Yes, protein has some major body benefits, but that does that mean you should reach for added-protein cereals, brownies, and granola bars? Here's the deal on the "let's put protein in everything" trend.
Who doesn't want to be leaner and stronger and stay full for longer after eating? Protein can help with all of that and more. These naturally occurring diet benefits are also likely why the market for added-protein foods has really taken off—I mean, who wouldn't want to drink protein water or cold brew and reap those quality protein benefits?
So what exactly are protein-added foods?
They're items that wouldn't usually be a good source of protein but are "enhanced" by having one or several protein-rich ingredients added to them. For example, pretzels are a food that's mostly carbs and low in protein. But by adding some whey, soy, or pea protein powder to the wheat flour, food manufacturers can boost the protein content of those pretzels.
Next thing you know, your typical high-carb, low-protein snack can be labeled as "high protein" and marketed as being better for you. And that's the issue with adding protein to every food and beverage under the sun: It fools people into thinking it makes these foods automatically healthier. But a cookie with protein added is still a cookie. In fact, this pumped-up version could actually have more calories, sugar, and sodium to mask the protein's flavor and texture.
Plus, this encourages consumers to get their protein from nontraditional sources like carb-rich foods. Eating real, whole food such as chicken breasts, eggs, beans, and nuts will beat out protein bars, shakes, or chips every time. So while protein-enhanced foods can have their occasional place in your diet, they shouldn't be your only source of this performance-driven macronutrient.
Here are my tips on the healthier protein-added foods to consider adding to your diet and the ones you'll want to skip.
When is adding protein to foods a good thing?
Like I said, a protein chip is still a chip. But including protein in healthier staples such as whole-grain bread and pasta can help make balancing a meal easier. (Learn more about how to balance your meals with the right amount of healthy fats, carbs, and protein—plus some meal prep tips to make that happen.)
As with choosing any food or recipe, look at the bigger picture—ingredients, macros, vitamins, fiber, etc. Is your dish heavy on the carbs without much protein? Is it missing a healthy fat to help you absorb all the other good stuff? Expanding this further, does your diet need a boost of protein in general? In that case, adding some healthier protein-added items into your eating routine could be helpful. If you're already loading up on peanut butter before the gym and chugging protein shakes after, then probably not.
Bottom line: There are two things to consider when deciding whether to eat added-protein foods.
- Adding protein to an unhealthy food doesn't magically make it healthy.
- Look at your diet and eating habits as a bigger picture to make sure you're balancing your macros and not inadvertently going overboard on protein and calories. (More on counting macros here.)
If you've done that homework and want to give these foods a go, here's what to look for when you're choosing protein-added foods. You'll always find some products that are adding protein in a way that makes nutritional sense—and others that are basically just junk food.
How to Choose Healthier Protein-Added Foods
- Compare it to the "regular" version. Does the protein-enhanced variety have more calories (or sugar and sodium—more on those below) than the regular item you'd normally pick? If so, just go for the classic.
- Avoid heavily processed foods. If you're on the hunt for a high-protein snack, protein-enhanced packaged pudding powder is never going to be as healthy for you as a bowl of cottage cheese with berries. Don't let good nutrition judgment fly out the window because of this trend.
- Limit sugar. Adding protein sometimes means the sugar content needs to increase to make the food taste better. Not a great trade-off, is it? (I mean, just look at what sugar can do to your body.) As a general rule, make sure the sugar content in your protein-added bar or cereal is less than 5g per serving.
- Limit sodium. With savory snack options or even protein-enhanced bread, sodium can be off the charts. Look for products that have less than 200mg of sodium per serving. If the food is saltier than that, perhaps limit it to a post-workout treat when your body will need those recovery electrolytes.
- Look for fiber. Choose foods that have 5g or more of fiber from whole grains.