Carbs? Calories? Fat? They are so very last decade. Dieters and would-be healthy eaters know the nutrient of the moment being tallied, sought and bought is protein.
Spurred by trainers, diet gurus and weight-loss plans, Americans are seeking more — and more unique — sources of protein, from almonds ground into milk and soy reshaped as pasta, to peas and whey turned into powders and shakes. And food producers are happy to oblige.
Powders and energy bars packed with 20, 30 or even more grams of protein per serving are selling briskly. Supermarket shelves once crowded with foods boasting of being high in fiber or low in fat now are jammed with claims of protein content. Yet this is happening even as Americans eat less meat, the go-to source of protein for generations.
“People are getting smarter about foods in general,” said Phil Lempert, a food marketing expert known as The Supermarket Guru. He sees higher meat prices driving people to other sources of protein, a movement that has become more pronounced this year.
“Longer term, I think you're going to see people starting to look at more vegetables and different combinations to create proteins like rice and beans.”
Amanda Perry — an on-the-go mom with two jobs and a 1-year-old — is a good example. She counts on lots of protein to keep her feeling full and full of energy. But she needs it to be portable, so she often mixes protein powder with almond milk, maybe a banana and some peanut butter.
“It's easily portable, which I think is awesome for busy people because you're on the run,” said Perry, a 31-year-old personal trainer who owns a gym in Chelmsford, Mass., with her husband. “You can't really take a chicken breast or a piece of steak with you if you're going to be out for several hours.”
Red meat, a rich source of protein, is going through an especially bumpy run. Prices are up, and so are health concerns about beef and its saturated fat content. Americans are expected to consume about 15 percent less beef on a per capita basis this year compared with 2007, according to Steiner & Company, an economic consultant to the food industry. Per capita consumption of all red meat and poultry is expected to be down by 10 percent over the same period.
But if forces are pushing people away from meat, health-conscious Americans are simultaneously being lured to other sources of protein, such as nuts, beans, soy and seafood.
Protein has had popularity peaks before — think of the Atkins diet craze not so many years ago — though this time there are a chorus of voices touting the benefits of a protein-heavy diet.