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Mar 26, 2013 08:18 PM

WSJ: When the Box Says 'Protein,' Shoppers Say 'I'll Take It'

Is protein the new fad ingredient?

From the WSJ:

Protein is the buzzword that is helping sell many kinds of foods. Food companies are placing more prominent protein labels on packaging and adding protein to such products as drinks, bars and cereals.


A label that says protein has what researchers call a "health halo effect" that goes beyond just the promise of protein. When people see the word, they also believe the product will make them feel more full or give them energy.

Read it here:

(And if you don't have a subscription, backdoor it and search the title of the article on Google News.)

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  1. I don't think protein itself is a fad. People have always liked to have proteins. I think of the kind of food my grandma ate on the farm growing up. Lots of eggs, meats, etc. But I do also think that it is a new "buzz word" and manufacturers are trying to capitalize on it. Look at the Special K cereal. They tout that it's a good source of protein but yet... it's not.... it has 6 grams of protein for 1 cup. But many people are ignorant and don't bother to read the actual nutrition label, they just read the colorful labels on the front of the box, or believe what the commercials say. Then they eat the cereal and wonder why they're hungry an hour later.

    But, for me at least, protein (along with fiber) DOES help me to feel more full... but I require at least 25g+ per meal for it to help me, and I'd guess others are the same. Today I had 100g of protein and was satisfied all day.

    1. This is a common and deceptive claim, as often the protein is not in a usable form. The protein is "incomplete" and can only be utilized as a protein if it is combined with another food that "completes" its proteins. If not, the protein goes unused.

      Usually, in claims such as these, the "protein" is actually a carbohydrate and is processed as a carb by the body, with a corresponding spike in insulin.

      14 Replies
      1. re: maria lorraine

        Could you give some examples of this, please? Not sure which foods you are referring to. Thanks.

        1. re: sueatmo

          what i think Maria was referring to is the trend of adding 'hydrolyzed gelatin protein' a.k.a. collagen to food to boost protein content.
          Our bodies cannot break down this type of protein for digestion, and none is absorbed as a result.

          I don't know where the 'protein is a carb' thing is coming from, but it is true that all proteins raise insulin levels to some degree, powders raise it faster, meat does it slowly

          1. re: sueatmo

            Here's the essence of the marketing deception in labeling foods as containing protein:

            Most foods contain protein, but the protein is not in a form that the body can use. To be usable by the body, the protein must contain the nine essential amino acids that the body needs.

            If the protein doesn't have those nine essential acids, it is called incomplete.

            Many of these foods with incomplete proteins are carbohydrate-dominant. They can be the good kind of carbohydrate -- complex carbs like grains, beans, seeds, peas, corns, legumes, etc. -- or simple carbs like flour, sugar or even junk-food carbs.

            When these foods are digested, they cause a rise in insulin -- a lot of insulin for the simple carbs and junk-food carbs.

            To digest these incomplete protein requires a rise in insulin, but even then, the protein may not be in the correct form the body needs.

            So when foods are labeled to say they contain protein but the protein is not in a usable form, that labeling is mostly a deception.

            This "false" labeling plays on the public's perception that a food containing protein is better for you than one that doesn't. Most people don't realize the protein isn't usable.

            Complete proteins, on the other hand, contain the nine essential amino acids that the body uses to construct cells and living tissue (a human body protein).

            In this process, the nine essential amino acids are combined with 11 other amino acids already present in the body to form a chain of 20 amino acids. Then the body can use those 20 amino acid chains to form living tissue.

            Sources of complete proteins are foods like fish, poultry, meat, cheese, eggs, yogurt and milk.

            These foods generate a very small rise in insulin -- far less than a carbohydrate -- and do not need to be combined with any other food for the body to form living tissue from them.

            There is a quite a bit of deception in the labeling of foods with proteins. Soybeans and quinoa are called complete proteins by their marketing agencies but they are not.

            Soybeans and quinoa are pretty close to being a complete protein, though -- but in terms of being able to create living tissue -- close is not good enough. A food must have all nine essential amino acids and have them in the proper proportions for the protein to be in a usable form.

            Foods with incomplete proteins -- that lack certain essential acids -- can be combined with foods that contain the missing amino acids, so that the body can actually use the proteins then. This is called protein-combining or protein complementation and is an important nutritional concept.

            But still there is the issue of eating perhaps too many carbohydrates to get proteins that are actually usable by the body, instead of eating a complete protein that requires almost no insulin for the body to be able to use it.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              As long as you eat foods that add up to complete proteins over the course of a day (e.g., brown rice-based salad for lunch, a legume dish for dinner), you're good to go.

              1. re: pikawicca

                Not really. That your body needs to process a carb to get a complete protein is a core issue. OK for some, sure. But for most of us, that's an inefficient and caloric way to put protein in our diet. The insulin issue is huge, all by itself.

              2. re: maria lorraine

                I thought we had finally moved passed the whole food combining, complete vs incomplete protein debate 20 years ago.

                1. re: rasputina

                  In terms of this thread, incomplete protein is not usable protein -- therein lies the deception in food labeling.

                    1. re: pikawicca

                      There are still essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and acids known as conditional amino acids.

                      Foods that do contain the essential amino acids in the proper proportions are still referred to as "complete," and when they don't, "incomplete."

                      The body still requires 20 specific amino acids in the correct proportions to form living tissue via amino acid biosynthesis. None of that has changed.

                      From the WSJ story, we know there are food manufacturers that would like the consumer to believe that any protein is good protein and usable by the body.

                      That isn't the case -- the liver still cannot create a human body protein from incomplete amino acids. That part of the science has not changed.

                      What is still under discussion, and I recently discussed this with a Harvard Medical School hepatologist, is the window of time during which two different sources of incomplete protein need to be consumed so that together they may be used by the liver to form a human body protein.

                      How many hours does one have before the liver "discards" the incomplete proteins? The Harvard liver expert says there is still no answer to this.

                      Maybe I'm missing something. Educate me on how you think the biochemistry is different. I'm pretty current on this, and just re-read some current biochemistry texts and articles on amino acid biosynthesis, but perhaps you know something I don't.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        I imagine your Google skills are at least equal to mine. I don't think that one Harvard scientist's opinion outweighs the bulk of current research.

                        1. re: pikawicca

                          Why not explain what you mean? Why not be specific rather than merely disagreeing with no scientific discussion?

                          My research isn't from Google, though the internet allows easy access to many medical databases that will have the latest on amino acid biosynthesis.

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            Usually would not comment about such things on a food board. But this is just so far off. The body does indeed require the essential amino acids from food. But all proteins are digested in the stomach into their constituent amino acids which are then sent through various metabolic cycles. And there is no step where amino acids are arranged into chains of all 20 of them. Each protein in the human body (or any other organism) is a chain of dozens to hundreds of amino acids in widely varying orders. Please read about the process of DNA transcription and RNA translation if you want to understand this.

                            In any case it is a myth that people are deficient in protein. People eat plenty of protein. The problem is eating too much of everything.

                            1. re: nfnebwiri

                              Many other amino acids in addition to the basic 20 form the body's protein molecules. Not only the basic 20, not just 20, but the 20 are always there -- and arranged in myriad ways -- as part of the chain. That's the construction. So we're in agreement as far as that.

                              As to protein consumption, there are many errors: eating too much or too little; eating the wrong kind and in the wrong proportion.

                              As you mention, eating too much protein can cause problems in the body.

                              But eating too little protein or the wrong kind of protein is an increasing problem among vegetarians and vegans. I've since it firsthand in a clinical setting. Especially when certain foods are favored over and over and there is little variety in the diet.

            2. "Protein" is the new "high fibre" is the new "antioxidants" is the new "low in fat"!

              The trick is to just eat whole foods that don't come in a wrapper.

              1. yep, the whole low carb and paleo diet fads have contributed to it.