Food companies, restaurants add protein to beef up profits

Fri Sep 19, 2014 1:21am EDT
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By Yasmeen Abutaleb

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Though diet studies disagree about what's worse for you, carbohydrates or fat, most say nice things about eating protein, including its potential for better weight control.

U.S. consumers have taken note, and so have food manufacturers and restaurant chains. More than a dozen companies have introduced new products or meals that are "enriched" or "fortified" with protein in the last few years, and the protein push is accelerating.

In July, Taco Bell (YUM.N: Quote) started selling high-protein meals, which contain Greek yogurt options and twice the meat as in its traditional burritos and bowls. In May, General Mills Inc (GIS.N: Quote) introduced protein-enriched Cheerios, which provided a bright spot at its Wednesday earnings call. In February, Kraft KRFT.O started selling a "protein pack" with meat, cheese and nuts.

Protein has so far scored a big win for the companies, which are looking for new ways to beef up their profits as sales of traditional prepared foods slip and consumers seek healthier and fresher food options. The trend also has been a boon for the mostly Canadian "pulse" industry, which provides the dried seeds of peas, chickpeas, beans and lentils used to fortify many of these products.

Whether these protein-enhanced products are actually healthier is another question. Soy, lentil and pea powder - extracted from those legumes and used in everything from pasta to milk - are, in fact, good sources of protein similar to steak or eggs, nutritionists said. But many of the products they are delivered in, such as granola, cereal and breakfast bars, are often high in fat, salt or sugar.

Besides, most Americans already get almost twice the daily protein they need. The average American consumes 79 grams a day of protein, but men only need 56 grams and women 46, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

"Protein is not deficient in U.S. diets," said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University. "This is about marketing."

Some studies have said that because eating foods high in protein makes people feel fuller sooner, they tend to eat less and may be able to control their weight better. On the other hand, eating too much protein can lead to kidney disease, cancer and osteoporosis, while adults who eat diets high in animal protein are four times more likely to die of cancer and diabetes than those with low-protein diets, according to a March 2014 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.   Continued...

A box of Cheerios cereal containing protein is seen in this photo illustration in Wilmette, Illinois, September 12, 2014.   REUTERS/Jim Young