Carbs are good. Carbs are bad. Butter’s good. Butter’s bad. Coconut oil is a miracle. No, it’s evil. After decades of diet trends and conflicting information, protein’s upstanding reputation has remained unscathed in America. Of course, it isn’t just protein — it’s industrialized society’s engineered version of it, added to powders and bars, flavored and sweetened — and its popularity is more linked to convenience and perceptions of a “healthy active lifestyle” than to weightlifting.

At Eater, Casey Johnston examines the rise of protein and its most popular ready-to-drink delivery system: Muscle Milk. Wellness is a trillion-dollar industry, and what she calls the blurring of “the line between supplements and food” signals a lucrative future for protein drinks and powder. Many questions remain: Can the human body even process all this processed protein? What does protein do for us? Johnston visited Muscle Milk’s San Francisco headquarters to find out.

In the pre-supplement era, if protein had a downside, it was that it couldn’t be eaten isolated from other kinds of calories — milk has fat, beef has fat, soy has fat, and any substantial amount of plant-derived protein is high enough in carbs to make Gwyneth Paltrow faint. That left chicken breasts, eggs whites, and lean fish, but that was about it.

A few decades of engineering later, most non-meat forms of protein can now be drawn out from their sources and repackaged with a little sweetener or flavoring into whatever highly digestible and convenient food format you desire. Companies cram protein into their foods with the hope of splashing “good source of protein,” a term protected by the FDA, across the label — frozen pizzas with crusts made of chicken, whey-enhanced nut butters, whey-enhanced or even whey-based ice cream, soy-enhanced granola. Even foods that aren’t in the game are trying to play — I recently found a box of corn flakes boasting “2 grams of protein” per serving, a single-digits percentage of what any person needs in a day.

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