Author: Emily Contois, PhD, MPH, MLA
H-Nutrition Series: Figures
Commissioning Editors: Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Nina Holmes
Protein is having a moment. Although an essential nutrient, one required in our diets for survival, protein has triumphed in recent years as a dietary trend that embodies consumers’ health concerns and lifestyle aspirations. For many, it represents a sense of totalized wellness in product categories as far afield as infant nutrition, plant-based snacks, and pet food.(1) In our anxious foodscape, protein is a “good” nutrient, one that consumers feel free to eat more of rather than less.
I came to study protein in earnest as part of my book project, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: Gender and Power in U.S. Food Culture and Media, which will be published in 2020 by The University of North Carolina Press. For one chapter I researched Greek yogurts marketed to men, such as Powerful Yogurt (launched in 2013) and Danone’s Oikos Triple Zero, which came to market in 2015. Quickly christened “brogurts” by journalists, these yogurts loudly proclaimed their protein content on product labels and in marketing messages.
Promotional image posted by past Oikos Triple Zero spokesman Cam Newton on Twitter, @CameronNewton, November 24, 2015, https://twitter.com/CameronNewton/status/669272116601180161.
Oikos Triple Zero coupled 15 grams of protein with National Football League (NFL) co-branding and jet-black packaging. Through such tactics, Danone endeavored to masculinize yogurt for male consumers at a time when men made up only about one third of Greek yogurt sales. In the years prior, yogurt in the United States had been primarily marketed to women and culturally coded as a feminine food. Compared to Danone’s other brands such as “Light & Fit,” the brand name “triple zero” leaned masculine and athletic. The brand was also nutritionally derived, communicating the yogurt’s lack of added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and fat.
From researching the dairy case, I’ve examined protein from not only a nutritional standpoint, but also for how the macronutrient connotes masculinity, strength, productivity, and American exceptionalism.
While a source of contemporary mania, protein’s popularity (and cultural meaning) isn’t new. In the nineteenth century, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin made famous the aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” He also endorsed a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet for weight control, as did the world-wide-known Banting Diet.(2) Writing of German scientist Justus von Liebig (now referred to as the father of modern nutrition science), food historian Harvey Levenstein described protein as “the muscle-building substance…absolutely necessary for human strength.”(3)
In the United States in the 1880s, Wilbur Atwater (another father of nutrition science) claimed that American workers were more productive than their German counterparts because they consumed more foods high in protein and fat.(4) Indeed, as historian Hasia Diner’s work demonstrates, the ability to eat well—particularly to consume meat and more expensive, protein-rich foods—positively characterized the nineteenth-century American immigrant experience.(5) Furthermore, while anti-meat crusaders have undulated throughout the last century, they have not reconfigured protein’s symbolic power, which remains linked to definitions of “America.”
Promotional mage posted by Oikos Greek Yogurt on their @oikos Facebook page, January 11, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/oikos/photos/a.105993976949/10154899402841950/?type=1&theater.
Considering how this protein past informs our present, protein demonstrates what I call, “the macronutrient imaginary,” that is, how a nutritional component can become a cultural object imbued with significant meaning. This concept expands our view of nutritional reductionism, which addresses how nutrients come to be divorced from their gastronomic, cultural, and seasonal context.(6) Even in this alienated state, nutrients (like protein in brogurts) can and do become culturally salient. As a concept, the macronutrient imaginary exists at the interdisciplinary intersection of the history of nutrition and medicine, food studies, critical nutrition studies, and food marketing and advertising. It can also communicate crude cultural ideals, such as what it means to be “a real man” through what and how one eats. The product labeling, packaging design, and marketing of Oikos Triple Zero reveal how the language of food spreads such ideals under the guise of nutrition.
(1) Maryellen Molyneaux, “Consumer Protein Trends,” Natural Products Insider, October 8, 2015, http://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/articles/2015/10/consumer-protein-trends.aspx.
(2) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. M. F. K. Fisher, Reprint edition (Vintage, 2009); William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, 1863.
(3) Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 90.
(4) Wilbur O. Atwater to Edward Atkinson, October 11, 1890, Edward Atkinson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts, cited in Levenstein, Revolution at the Table, Chapter 7, 86-97.
(5) Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
(6) Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.