Table of contents:
- Section 1: The primary substance
- Section 2: Meat makes meat: the first protein fashion
- Section 3: Testing the lower limit: the end of the first protein fashion
- Section 4: 1918-1955: milk, aid and biopolitics
- Section 5: Protein fiasco
- Section 6: Epilogue
Blaxter, T., & Garnett, T. (2022). Primed for power: a short cultural history of protein. TABLE, University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University and Research. https://doi.org/10.56661/ba271ef5
Bovril 1898 (History of Advertising Trust, reference: HAT21/587/3/56)
The word ‘protein’ seems to hold a special power. In dieting culture it represents virtue — and even in broader discussions of weight and obesity it sometimes seems like the golden bullet for managing satiety. In discussions of health and fitness, protein is muscle and strength, fuel for the gym and vital for healthy aging. When we occupy the roles of mother, father or custodian, protein is the carrier of our care, the ensurer of infant growth — even our pets deserve more and better protein.1 When talking about the future, protein may symbolise hope: ‘protein transitions’ describe the consequence of greater wealth and success in developing countries, a route to environmental sustainability and greener economies in wealthy ones. But protein is also the bottleneck in the path to a better future, the limiting nutrient in a ‘broken’ global food system strained by climate crisis.2 ‘Alternative proteins’ promise wealth to Silicon Valley investors, a chance for entrepreneurs to feed the world or save the planet. Protein is technology and futurism — it’s no accident that Bowie’s Major Tom took ‘protein pills’ and not supplements of some other nutrient.
Can one nutrient really be so central in so many areas of our lives? In her 2013 book Hidden hunger, sociologist Aya Kimura describes ‘charismatic nutrients’: nutrients which are imbued with a special, cultural authority for a period of time, and that take centre-stage in discussions of food security and international development to a degree that goes beyond their ‘scientific values’.3 Might this describe protein in current discourse in the Global North? Certainly the simple fact of its recurrence in such different spheres should make us wonder, and in some obvious ways the hype does seem to extend further than the science can support. “[I]f you are worrying about the amount of protein in your diet,” writes food journalist Bee Wilson, “then you are almost certainly eating more than enough”4: the enthusiasm for protein is focused in high income countries where estimated rates of protein deficiency are in the range of 1-6%.5 Advertisers trade on the magical quality of the word ‘protein’ and on consumers’ need to make quick judgements — and dieticians despair at chocolate bars rebranded as healthy because of their protein content.
There are some extremely good reasons to focus our discussions of food and sustainability on protein. The food system is responsible for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions6 and plays an even bigger role in some other environmental costs — deforestation and other land-use change, soil erosion, eutrophication. Within this, certain major sources of protein are very costly foods from an environmental standpoint. Even more importantly, among protein-rich foods we see a much bigger disparity between the largest and smallest environmental impacts than in any other class of foodstuff.7 This suggests that changing the amount of protein we eat in the Global North, the sources of protein we choose and how we produce it are all powerful levers we could pull in responding to the climate and biodiversity crises.
At the same time, there’s no living without protein. Of the 21 amino acids, nine are ‘essential’ in healthy, adult humans: our bodies cannot produce them from other things, and so to stay alive we must get them directly from what we eat and drink. Contrast this with carbohydrates, which, as far as we can tell, are not in and of themselves essential nutrients.8 On top of this, meat, milk and other animal-sourced foods — some of the most important sources of protein in many cultures — are dense sources of many other micronutrients, such as the B vitamins and calcium. Livestock are central to the livelihoods of many of the poorest people in the world. Changing our production and consumption of protein is, unavoidably, a fraught business.
Even in light of all of this, we might wonder whether the focus on protein in food systems discourse is proportionate9 — and in health and nutrition discourse, especially among non-experts in the Global North, it seems clear that it is not. But why? How has the rhetorical power of protein grown larger than the science can support?
One answer is simply that it’s the only one of the three macronutrients without an image problem. Fats, demonised since the 1970s as a risk factor for heart disease, accrued associations of gluttony and ill-health (it doesn’t help that in many languages the word for ‘fat’ is the same as or related to a word for ‘overweight’). There is an even longer history of warnings against carbohydrates; in the most recent episode in this history, ‘carbs’ — especially sugars — have played the role of the villain of dieting discourse since the early 2000s.10 In the popular imagination, only protein remains a straightforwardly ‘good’ nutrient.
Still, this explanation is only partial — the power of protein is a much older and more complex phenomenon than this implies, even if we restrict ourselves to the cultures of the world’s wealthy countries. Looking at the longer history of protein, we can identify that its prominence has waxed and waned before. If right now countries in the Global North are in the grip of a fashion for protein, it is perhaps the third time that this has happened. And there is a value to understanding that history. Making balanced decisions about the future of our food system that take into account to the enormous complexity of the evidence asks that we understand ourselves, what meaning we ascribe to things and where that meaning comes from. One extremely good way to gain such understanding is through the study of history.
The short essay that accompanies this paper tries to answer the question “Where does the cultural power of protein come from?” directly, looking at the foods associated with protein and the patterns that have repeated in the history of discourse about protein in the Global North. This paper charts that history in more detail. Using stories of individuals and institutitions from two centuries of nutrition science, it will explore some of the history that lies behind the place of protein in present-day culture: why it means what it means, and what happened the previous times that protein was in the spotlight. If these seem to be disproportionately the stories of influential and wealthy white men, that reflects the historical reality of who was allowed into respectable academia. One lesson of this history is that the development of scientific truth is not straightforwardly a matter of ‘discovering’ but rather of co-creating11: the particular people with the resources and platforms to shape our cultural conception of protein inevitably shaped it according to their own biases and interests.
Protein and protein-rich foods
‘Proteins’ in biochemistry are an enormous class of complex biological molecules12 with functions ranging from fighting off infections to digesting food. What unites this disparate group is structural: they are all made up of sequences of a smaller group of chemicals called amino acids. Because our digestive systems can break proteins down into their component amino acids and use these to create new proteins, when discussing nutrition we do not always have to distinguish all the different proteins found in food, and instead usually talk just about the 21 amino acids used by animals—and primarily the 11 ‘essential’ amino acids that human bodies cannot synthesise from the others. Phrases like ‘protein rich foods’ and ‘high protein foods’ are often used in the food systems literature but not generally given a precise definition.
1 Marica Vinassa et al., ‘Profiling Italian Cat and Dog Owners’ Perceptions of Pet Food Quality Traits’, BMC Veterinary Research 16, no. 1 (December 2020): 131, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-020-02357-9.
2 Danielle E. Medek, Joel Schwartz, and Samuel S. Myers, ‘Estimated Effects of Future Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Protein Intake and the Risk of Protein Deficiency by Country and Region’, Environmental Health Perspectives 125, no. 8 (16 August 2017): 087002, https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP41.
3 Aya Hirata Kimura, Hidden Hunger: Gender and the Politics of Smarter Foods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 19–38.
4 Bee Wilson, ‘Protein Mania: The Rich World’s New Diet Obsession’, The Guardian, 4 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/
5 Medek, Schwartz, and Myers, ‘Estimated Effects of Future Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Protein Intake and the Risk of Protein
Deficiency by Country and Region’.
6 M. Crippa et al., ‘Food Systems Are Responsible for a Third of Global Anthropogenic GHG Emissions’, Nature Food 2, no. 3 (March
2021): 198–209, https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9.
7 J. Poore and T. Nemecek, ‘Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers’, Science 360, no. 6392 (June
2018): 987–92, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0216.
8 Justin Tondt, William S. Yancy, and Eric C. Westman, ‘Application of Nutrient Essentiality Criteria to Dietary Carbohydrates’, Nutrition
Research Reviews 33, no. 2 (December 2020): 260–70, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954422420000050.
9 iPES-Food, ‘The Politics of Protein: Examining Claims about Livestock, Fish, “Alternative Proteins” and Sustainability’ (iPES Food, 2022),
10 A. F. La Berge, ‘How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 63, no. 2 (30 August 2007): 139–77, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrn001; Dariush Mozaffarian, Irwin Rosenberg, and Ricardo Uauy, ‘History of Modern Nutrition Science—Implications for Current Research, Dietary Guidelines, and Food Policy’, BMJ, 13 June 2018, k2392, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2392.
11 Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 145–73.
12 It is estimated that somewhere between 0.62 and 6.13 million different proteins are found just in human beings; Elena A. Ponomarenko et al., ‘The Size of the Human Proteome: The Width and Depth’, International Journal of Analytical Chemistry 2016 (2016): 1–6, https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/7436849.