2007- The Year of Protein Awareness

While Americans are not protein-deficient, the nutrient’s roles in food and health are becoming more appreciated, and its connection to satiety is skyrocketing.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

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Awareness of dietary protein has shaped our notion of healthy eating for over a century. Stemming from the Greek word, "prota," which means "of primary importance," protein is truly the substance of life. From muscle to bone to brain, protein serves as the dominant construction material.

A protein is a large organic molecule made of amino acids, which are linked together in a linear fashion. Amino acids are nitrogen-containing organic molecules. All enzymes are proteins, and enzymes control virtually every physiological reaction in the body, from respiration to immune defense to passing along genetic characteristics. In fact, genes are simply blueprints for building proteins.

In 1904, Russell Henry Chittendon, a physiologist at Yale University, carried out the first scientific experiments designed to quantify human protein needs. At the time, protein needs were estimated to be about 119g per day for adults consuming 3,000 calories, based on observations of what manual laborers naturally tended to eat.

Chittendon, a pioneer in human nutrition research, believed this figure to be exaggerated, and conducted a series of nitrogen balance studies on students and faculty members at Yale in order to determine the minimum protein requirements for active and sedentary adults. (Protein, unlike carbohydrates and fats contains nitrogen. Hence, measuring nitrogen intake vs. output gives a pretty accurate picture of the protein required to make up for natural losses.) Chittendon's records closely match the present-day Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommendation of 0.36g per pound of body weight, which translates to about 56-63g for men and 46-50g for women based on a 2000-calorie diet.

How do we as a nation measure up to these recommendations? Americans, according to a USDA survey, consume on average 75g of protein per day. Individual intakes vary, but in general, we are not a protein-deficient land. Yet forces other than government recommendations shape public awareness of protein needs.

In the 1970s, this awareness got a jolt with the publication of the best-selling book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Francis Moore Lappe. Though criticized by some for overstating the need to mix and match proteins at every meal, the book raised public consciousness of amino acid balance by showing how vegetable proteins could complement each other to provide the full spectrum of essential amino acids.

Despite the criticism, the message stuck: There were in fact many ways to fulfill our protein needs in addition to the traditional meats that graced the table at nearly every meal. This awareness paved the way for the acceptance of true variety in protein sources. Today if you ask a vegetarian "Where do you get your protein?" you'll probably get a pretty sophisticated answer.

Expanding protein awareness

"While 2.5 percent of America is classified as 'vegetarian,' 35 percent or more fit into the 'flexitarian' category, which is defined as eating three or more meatless meals per weak. Flexitarians are mainly health-driven in food choices and are looking to cut down intake of fat and cholesterol," says Seth Tibbot, founder of Turtle Island Foods Inc. (www.tofurky.com), Hood River, Ore.

Turtle Island started out making Tempeh, a fermented soybean cake from Indonesia. The company now is better known for Tofurky, one of the most innovative protein products on the market.

"Tofurky is a combination of organic tofu, vital wheat gluten (the protein part of the wheat) and natural flavors. Tofurky has an elongated, stranded meat-like texture and resembles turkey white meat in flavor," says Tibbot. While Tofurky may be new to many, if you're a vegetarian, this very well may be the gobbler you feasted on during the recent holidays.

"Tofurky was first marketed by our company in 1995 during the Thanksgiving holiday," Tibbot continues. "It grew out of my personal dismal experiences of trying to find a tasty, high-protein, convenient vegetarian centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Every year on 'turkey day,' my meat-eating friends would be having a grand old time with the bird while the plant eaters were left only with salad, potatoes and such disasters as our "stuffed pumpkin" and, in another year, a gluten roast that you couldn't cut with a chain saw."

The story of Tofurky is an example of protein awareness emerging from a small group and filling a niche that was greater than expected. "With the marketing of the first Tofurky, which weighed in at 3.5 lbs. and served eight people, we realized that we were not the only ones looking for a vegetarian alternative to turkey. It was an immediate hit in spite of its $32 price tag," says Tibbot. "It violated pretty much all the retail conventional wisdom, which said, 'Never price anything in the freezer above $3.99.' "Although it was difficult to convince retailers that the market existed, once Tofurky hit the shelves, it didn't stay there very long. Sales were brisk right from the start."

Vegetarianism is more than avoidance of meat. Hence, finding high-quality sources of vegetarian protein is critical to the maintenance of a healthy active lifestyle. "We want to show how an active, sustainable and organic lifestyle can improve the overall health and well-being of everyone," said Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing of Nature's Path Foods (www.naturespath.com), Richmond, British Columbia. Nature's Path sponsors the Whidbey Island Marathon & Half Marathon as a way of promoting its Optimum Rebound cereals, formulated for "optimal post-exercise muscle recovery and fuel replacement." Rebound, a high-protein cereal, provides 10g of protein per serving from a mix of whole grains, nuts, soy nuts and seeds.

About the time that Diet for a Small Planet hit the shelves, Barbara's Bakery Inc. (www.barbarasbakery.com), Petaluma, Calif., began providing baked goods free of preservatives, hydrogenated oils and refined sugars. Today its offerings include wholegrain cereals, yogurt and fruit bars, plus higher-protein Puffins (named after the sea bird) cereals and cereal and milk bars. High in fiber and protein from whole grains and soy, milk, whey and yogurt, the bars are designed to provide a satisfying and sustaining alternative to the typical nutrient-poor snacks.

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