4 min read

America’s Obsession With Protein Powder

From muscle-builder to mainstream ingredient, protein has come to dominate the American diet.

Beyond powdered shakes and ready-to-drink options, added protein now appears in cereal, cookies, and countless other packaged foods. As a result, protein has become more than a supplement — it’s the main course.

While we’ve generally accepted (and seek out) the presence of protein, it’s worth considering how and why protein became ubiquitous with ‘healthy’ eating in the first place. Plus, as plant-based options replace animal protein and dairy alternatives take over, the future of protein just might reinvent the category altogether.

Bulking season. Once, protein shakes were reserved for athletes and bodybuilders attempting to bulk up. Today, two in five (46%) Americans say they regularly consume protein drinks and shakes. And whether it’s from a powder or whole food, most Americans eat double the amount of protein the average person needs (the recommended amount is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight).

Back to the future: The precursor to modern protein supplements can be traced back to 1950.

  • Irvin Johnson, a gym owner in Chicago, originally created Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food.
  • Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell Company and Strength & Health magazine, followed suit with Hoffman’s Special Hi-Proteen.
  • Initially, soy served as the base but, eventually, Johnson turned to dried milk and eggs.
  • In the ’90s, MET-Rx and EAS put whey protein on the map.

Whey is the undisputed champion of protein supplements. In 2017, the global whey protein market was valued at $9.4B and is expected to reach $14.5B by 2023. That’s pretty impressive when you consider the fact that whey is simply a byproduct of turning milk into cheese. For years, whey went to waste.

Now, thanks to the popularity of protein powder, cheese-making operations are essentially whey factories. This helps explain why Glanbia, an Irish cheesemaker, acquired some of the top-selling powdered protein brands, including Optimum Nutrition, BSN, and Isopure.

Of course, protein didn’t become a billion-dollar business simply because there was excess whey sitting around. As one of the three basic macronutrients—in addition to carbohydrates and fat—we need protein to survive. Over the years, while carbs and fats have been demonized for contributing to poor health or the obesity epidemic, protein emerged as the best option for a healthy active lifestyle.

Too much of a good thing. Yes, protein is healthy, but obsessing over it isn’t. In reality, we’re more likely to consume too much protein than not enough. But that’s not what packaged food companies, supplement manufacturers, and marketers want us to believe. By employing many of the tactics associated with the new wellness lexicon, we’ve been force-fed a high-protein diet that promise results for obtaining an idealistic and aspirational fitness lifestyle.

As Yvette Quiazon, a global ethnographer and brand strategist at Why-Q, told Eater: “What we consume has become much more than just fulfilling nutrition. It’s also a reflection of who we are.” Somehow, protein supplements have become a projection of our healthy active identity.

Still, despite its appeal, questions related to how much protein is too much remain. High-protein diets have been shown to affect kidney health. And like any food, overdoing it on the protein can lead to the associated excess calories being stored as fat.

The more troubling issue with protein supplements is the lack of regulation and FDA oversight. As recently as 2018, studies have found many of the top-selling powders to contain concerning levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and toxins like bisphenol A (BPA).

While nutritionists and dietitians like Maxine Siegel, RD, who heads Consumer Report’s food testing lab, emphasize that whole food protein sources are best, that won’t stop the wholesale protein ingredient market from ballooning to an estimated $40M by 2024.

Beyond whey: As food engineering technology continues to improve, whey could be the next protein source ripe for disruption.

  • The alt-protein craze fueled by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has propped up pea protein, turning it into a $1.6B industry by 2029.
  • Like peas, the demand for soy protein will increase, propelling the market to $12B by 2027.
  • With Tilray’s $317M acquisition of Manitoba Harvest, hemp-based protein will move further into the mainstream.
  • Edible insects are a viable source of protein and could become an $8B business by 2030, according to Barclays.
  • Because algae are 50-70% protein, the global market for algae products is projected to reach $15B by 2024.
  • Finnish startup Solar Foods produces nutrient-rich protein, dubbed Solein, using only air and electricity.

Zooming out: Beyond the impact that alternative protein sources will inevitably have on the existing market, they also have a place within a broader conversation about global sustainability. Increasingly critical environmental conditions have highlighted an urgent need to develop sustainable food sources, and mounting global populations have further begged skepticism surrounding the current trajectory of food production, and protein in particular.

Plant-based meat alternatives have already begun to move this conversation towards a sustainable solution. As protein production dips into new areas that promise sustainability, the brands at the forefront of innovation will undoubtedly see their projected growth backed by necessity.

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