You may have noticed the rapidly growing number of high-protein foods flooding your local supermarket aisles - including cheese, cereals, sliced bread, confectionery, and water - which are typically more expensive than their original counterparts. But do we need to splash out on these products?
Why do we need protein?
Protein is a key macronutrient for the human body, known as the building block of life. Meeting recommended guidelines is important not just for bodybuilders gaining muscle, but also for those of us looking to lose weight, as protein is involved in making us feel full after eating.
The adult Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g per kilogram of bodyweight*. Last year, the average UK man weighed 84 kilograms, and the average woman 70kg, translating to recommended daily protein intakes of 63g and 52.5g respectively. A typical chicken breast portion from Tesco weighs 150g, provides 159 calories, and contains 36g of protein - meaning over half an average adults’ daily protein can come from less than 9% of their recommended calorie intake**.
Calculate your own typical daily protein requirement:
your weight (kilograms) x 0.75 = protein required (grams)
Protein comes from all the foods we eat, not just meats. Other foods such as chickpeas, lentils, broccoli, beans, and grains all contribute protein towards our diet. This means the vast majority of us exceed our protein RNI without the need for fortified products and supplements, with adults in the UK consuming 45-55% more protein than needed. So why are we buying added protein foods and drinks?
The Health Halo
If you find yourself in a supermarket aisle trying to choose breakfast cereal and decide to go for the one calling itself a protein cereal because it seems healthier, don’t worry you’re not alone. Research1 published in the journal Health Communication found that front of packaging labels and titles referring to protein increase how much we think is in the product … but when the word protein is incorporated into the title, we think the product is a whole lot healthier. Worryingly, the addition of traffic light labels warning us of high sugar content doesn’t affect how healthy we think the product is!
This is called the health halo effect, and it can inhibit the success of those of us trying to make healthier choices. We may be thinking that we are eating healthily and ditching junk foods - but unfortunately a Mars Protein bar is ultimately still a Mars bar. Eating it isn’t going to help you reach your weight loss goals, in fact the only pounds you’ll be losing are the extra 2 that you’ll pay for this product***. Whilst it does provide almost an extra 17g of protein than the original bar, it is likely that you are already exceeding your required protein intake. If you typically avoid the likes of chocolate bars anyway, you definitely do not need to be sucked into a world of protein fortified confectionery!
So, next time you are food shopping, remember that high in protein does not inherently equal high in health. It can help to ask yourself whether you would be buying the lower protein version - if you wouldn’t buy a tub of ice cream because you try to make healthy choices, you don’t need to buy some because of high protein labelling! Try to consider all of the nutrition information to assess the healthfulness of the product, and don’t be misled by titles and labels masking dangers like high sugar.
* Extra requirements for growth in infants and children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those with very active lifestyles.
** PHE guidelines recommend adults consume 1800 calories from food per day.
*** Mars Protein Bar £2.50 in Sports Direct vs. Mars Bar £0.60 in Waitrose
Full text research articles:
< >1Fernan, Schulde & Niederdeppe (2017). Health Halo Effects from Product Titles and Nutrient Content Claims in the Context of “Protein” Bars. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10410236.2017.1358240