Sports nutrition products are used by an increasingly mainstream audience.
Indeed in a recent landmark report on the sector, the European Commission highlighted the division between sportspeople and so-called ‘lifestyle users’.
Yet researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) have called for greater education of such casual gym goers, who were “misguided” when it came to the health beliefs of protein consumption.
Based on an online survey of 813 Swiss adults (376 users of protein supplements and 437 non-users), they found there was a gap between consumers' perception and scientific evidence of the benefits of protein supplements.
Some consumers with low levels of physical activity believed supplements had a 'fitness-promoting' effect and the results suggested this group may even believe taking protein would somehow ‘compensate’ for a lack of activity or other healthy behaviours.
“The consumption of protein supplements among leisure time exercisers increases. However, most recreational physically active adults do not reach a training intensity that would require additional protein intake,” the researchers wrote.
“On the contrary, the consumption of protein supplements increases the likelihood of protein and calorie overconsumption, because people probably do not compensate additional calorie intake by restricting their regular diet.”
The ‘licensing effect’
The researchers said this “ironic consequence” had been seen in previous studies on food supplements more broadly.
In 2011 researchers from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan found evidence that supplements may create an “illusory sense of invulnerability that disinhibits unhealthy behaviours” through something called the ‘licensing effect’.
“The use of dietary supplements and the health status of individuals have an asymmetrical relationship: the growing market for dietary supplements appears not to be associated with an improvement in public health,” they wrote at the time.
Reasons for taking protein
The study found overall most women believe protein 'increases muscles' (cited by 57.3%) and 'regulates weight' (48.6%).
Meanwhile most men believe protein 'increases muscles' (83.7%) and 'promote regeneration' (53.7%).
Other reasons cited included ‘health promotion’, ‘satiety’ and ‘energy supply’.
In the EU the following health claims are approved for protein:
Meanwhile several attempts at gaining a satiety and weight management claim have been rejected by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Supplement firm Nu3 Nu3 partially financed the study and provided access to its customer pool, however it was not involved in the design of the study or interpretation of the results.
Vol. 103, pp. 229–235, doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.04.020
“Benefit beliefs about protein supplements: A comparative study of users and non-users”
Authors: C. Hartmann and M. Siegrist