it live up to the hype? And what are the health implications of all this extra protein in our diets?

Nicola Graham, a self-proclaimed fitness fanatic, is committed to a high-protein diet. The 38-year-old from London says she notices quicker recovery from exercise when she consumes protein supplements plus diminished appetite.

“This year I’m running the London Marathon, and cycling the coast of Ireland. Achieving 120g of protein a day – necessary for the excessive exercise I do – can only be realistically achieved through protein supplements.”

Ms Graham uses the word “realistically” there, but she might actually be suggesting palatable or convenient for her, as in order to get 120g of protein you would need to consume 17 large hen’s eggs, or 500g of lean beef mince.

And she adds that changing her diet has not been without difficulty, experiencing some “serious stomach upsets” along the way.

“Now, I look for good quality ingredients,” she says. “There is so much rubbish on the market, with added sugars and fillers, they give good supplements a bad name.”

Ms Graham is far from alone in increasing protein in her diet. The global market for protein bars alone is due to rise to $7bn (£5.2bn) by 2027, up from $4.7bn in 2019, according to one report.

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Yet, do most of us, the ones not putting our muscles through endless exercise, actually require more protein than we already consume from our regular meals from foods like chicken, fish or eggs?

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) doesn’t think so. It says that average daily protein intakes in the UK are above the recommended levels for all age groups.

Meanwhile, in the US, average protein consumption is reported to be twice the recommended amount.

Bridget Benelam, a nutritionist at the BNF, says that while protein is essential, it needs to be part of a balanced diet. And she warns that, for some people, there can be health risks if they eat too much of it.

“Proteins are vitally important – for organs like our brain and heart, the antibodies in our immune system, the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood, and to keep our muscles and bones healthy,” she says.

“The issue is, when high protein intake disrupts the balance of the diet overall. It is important to consume a variety of foods from each of the main food groups to provide all the nutrients we need for good health.

“And there have been concerns about the potential health effects of very high protein diets. Although risks to health from high protein intakes appear to be unlikely for most people, it can be a concern with some underlying conditions, for example, kidney disease.”

The official guidance from the NHS also warns against excessive protein consumption, saying that in addition to worsening existing kidney problems it can increase the risk of osteoporosis – a health condition that weakens bones.

Yet, other studies show that protein-rich diets, and particularly those based on plant-based protein, may lower the rate of mortality.

Erin Moroney says that sales of her vegan and protein biscuit brand, Nibble, increased fourfold in 2020, as the pandemic made more people focus on eating and living more healthily.

She says she came up with the product back in 2017 after discovering she wasn’t eating enough protein.

“I was on a mission to qualify for the Boston Marathon,” says the 48-year-old. “I found that I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough protein for my level of activity.

“In fact, I wasn’t getting the minimum required if I hadn’t been training at all.”

After increasing her protein intake she says that she felt like a new person. “My energy came back.”

Several studies show that protein may be helpful for weight loss, as it can make you feel fuller for long than carbohydrates.

Cheshire-based, Liz Boote, is one person who used protein-supplement products to try to lose weight. In her case, she tried shakes make from cow’s milk whey.

“We have three children, and I was finding it hard to lose my post-pregnancy weight, so I tried whey-based shakes,” she says. “But they were full of added sugar, artificial sweeteners, gums and fillers.

“I worried that they may help me lose weight – but at what cost to my health?”

The issue helped Ms Boote to notice a gap in the market for a different kind of protein shake. So in 2020 she launched Protein Rebel, which is made from plant and insect (crickets) protein.

“There is increasing awareness of the importance of plant-based foods and ‘cleaner’ ingredients,” says Ms Boote. “Crickets need considerably less land, water and feed than the cows used to produce whey – and produce less CO2.”

Lee Chambers, 36, of Lancashire, also took protein supplements to help him lose weight. He says that they helped him to lose almost five stones in 18 months.

Yet, he cautions that for some people protein supplements become the main thing that they eat. “I’ve seen in others how it’s become a staple of their diet, rather than the supplement it was intended to be,” he adds.

One study in the US has even warned that protein supplements can become part of an eating disorder pattern in men.

Ms Benelam says that if a person wishes to up their protein intake then naturally sourced proteins are best, as they offer additional nutritional benefits.

“Foods that provide protein are often sources of other nutrients – like omega 3s and iodine from fish, calcium and riboflavin from dairy products, iron and zinc from meat, and thiamine, folate and fibre from pulses,” she says. “And most of us are getting enough from our diets already and don’t need protein supplements.”

Yet millions of people are now taking protein supplements, as the market continues to grow strongly. As Ms Graham prepares for her next run, she says: “Personally, I think a good quality protein shake is a must for all fitness bunnies.”

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