Iván Mata
'Protein-enriched' foods. Do we really need them?

'Protein-enriched' foods. Do we really need them?

There's a trend at the moment for products to which extra protein has been added

Isaac Asenjo


Friday, 10 November 2023, 16:25


We care about what we eat. Increasingly so. When it comes to food, which is so susceptible to all the latest fads, we have now turned our attention to protein. The food industry has been increasing its range of products with added protein for some time: yoghurts, pizzas, milk puddings, biscuits, cereals, ice cream... But do we really need this boost? Aren't we getting enough protein in our daily diet?

Let's take this step by step. Firstly, we should make it clear that proteins are one of the three macronutrients providing energy for the human body, along with carbohydrates and fats. They can be found throughout most of the body and are necessary to strengthen and maintain bones, muscles and skin. Does this mean that they are healthier than carbs and fats?

"The concept of 'protein' is being used as a synonym for being the healthiest element and that is untrue. We could classify it as more physiologically necessary than the rest, but in developed countries the minimum daily requirement is more than covered by a varied, omnivorous diet," stated dietitian and researcher Ismael Galancho via social media.

Is there an optimal level for protein?

That said, how much protein do we really need? Experts recommend between 1.4 and 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Paloma Quintana, dietary nutritionist and graduate in food science and technology, warns that more does not necessarily mean better, although it all depends on the person and their personal goals.

"For example, to prevent protein deficiency in a sedentary adult, the average intake is 1 gram per kilo of weight (that is, if I weigh 70kg, I should consume 70g of protein per day). But if we talk about athletes who want to maintain muscle mass, they can easily exceed 1.8 (an 80kg adult in this situation should eat 144g of protein daily). As for weight loss diets, intake usually goes up to 2.2g," explained the CEO of diet and nutrition company, Nutrición con Q.

So what's with the trend for extra protein? Are these products healthy? Well, some are, but the rest less so.

"Amid all these foodstuffs many are still ultra-processed and, even if they add more protein, it does not turn them into something healthy," stated Quintana.

Aimed at athletes

Quintana recommends dairy products most of all as a good source of protein (the more natural, the better), but advises against those products containing refined white flour, sugars and poor quality oils that some try to sell as healthy options as these also make the shopping basket more expensive.

Saúl Sánchez, an expert in sports nutrition, agrees with this opinion. He advocates analysing a person's diet and lifestyle before increasing the protein dose: "Products with protein and sugar, such as ice cream or cereals, are more appropriate for those very active in sports, but they should not be consumed by those leading a more sedentary lifestyle.

"The key point is that, if we follow a good diet, then we do not need to add supplements and so we could do without these types of products, more so because they typically cost more than others of similar nutritional value. "If you are going to eat a low-quality, ultra-processed product, it is better to eat the normal one – just now and then, and in moderation of course – instead of the same product enriched with proteins. After all, when you eat these, you're not really thinking about the nutritional part, but rather the pleasurable aspects of the food," said Sánchez.

He goes on to warn us about the popular, protein-enriched, dairy products that proliferate in supermarkets: pay close attention and check that they do not exceed 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams of product.

That full feeling

Protein makes us feel full, which helps us reduce calorie intake by eating less. Experts agree on the need to include this macronutrient in every meal to avoid any highs and lows in glucose and energy levels, thus easily reaching recommended daily allowance. Are there any alternatives to eating protein-enriched foods? Well yes, according to the experts. Foods more capable of filling our stomachs include vegetables and oats for their high-fibre content as well as lentils and chickpeas, which contain all the essential amino acids.

Powdered protein supplements

The ideal diet is one that primarily features foods in their natural form: eggs, meats, fish, pulses and greens. Still, if more protein is required, you can opt for whey or vegetable protein powder supplements to add to yoghurt, soft cheese, milk and even your morning coffee.

"Their quality is excellent and they are a useful quick-fix that, for medium and long term use, are better value for money and contain more proteins than those provided by the products we've been talking about," said Sánchez.

Protein for the elderly

Although these higher protein products are not generally recommended by professionals, there are some exceptions.

Quintana provides an example: a protein shake is recommended for older people since nutritional deficiencies in the elderly are very common and many have difficulty eating correctly. She goes on to tell us about vegetable protein powders from foods such as pumpkin, chickpeas, peas or brown rice that can be added to creams or soups. "Taking care of your diet is the foundation for staying in the best of physical and mental health,". The emphasis is on complementary, not replacement, food supplements - so a shake should not replace, but be added to the appropriate meal as a key ingredient.

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