Food labels these days are laden with misleading labels strategically designed to coax the consumer into the purchase. And they work! Even though, more often than not, these labels are pure trickery!
For instance, I recently saw a vegetable pack with a “gluten free” label on it. Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat and related grains. Last time I checked, broccoli wasn’t a wheat or grain! Even so, the unjustly gluten-sensitive world that we live in tactically cajoles consumers into grabbing the “gluten free” broccoli over the “regular” broccoli. Not to mention, typically for a higher price!
And the same goes for protein! But, unlike gluten, that unrightfully got a bad reputation in the past couple of years (most people that take out gluten aren’t even sensitive to it), protein is ubiquitously known to benefit a whole slew of things! To name a few:
Increases resting energy expenditure
Decreases hunger, increases satiety
Helps maintain muscle mass
Helps in muscle recovery
Doesn’t negatively affect fat metabolism
So, marketing strategies SHOULD point out quality sources of protein because consumers will see these impressive results, right? YES! The thing is, the food industry knows that we are a protein-hungry society, and they take that and run with it. They start labeling foods improperly.
Before we go further, let’s define a couple of concepts dealing with protein that often appear on packages first.
Foods with a “quality source of protein”:
Protein quality is determined by the presence or lack thereof the small building blocks of proteins, called amino acids. These little amino acids are like pearls that are strung together to form a protein. There are many different types of these amino acids – you may have heard of some of them – leucine, glutamine, tryptophan. Some of these amino acids are synthesized naturally in your body, and are therefore terms nonessential – indicating that we don’t necessarily need them in our diets. Other amino acids (there are nine of them) cannot be made by our body, and therefore we must get them from our diet. Therefore, these ones are known as essential amino acids.
In order to optimize metabolism, it is imperative to have all nine of the ESSENTIAL amino acids – so we must supplement our diet correctly to achieve this! Some foods contain all nine of the essential amino acids, and therefore you can get what you need in a one-stop fashion – these proteins are call complete proteins. Complete protein sources include animal sources (meats, dairy, eggs) and soy. However, the problem is, though, that some foods do not have the complete profile of essential amino acids, and they may be missing one or a few – these guys are known as incomplete proteins. Incomplete protein sources include nuts, seeds, vegetables, grains and legumes.
However, just because they don’t have all of their amino acids doesn’t mean that we should avoid them. You can circumvent this potential issue by doing one of two things: 1) pair up some of the incomplete proteins to make a complete source. Good examples of pairings include rice and beans, or pita chips and hummus; and/or 2) consume a sufficient amount of each one of the amino acids per day. So you can have an incomplete source in the morning, and as long as you are able to supplement with the amino acids that you missed later on, you should be okay!
Ultimately, though, you can see how a consumer may be misled if they didn’t understand the concept of protein quality. “Quality protein” labels are strewn all over nut, seed, grain and legume products. However, in technical terms, they are not quality unless they are paired with something else!
Foods “high in protein”:
This one is a biggie. But we have to understand a few things first. Macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – are the things providing us with Calories (energy). A gram of each of the respective macronutrients provides a specific amount of calories. Per gram, carbohydrates provide 4 Calories, proteins provide 4 Calories, and fats provide 9 Calories. So, within a food item, you can easily determine the percent of each of the macronutrients with respect to the total Calories that the food supplies.
For instance, let’s say that you just ate a 165 Calorie protein bar with the following:
Carbohydrates: 10 grams
Protein: 20 grams
Fat: 5 grams
You can easily figure out what percentage of the total Calories each of these macronutrients provide, and therefore establish what macronutrient is richest in this food by figuring out the macronutrient’s percent of the total Calorie content of the food item. Because we know the Calories in a gram of each of these macronutrients, we can easily calculate it:
Carbohydrates: 10 grams x 4 Calories = 40 Calories
Protein: 20 grams x 4 Calories = 80 Calories
Fat: 5 grams x 9 Calories = 45 Calories
Then divide each of these values by the total Calorie content of the protein bar (165 Calories) and turn it into a percent (by multiplying by 100) to get:
Carbohydrates: (40 Calories / 165 Calories) x 100 = 24%
Protein: (80 Calories / 165 Calories) x 100 = 48%
Fat: (45 Calories / 165 Calories) x 100 = 27%
I would say that if the protein content of any food item is ~50% or greater, it provides a high amount of protein. So, you could say with confidence that the protein bar above provides a high source of protein (48%)!
However, we should consider this for all foods. Two classic examples of falsely “high protein” foods are yogurt and peanut butter. Let’s break them down. Below is a Chobani Greek Yogurt label:
If we extrapolate the values the same way that we did above:
Carbohydrates, 20 grams: (80 Calories / 140 Calories) x 100 = 57%
Protein, 14 grams: (56 Calories / 140 Calories) x 100 = 40%
Fat, 0 grams: (0 Calories / 140 Calories) x 100 = 0%
In this case, this specific yogurt is certainly not “high in protein” relative to the Calorie content (only 40% protein) and the percentage of carbohydrates in the food. I know there are different versions of yogurt that are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, but this is a good model and a standard example of a commonly consumed yogurt.
Now to peanut butter. I hear nuts being associated with high protein all the time. Like nails on a chalk board! Here’s why. Let’s do the same thing as above:
Carbohydrates, 9 grams: (45 Calories / 250 Calories) x 100 = 18%
Protein, 9 grams: (45 Calories / 250 Calories) x 100 = 18%
Fat, 22 grams: (198 Calories / 250 Calories) x 100 = 79%
If you look at those numbers, there’s no WAY that anyone could say that peanut butter is a “high source” of protein (only 18% protein). HOWEVER, it is INDEED a great source of fat (79%), and typically the healthy fats – to all my peanut butter lovers, including myself.
I am by no means telling you not to eat foods like yogurt or peanut butter. I do! Sometimes a couple of times per day! However, perhaps we need to be a little more choosey about how we define and talk about these foods.
Also, if you are looking to lose weight (or fat) or gain muscle, you should really be meticulous about what foods you are calling high protein foods. We may be deceiving ourselves and causing more injustice than good by calling peanut butter a high source of protein. That’s because when this happens, we tend to inadvertently convince ourselves that we have had enough protein – when we certainly haven’t! So, to nullify this situation, you may consider doing something like adding a protein shake to these snacks to up the protein content! For optimal weight loss and metabolism, you want to shoot for at least 20 grams of protein per meal and per snack, and make sure at least throughout the day you can consuming all of your essential amino acids.
Analyze your food label to see which macronutrients are indeed rich in carbohydrates, proteins and fats. If you’re consuming a snack, try to pick one with about 50% of the total Calorie content coming from protein, or one with at least 20 grams of protein. If this is seemingly difficult, combine items. Eat that protein!