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How Protein Conquered America

Once the niche elixir of powerlifting bros, gulping down a Muscle Milk or three is now part of a “healthy, active lifestyle” — whatever that means

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My bodega is only a little bigger than my studio apartment, and sells no fewer than 10 kinds of Muscle Milk. In the drink cases, crowded with bottled water, Snapple, and Arizona iced tea, Muscle Milk occupies prime, eye-level real estate, protein counts splashed across the front of the bottles in black, bold lettering: 15, 20, 35 grams. Inside the bottles are creamy shakes in flavors like Chocolate, Strawberries ‘n Crème, and Mango Tangerine. The branding is literally protein-themed, and the higher the number, the greater the halo: protein is the reason for its central location and fluorescent spotlight.

We all need more protein, even if few of us know why. Protein has emerged as an undisputed Good Choice over the past 50 years of warring scientific studies slagging fat and carbs, endless opportunistic fad diets, and skyrocketing obesity in America. Just as one might look at all the world’s religions and decide that, while none is correct, there must be “something out there,” one might look at all the world’s weight-loss diets and note that, while they contradict each other in many ways, they all seem to preach protein, so protein must be good.

I’ve been lifting weights in pursuit of stronger muscles for a few years now, and one of the first things I learned was that strength can’t be built if it’s not supported by copious amounts of protein every single day (about one gram per pound of bodyweight is the bro’s rule of thumb). As a crazy and unique human, I love eating, but I also spend a fair amount of my time trying to round out my protein count. Oddly, an increasing number of convenience foods have become attuned to my extremely specific nutritional needs. Most people who visit my bodega are not preparing to load a barbell with 220 pounds and squat it, which makes the rise in striving for more and more protein remarkable.

Processed food has long attempted to wear a halo of health — see Snackwell’s, etc. — but fat-free Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes never offered superior nutrition, just a lack of something. Now, diet treats aren’t just bought when dieting — we live in an era where good choices must be made all the time. Instead of temporary asceticism in the form of crash diets — Master Cleanse, South Beach — we now subscribe to “lifestyle fitness,” where we season every decision with some light guilt in the shadow of the public health disaster that is the Standard American Diet. Experts seek to address this disaster by pushing whole foods, home cooking, and other time-intensive fixes increasingly out of reach for overworked Americans. Industrial food offers another solution: nutrition, but in chocolate, strawberry, and mango tangerine.

Muscle Milk began as a specialty fitness product, but now it thrives in bright and vast Walmarts and Costcos, in the dingiest Walgreens and CVSes, in the same habitat as Snickers, Powerade, and Hostess cupcakes, offering virtue in addition to satisfaction. If people demand more protein, optimized supply chains can now provide a flood of it. This once-obscure nutritional slurry turned out to be science fiction come true — it’s how we humanoids will power through our swole dystopian landscape.

Upon arrival at Muscle Milk’s headquarters in San Francisco’s East Bay, a member of the PR team asked me, “Would you like to grab a Muscle Milk?” The offer was polite, but the more varieties she suggested from the near-comprehensive display — their new “coffeehouse” mini-tetrapaks, foreign imports, powder — the clearer it was I’d have to drink something. I chose a Banana Crème-flavored bottle from the refrigerated case branded as Muscle Mlk, a modification the company has to use in Canada to avoid confusion with actual milk. Like all Muscle M(i)lks it was a little thin, a little too sweet, with an artificial tang that echoed on my tongue after every swallow. But I drank the whole thing, because like everyone, I can never get enough protein.

The current offices of Cytosport, the company behind Muscle Milk, are a quiet collection of cubicles stuffed with sports memorabilia or stacked with competing products; in one, tubs of vegan protein powder clustered from floor to standing-desk level. Office attire is sport-and outdoor-lite: moisture-wicking polos, fancy Adidas sweatshirts. On the left side of the office is a glass-walled lab space, where a couple of employees cruise around between benches of testing equipment. Around the corner from the front desk is the office fitness studio, where classes are held for staff three times per day.

Cytosport was founded by father and son duo Greg and Mike Pickett in 1998, when they bought the Cytomax sports-drink powder brand from Greg’s former employer, Champion Nutrition. Greg’s daughter and Mike’s sister, Nikki Brown, joined the company not long after she graduated college and handles marketing. Mike and Nikki live in the same cul-de-sac in the Bay Area, their kids constantly commingling. The family has long been into race cars and has a car collection stashed in a family-owned warehouse; from 2007 until 2014, Muscle Milk sponsored a racing team, and Greg raced in the 2007 American Le Mans Series. Now, the kids race go-carts.

Each Pickett consumes at least one Muscle Milk product a day. The patriarch, Greg Pickett, says he takes in as many as three or four; Mike and Nikki pack drinks or bars in their kids’ lunches. While they’re as likely to espouse the values of protein as anyone else at the company, they seem to consume the products as a way to test them as if they were regular consumers — “dogfooding,” in Silicon Valley parlance — more than any other reason.

Greg chose the name Muscle Milk to evoke the phrase “mother’s milk,” both the nutritional lifeblood of babies and a cult protein supplement brand among mid-1960s bodybuilders literally called Mother’s Milk. The oedipal subtext is too great to unpack, and the logic is a little faulty: Mother’s Milk’s name and content were based on the outmoded idea that breast milk is the perfect food for muscle growth.

Greg said the first Muscle Milk, a tub of powder meant to be mixed with liquid, imitated breast milk’s macronutrient content precisely: 32 grams of protein, 18 grams of carbs, and 12 grams of fat per serving. (The actual nutritional content of breast milk is nothing like this.) The Picketts struggled to stay in business. Eventually the company began offering different formulas with fewer carbs and less fat, which were more successful, but only among athletes and those aspiring to be.

The real breakthrough for Muscle Milk, Mike said, came in 2004, when the company began to sell ready-to-drink products. It was so popular, chains like GNC asked Cytosport to redesign the bland packaging the individual bottles arrived in, because those bottles weren’t even making it to the shelves — people were buying the drinks by the case. For two years Cytosport struggled to make enough ready-to-drink Muscle Milk to keep specialty stores supplied.

The people buying these drinks were almost assuredly not committed weightlifters, who don’t mind the meathead stigma that comes with cheaper tubs of powder, not to mention the terrible taste. Since the 1980s, most protein supplements have been made with whey, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process which went to waste until companies realized the opportunity to repurpose it as a muscle-building powder supplement. Flavoring whey, which has a naturally acrid taste, is an uphill struggle, and the industry standard appears to be “just barely not disgusting.” (Full disclosure: I worked on a protein powder guide for my former employer, Wirecutter).

Most protein powders are thin in your mouth, yet clang with aggressive artificial sweetness and bewildering notes of metal, plastic, chalk, and the sickly perfume of a Bath & Body Works. Catering to bodybuilders, who want an extremely high protein count in as few calories as possible, only exacerbates the problem — a MetRx drink label from 2005 shows 51 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and 6 grams of carbs, and if I were to hazard a guess, it probably tasted like trying to cure a hangover by snorting Equal.

As a powerlifter, I have a particular need for protein to keep my muscles strong, and drinking protein powder is a mildly unfortunate reality on most days — few foods have as much protein, gram for gram. In an ideal world, I’d always have a selection of delectable dishes waiting in my fridge and cabinets to heal my torn muscle fibers, or be rich enough to order in healthy balanced grain bowls loaded with tender shrimp or crispy chicken. In reality, cooking as a single person somehow requires both too much planning and too little variety, and even in a good week, meals always fall through the cracks. I can order (or make) a salad with baked salmon for dinner, or I can drink a Muscle Milk and then also have some french fries. I know which one will be quicker, and cheaper.

The timing of the Muscle Milk boom perfectly synchs with the early-2000s wave of trendy, protein-heavy, carb- or fat-conscious diets: Atkins, South Beach, the Zone. A creamy protein drink would help a dieter coast toward their required protein intake for the day and sate a sweet tooth in a hurry, without requiring them to commit to a whole tub of protein powder. Bottled Muscle Milk has macro ratios (more fat and slightly more carbs) that make it tastier than the average scoop of protein powder mixed with water or milk, but about as calorically economical, and more convenient.

Not that the Picketts even understood the cultural moment uplifting their brand — the family only ever hoped to build a small, successful business in the specialty-supplement realm. “We didn’t really ever see it going to the broader market,” Mike said. “My dad used to say, if we could do $18 million [in sales], we’d be happy.”

By 2007, when the Muscle Milk drinks had been on shelves for a couple of years, the business had shot well beyond that, and Muscle Milk was on its way to becoming the dominant protein brand in drinks. Walmart’s buyers came knocking, but Mike felt the brand wasn’t ready to go that big; their stock issues, caused by demand just within the specialty niche, had been solved by a cobbled-together distribution chain that would be difficult to scale. Next, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo offered to distribute the drinks nationally. Pepsi tried to demand an equity stake, but the Picketts refused to dilute Cytosport’s ownership. In 2008, Pepsi caved, bringing Muscle Milk to Walmarts and Costcos across the land. By 2014, Cytosport was shipping 50 million pounds of Muscle Milk each year. Finally, the deal the family had been holding out for arrived: Cytosport was acquired by Hormel in 2014 for a little under half a billion dollars.

Five hundred million dollars for bottled cheese waste product would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, but Hormel had foresight: The rabid desire for protein was only beginning to crest. Protein drinks of all types, but especially ones with bougie, sans-serif branding like Core Power and Orgain, have splashed across the market. Protein increasingly appears to be key to losing and managing weight, and by extension many lifestyle diseases, according to research. Because of that, the appetite, or even thirst, for it has only continued to grow. Concern-trolling attempts (“How much protein is too much?”) can only shadowbox confounding factors, like intake of animal protein (which tends to be higher in saturated fats).

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.

When I visited, Greg Longstreet, then the new CEO of Cytosport under Hormel, was just finishing a Costco-brand protein bar — important to keep up on the competition, he said. Muscle Milk recently reformulated its bars, and has looked into vegan bars too, as well as protein bites and chips. As it stands, Longstreet said, only 15 percent of households buy protein supplements, and only 5 percent get the Muscle Milk brand specifically. But this market is growing: Global Market Insights predicts that the wholesale protein-ingredient market will reach $40 billion by 2024, and that’s before consumers get involved. “We would like Muscle Milk to become synonymous with protein,” Longstreet said, in the way tissues are Kleenex, or in certain regions, soda is Coke. It’s difficult to put a number to how big the protein industry is or will be, as the line between supplements and food continues to blur; as part of the projected trillion-dollar wellness industry, there is plenty of room to grow.

At Muscle Milk headquarters, Nikki Brown arrived in an expensive-looking blazer, carrying a Goyard tote. When I visited, all three family members were in the process of extricating themselves from the company and into advisory roles. Brown is a recreational marathoner, petite, placid, composed, and no-nonsense; her father and brother are her terrifyingly kinetic opposites, zooming from cubicle to cubicle and startling employees with their gravelly, conspiratorial shout-whisper voices. At one point while I was interviewing Brown, her brother Mike barged in and asked if it was time to start offering Golden State Warriors tickets to the office brass — the family has a box suite at the Oracle Arena. After he left, Brown said with a conspiratorial smile, “This is what he does at my house.” Later, Mike Pickett described himself as “the ‘yes,’ guy.” Then Brown added, “But then you’d come to me and say, ‘You tell ‘em no.’”

Brown offered to let me try the company’s recently reformulated protein bars that had not yet hit the market, and cracked one open herself. As she delicately rolled up her half-finished protein bar — I had yet to see anyone finish a Muscle Milk anything, but I guessed they were sort of disposable there — she explained that the power of Muscle Milk is that different people can look at one product and see different things: workout recovery, lean-muscle maintenance, a snack, a meal.

“In my peer group it isn’t about dropping weight, it’s more about having that active lifestyle,” she said. That lifestyle requires constant upkeep, and, she noted, people develop habitual relationships with products they believe support it. “If you go for a jog on a Saturday morning, on your way back you may grab a [protein] shake,” she said.

I heard the words “healthy active lifestyle” together, in that order, several times while reporting this piece. They sound virtuous; they also sound like money. A healthy active lifestyle must be maintained for as long as someone is alive. Any product propping up that aspiration has to sell every day, forever.

While protein is worshipped in an almost mystical way, the way it affects diets and appetites is pretty straightforward. One of the major keys to protein’s magic is that its thermic effect, an estimate of the energy it takes a body to digest it, is higher than it is for fats and carbs. It burns more calories to process. Protein is also extremely effective in stimulating hormones that induce satiety, or a feeling of being full. Relatively high-protein diets have been shown to help with body-fat loss and maintaining lean muscle mass in the short term, but research suggests long-term consumption of way too much protein can cause kidney stones or even kidney failure. Protein, like anything else, is calories, and excess protein can and will be stored as fat.

If protein in general is hardly a panacea, the health outcomes of consuming protein supplements are downright murky. Since both are sold as supplements, the FDA only requires that they be safe for consumption, and the FDA does none of its own testing — rather, it collects self-reported lab results and waits for something to go wrong. In July 2010, Consumer Reports found significant amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury, in certain protein products. Three servings of EAS Myoplex Rich Dark Chocolate ready-to-drink shakes together contained more than the recommended limit of arsenic by the US Pharmacopeia. Three servings of Muscle Milk Chocolate powder had more than the recommended amount of lead, and nearly as much arsenic. The FDA never challenged the company on this, but Cytosport did settle a $20 million class action lawsuit on the claims two years later. (Cytosport declined to comment on these matters.)

Another common claim against protein products, including Muscle Milk’s ready-to-drink ones, is that they don’t contain as much protein as their label says — 10 grams instead of 15, according to Labdoor’s tests on a Muscle Milk drink. This isn’t an uncommon problem among protein products, especially ready-to-consume ones, but most of those products don’t come from the world’s biggest crossover protein-supplement brand. (Asked about the protein counts and how they might have changed their formula in response to the suit, Cytosport gave a boilerplate answer that did not indicate whether they changed anything about their products.)

The sheer count aside, there is also a lot of mysticism and conflicting research about how much protein bodies can even process at once. Some studies show people can’t absorb more than 20 to 30 grams, but they are often using a close-to-pure protein supplement taken on an empty stomach; balanced meals, like those a dietitian would tell you to eat, or even how a normal person would eat, or just literally anything other than a rushed protein-shake lunch, can raise this number quite a bit. Our bodily systems can only be cheated so much.

The “lifestyle” component of “healthy active lifestyle,” however, is much easier to hack. The company is currently focused on drawing in women, in large part because they are the primary drivers of lifestyle fitness. Some time ago, Cytosport noticed women were a demographic they weren’t reaching, but previous attempts were mixed at best. The full script of a 2010 commercial for Muscle Milk Light: “Katie: She’s a self-proclaimed drama queen. She confuses reality with reality TV and doesn’t quite ‘get’ sarcasm. But Katie drinks Muscle Milk Light for breakfast which helps in other vital areas.” Meanwhile, the camera pans around to show Katie power walking next to a set of admiring power walking dudes.

While Muscle Milk was puzzling out women’s vital areas, women were becoming the arbiters of athleisure, with some collecting millions of social media followers through fitspo content. In the last few years, protein-powder brands increasingly started marketing to women, many of them directly through social media influencers. In a product category where packaging is literally everything, Muscle Milk’s inability to relate to women earlier seems, in hindsight, like a huge strategic mistake.

In 2016, Cytosport released “smoothie” protein drinks, made with “Greek-style” yogurt, in large part to target women. The Muscle Milk brand also seems to have lowered its testosterone across the board, going from fat, thick block type to a taller, leaner, more even font. The company used to rely on male spokespeople for major campaigns, but starting in 2017, three different national campaigns aimed at women featured female athletes. One commercial stars pro-soccer player Julie Johnston Ertz along with women doing Crossfit, spin, pilates, jogging, and yoga, ending on the tagline “Stronger Everyday.” The condescending narration about drinking Muscle Milk to get men is gone.

”When you think about these drinks, it’s less about function and actually doing the work and more about this lifestyle,” said Yvette Quiazon, a global ethnographer and brand strategist at the Why-Q marketing firm, who researches athleisure trends for brand clients. Much of her work over the months before I talked to her had concerned her interviews with women to see which athletic brands they connected with and why, what they looked for when shopping for fitness-related things, and who influenced their choices: celebrities, Instagrammers, ad campaigns. Quiazon said that every action we take, when it’s broadcast on a platform like social media, becomes a meaningful projection of identity, not just in what others see, but in what we are trying to show the world. “What we consume has become much more than just fulfilling nutrition. It’s also a reflection of who we are.”

We might not have the time, let alone the money, for Soulcycle classes and a drawer of Lululemon leggings. But a protein shake is generally no more than $4, and posting to Instagram about drinking it is free. Not incidentally, “#protein” has been tagged on 18.95 million Instagram posts.

For the first Golden State Warriors preseason game of the 2016-17 season, the Picketts invited co-workers into their box suite on the half-court line at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. Greg Longstreet drank Bud Lights from the mini fridge; Nikki Brown settled her two sons, who have identical shocks of blond hair, into the front row with plates of catered chicken fingers and ketchup. Stephen Curry, the team’s breakout star that season, gracefully sank one three-pointer after another, steamrolling the Clippers. In 2016, Muscle Milk built a national campaign around Curry, putting him at the center of both print ads and commercials. Commenting on players wearing the clothing of their sponsors, Mike Pickett said to Brown, “I wish he would wear anything of ours.”

”He won’t unless we start co-branding with Under Armour,” she said, referencing another of Curry’s sponsorships.

Pickett escaped briefly from the box and returned with packets of Red Vines, showering us with them and exclaiming “Who’s your buddy!” Next to me, Longstreet and Brown discussed the possibility of getting a second box suite at the University of Southern California, her alma mater. They debated the value of courtside seats, which cost $30 to $40 online per game, against the box suite, which costs $7.5 million over four years.

I’d planned to meet Greg Pickett, the family patriarch, at the game, but he had to cancel; after spending years fielding the family race car team, he’d gotten new hearing aids and was still adjusting to them. The family told me I could meet him the next day at the offices of their new company, Flavor Insights.

The new company is housed in the facility that used to be home to Cytosport before Hormel acquired it (Cytosport is not yet a client of Flavor Insights). From the outside, the offices smell overwhelmingly of artificial vanilla. They are attached to a lab and an enormous clean room with a 20-foot-tall vat setup for spray drying, a calorie-free method of flavoring products. Per whiteboards in the lab, the techs were working on a pomegranate flavor. Also attached is a giant warehouse where the family keeps a couple dozen of its collector cars — a McLaren here, a Mustang there.

The Picketts will no longer work on products that go direct to market; rather, they will work on contract, developing flavoring ingredients and profiles for clients. Flavoring is a vital concept to modern food, but famously mysterious and even a little frightening; there have been routine panics about things like artificial sweeteners or the butter flavor in microwave popcorn for decades. But in the dueling demand for health and convenience, this aversion to industrial food practices is waning. Manipulating one food into the format of another — vegetables into candy, protein into crackers and chips, nutrient profiles flowing seamlessly from appetizer to dessert and back again — is the only way to satisfy a populace that demands to eat what they want when they want to, and control their intake to stave off disease and death. Protein drinks, in a way, are the past. The future is macronutrient-perfect food that is not only engineered to fit any diet but flavored to meet any craving — pizza, chocolate, barbecue potato chips.

The Picketts think the reason Muscle Milk beat out every other ready-to-drink product to make the jump to the mainstream is flavor — family patriarch Greg labored to make Muscle Milk more like dessert. While developing ready-to-drink Muscle Milk, Greg Pickett was able to produce small-batch runs of 15 to 20 gallons at a facility in Texas. When facility employees tried Pickett’s first run of chocolate shakes back in 2003, he was hoping for unbridled enthusiasm. Instead, he said, “[The plant employees] took a sip and kind of squiggled up their noses and looked down.”

He tweaked the formula to make it less like dark chocolate, and more like milk chocolate, which we in America associate with candy. He was nervous as he waited for this test version to come off the production line. Finally, a plant employee stopped by his temporary office and said, according to Pickett, “Man oh man, this is the best protein-like drink we’ve ever run through my equipment!”

Pickett’s new desk at Flavor Insights was lined with blue jars of flavoring agents. As he regaled me with stories of his father, the founder of the dubious old-school vitamin supplement company Neolife, the smell of chocolate overtook me. It reminded me of visiting the Hershey factory as a kid, except this chocolate was less deep — fake, cloying, felt like it was clogging my nostrils. It was a smell I couldn’t acclimate to; each whiff was as strong as the last.

The chocolate smelled nothing like any protein drink I’ve ever had. It was too specific; it smelled like potential, like all of the things that could ever hope to taste like chocolate. After Muscle Milk released its ready-to-drink shake in 2004, Pickett said, the CEO of Met-Rx, the competitor who inspired him to try making drinks in the first place, asked him to lunch. According to Pickett, he was told, “You showed the way here, bro. You made protein taste better.”

Casey Johnston is the Future Editor at The Outline and writes the column Ask A Swole Woman.
Natalie Nelson is an illustrator based in Atlanta. Her newest picture book is Uncle Holland, written by JonArno Lawson.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter


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