My Response to the Guardian’s “Protein Hype”
There was article in the The Guardian the other day claiming that protein powders and protein-enriched foods are a hype sold through ‘clever’ marketing. The article concludes that today’s ‘protein trend’ is basically a sham pushed through “nutri-babble” and that, at the end of the day, people are “effectively flushing their money down the toilet” by consuming too much protein.
Ah!!!!!!!! 🔥 This article really burns me up because it fails at highlight a very REAL problem that few people really talk about: the fact that the way in which the vast majority of protein powders and protein-enriched products ARE MARKETED is a sham (see this article by Lewis for a great example of this – this one too, which highlights the absurdity of ‘diet’ protein). In other words, the sham isn’t the protein or the products, the sham is how many of these are marketed and, by failing to see that, this article is a dud.
See, what we need isn’t an article telling us that we “may be consuming too much protein” or that protein, as a whole, is a ‘hype.’
You know what we REALLY need? We need an article that teaches us how to see a sham for what it IS.
We need an article that highlights the importance of ALWAYS reading labels in order to not be swayed by marketing and marketing alone.
Let me try to write the kind of article I was hoping to read:
Protein Hype: Shoppers Swayed by ‘Clever Marketing’ Flushing Money Down the Toilet
There is an increasing demand for high-protein products. You can witness this by walking into any supermarket, health food shop, or supplement store: protein is a trend that’s very quickly going mainstream.
There are, however, various issues that consumers ought to be aware of to avoid falling pray to ‘clever marketing.’
To discuss these, allow me to divide the world of protein into two: 1) protein powders sold as supplements (i.e. the niche world of protein powders) and b) mainstream brands releasing ‘protein versions’ of their products.
1. PROTEIN POWDERS AS SUPPLEMENTS
Historically, most protein powders have been sold through a) deceptive marketing, b) destructive marketing or c) both.
a) Deceptive marketing in that they say: “hey! Look at THIS toned/strong/ripped/lean body, do you want it? BUY OUR PRODUCT – it WORKS! (Never mind the fact that those bodies were made by people consistently adhering to a very rigorous exercise regime and diet for a prolonged amount of time.)
b) Destructive marketing in that they mean : “hey! Look down at YOUR body. It’s not good enough, it’s not fit enough, it’s not healthy enough – it’s not ‘beach-body ready‘. Want to change it, want to love it? You need to BUY OUR PRODUCT. (Never mind the fact that those kind of messages can have a profound impact on sensitive populations already facing a barrage of unrealistic and highly glamorised representations of what a fit and healthy body looks like).
c) Both deceptive AND destructive marketing in that they say, “hey! Look at this model (never mind the fact that he/she has been dieting for months and is airbrushed sometimes beyond recognition – shhh, you’re not supposed to ‘see’ that!) YOU too can look like this, if you… BUY OUR PRODUCT! Once you do, you’ll finally change your body. You’ll finally be fit and healthy, you’ll finally love yourself!
You can see the above at play if you open any ‘health and fitness’ magazine and look at the ads accompanying protein powders sold as supplements: young shiny bodies, rippling biceps, not a wrinkle, not a single inch of fat – pure quote unquote perfection.
In my humble opinion, none of that should push someone to buy a product. It does, I know, but I don’t think it should because it leads to people buying stuff full of cheap randomness and nutritionally-void junk.
That’s where I think consumers are being deceived: they’re being deceived into paying attention to marketing and marketing alone where the ONLY thing that should make someone buy a product is the back of a tub/box/sachet: the only voice that should be heard is a product’s list of ingredients.
2. PROTEIN VERSIONS OF MAINSTREAM FOODS
Alongside protein powders, mainstream brands are jumping into the ‘protein bandwagon’ and tweaking their recipes to include a tiiiiiny bit more protein. Things like cereal, breads, yogurts, etc. They then launch these products with the word PROTEIN written in massive letters across the front and a whole bunch of tag lines designed to make consumers feel like what they’re eating is really healthy and oh-so-good for them. THAT, in my opinion, is where the wool is being pulled over consumers’ eyes.
Unlike protein supplements, protein versions of mainstream foods don’t often fall pray to ‘fitspiration’ style marketing. They don’t feature ripped models or delve into ‘body beautiful’ type aesthetics. They don’t go out of their way to make you feel less in order to sell you more. What they DO do though, is fail to educate consumers about nutrition in general and protein in particular.
Take for example a well-known cereal brand that recently launched a protein version of their popular cereal. It looks fresh, bright, vibrant – it is claimed to make consumers fuller for longer and to be a healthy breakfast choice. Great! Right? But why don’t we turn the box over and look at the ingredients. Oh, wait! The protein version has 19g of protein (protein from one of the cheapest sources imaginable: wheat) and the regular has… 12g. The protein version has more sugar too and everything else looks pretty much the same. What!?
Today’s consumers are more aware of educated about nutrition than they have probably ever been. However, we STILL see brands tapping into lies, insecurities, and using misinformation to sell products (cf. ‘toning’ protein powders for women). What we witness more and more is the public being completely misinformed about protein.
We don’t need the simplification of protein and its simultaneous vilification (much like we don’t need it protein powder in general, or protein in particular, to be heralded as some kind of magic potion).
That just calls to mind sensationalist articles like those published earlier in the year saying “eating red meat” is comparable to “smoking cigarettes” (remember those?!) Please disregard that kind of baloney.
We don’t need protein to be simplified OR vilified, or any other macronutrient for that matter. Think about it in the context of carbs. Think about all the diets out there telling you that carbs will make you fat, never mind that both white sugar and broccoli has be classified as ‘carbs.’ Never mind nuance or detail, simplification and sensationalism is blind to that.
That’s why we STILL see ‘clever marketing‘ trampling over integrity and actual value when it comes to the world of protein. As a result of that, consumers continue to choose products because of what they says on the front (muscle gain! lean! healthy! natural! organic!) instead of what they read on the back (the ingredients label).
To tackle this, labelling it all as ‘nutri-babble’ isn’t helpful. We NEED more nutrition information out in the world and whenever we see ‘babble’ we need to challenge it instead of just dismiss it. We need to stand up and call out deceptive and destructive marketing when we see it.
Instead of saying all protein is a hype, that we are all eating enough protein, we should be asking: WHERE is protein being sold deceptively? WHAT can we do about it? HOW do we educate consumers to allow them to make well-informed decisions? HOW do we educate them to know not only HOW much to eat but WHAT to eat? How do we educate people to distinguish between protein sources?
We can’t bunch all protein, protein powders, protein-enriched foods, and related products into one while ignoring these questions. That would mean that the products and brands with integrity that are out there actually striving to make a difference by promoting nutrition-rich foods (brands like us!) get bunched up with all the pseudo-healthy foods and supplements sold through let’s call them questionable means. Treating all ‘protein’ as one and dismissing it entirely is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So instead of calling it a ‘protein hype’ and saying we all get enough protein anyways, we should tear down the smokes and mirrors that have for years characterised the world of protein. We should call protein what it is: a macronutrient we all need (in different amounts depending on our occupation, activity level, medical history, age, etc.) in the context of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.
Let a product’s marketing material speak, sure! But only listen to one thing when you’re considering buying: the product’s ingredients’ label.