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Protein, Protein Everywhere: But Is It a Food Fad or Sensible Eating?

As the onslaught of protein-added products crowds store shelves, a weary consumer might wonder where it will end.

Manufacturers are peddling protein in anything edible. Diners can tuck into 17 added grams in spaghetti, or build a sandwich with 28 grams in bread and slather it with another 14 grams' worth of cookie butter spread. Then there are protein chips (21 grams), pancake mix (26 grams) and pudding (30 grams), and even 15-gram protein water.

Is this protein mania warranted? Are we protein-deficient?

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Maybe, experts say, at least at certain times of the day.

“Americans are getting what we need in a day, but it's not helping us meet our needs to perform better,” said Jessica Crandall, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for Americans is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, that's the bare minimum, she said. Most people need somewhere between 70 and 120 grams a day.

And not everyone is getting that. “There is recognized deficiency, especially in the morning,” Crandall said. That’s particularly true for women, who will “run out the door with peanut butter on toast” clocking in at 8 grams of protein, she said.

“You need closer to 20 to 30 grams per meal,” Crandall said. “If you don't have it at breakfast you have no reserves. Your body is going to start to break down your muscle.”

And anyone who begins the day with a protein deficit can become “hangry” as the day wears on, Crandall said. This can lead to binge eating at dinner because they haven’t been fueling their bodies adequately during the day, she said.

DoubleShot with added protein
Starbucks DoubleShot with added protein Brandon Goodwin / TODAY

Maintaining the balance Crandall suggests isn't easy for many. “Most Americans are not in their kitchens every four to six hours,” she said. “Where is my protein? It doesn't magically appear. We have to food forecast.” This means keeping a stash of foods with naturally occurring protein: think jerky, string cheese, almonds or hard-boiled eggs.

For those who don't – or can't – plan ahead, is reaching for the nearest protein product a good idea? Plenty of people do just that. Crandall knows people who admit to eating five or six protein bars a day.

“First of all, gross,” she said. “I like protein bars but not in that quantity. We can't just eat on the fly all the time even if it's easy and mindless.”

What happens to excess protein? "It turns into fat."

But on-the-run eating is the default for many Americans. And with so many protein-added options available, can we overdo it?

Yes, says Crandall. Though protein is a building block for muscle protein synthesis and repair, “there's a tap-out of what your body is going to convert into muscle,” she said. Consume more than our bodies need, and “it turns into fat.”

That doesn't mean it's dangerous to eat too much protein.

“I want to clear the confusion that maybe it wasn't so great for our kidneys,” she said. “Research and science shows it is a myth that has been dispelled. My only concern with high, high levels is that we want to balance our meals, incorporate healthy fats and carbs. And don't use the products so much that you lose sight of sitting down at the table.”

This isn't the first time we've seen a single ingredient hailed as savior or blamed as culprit. Food trends evolved as people gained more choices, explained David Sax in his book “The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue.”

"No one chased a woolly mammoth with a spear because the head of their tribe declared mammoth to be the hot protein in the Paleolithic era,” Sax wrote, “but once we developed the economic means to select from a variety of foods, certain ones inevitably became more popular than others.”

Protein, popular in the bodybuilding culture of the 1970s and ‘80s, fell out of favor as the low-fat craze took hold in the ‘90s, Sax told NBC.

But it bounced back, thanks in part to the Atkins diet and gluten-free trend, which eliminate or severely restrict carbohyrdrates.

“What the hell else am I gonna eat?” he said. “And then you have the rise of the Paleo dietwith athletic communities and extreme workouts like P90x and CrossFit,” which require high protein intake.

Health and wellness trends like this, which “are often driven by a crumb of science, some basis of real fact,” Sax said, “trickle down to normal schlumps like me who don't exercise. Yet I pick up on the message in media and packaging, and yeah, I’ll buy this bag of chips, I heard protein is good.”

Have we reached the tipping point of protein mania? Could be, Sax said. “The bubble is swelling to the point of bursting.”

Protein may be the superstar now, but it will follow the cycle of most food trends. “Substitute protein for the track 20 years ago when everything was fat-free and that's the same fate that this (trend) will meet,” Sax said.

“That doesn't mean protein is bad,” he added. “But if it seems like an unnatural thing, it is."