Selling the Fantasy of High-Protein Everything

Coca-Cola wants Americans to buy its new, hyper-fortified milk—regardless of what nutrients their diets actually lack.

The irritating thing about staying healthy is that it requires real work—a fact that tends to inspire even the most disciplined people to get creative in seeking out shortcuts. What if there were a way to cut down on the pesky, life-denying aspects of healthy living—steamed broccoli, getting out of bed for early workouts—and still stay effortlessly fit?

That’s the question implied by Fairlife, a milk product released by Coca-Cola last week that costs nearly twice as much per gallon as regular milk. Its vital statistics: 50 percent more protein, 50 percent less sugar, and 30 percent more calcium than typical milk. The lactose-free Fairlife (which, to be clear, originally comes from actual cows) will probably entice anyone who wants to optimize his or her fitness level without having to do anything more strenuous than buying a different brand of milk. In the age of the Paleo diet, the modifier “high-protein” has come to connote instant, pain-free physical betterment.

Fairlife is riding two trends in the food industry, according to Jonas Feliciano, a senior beverage analyst at the consumer-research firm Euromonitor International. The first is that Americans are convinced that they aren’t getting enough protein. The second is that they’re increasingly vigilant when it comes to identifying any intolerance they may have of gluten or lactose. The high-protein, lactose-free Fairlife indulges both of these neuroses.

“As manufacturers identify these trends, they try to Frankenstein them together. Sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it doesn't,” says Feliciano. He thinks that Fairlife, which is a blend of some components of regular milk, might collide with the recent consumer preference for drinks that are perceived to appear in nature—think raw milk, kombucha, coconut water. (Also, it’s worth remembering that dairy milk is itself a modern oddity; most of the humans who have ever lived never tried it.)

Consumer trends aside, is a product like Fairlife any good for you? David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional science at Cornell University, has his doubts. “Because Americans eat far more protein than they need, adding the protein will not do any good,” he says. In fact, it could do harm. “Reducing the sugar without reducing calories is a waste of time,” Levitsky says. “If consuming this product increases total daily calorie intake, much like sugar drinks, it will worsen the obesity problem.” Shoveling down protein might make sense for bodybuilders, who are constantly rebuilding muscle after tearing it down, but the majority of Americans are not that active.

Levitsky calls high-protein milk a “marketing ploy.” If he’s right, it’s a well-timed one: American consumers have grown more and more protein-focused over the last decade, even though most of them don’t actually need to increase their intake. One reason might be that consumers are becoming increasingly fixated on buying healthy foods, and "protein" unfailingly symbolizes well-being to a variety of people. This must explain why one can now find products such as “2X Protein” cream cheese, "brogurt," and Cheerios Protein on shelves.

The Percentage of U.S. Adults Who Answered 'Protein' When Asked What They Look for on Nutrition Facts

Anders Porter, a spokesperson for Fairlife, would probably dispute Levitsky's characterization. He referred me to Amy Goodson, a spokesperson for the National Dairy Council and a dietitian for the Dallas Cowboys. Goodson mostly disagreed with Levitsky and said that, in her experience, people weren't getting enough protein from their breakfasts or snacks.

There is also the question of processing. “Coke is taking a food that's wholesome—milk—and unnecessarily taking it apart and putting it back together, all the while charging more for its ‘services,’”says Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. “I don't think this is a product anyone should get excited about.” Anna Thalacker-Mercer, another professor of nutritional science at Cornell, told me that while Fairlife is "stacking the deck favorably" in terms of protein and calcium, there is a chance that valuable micronutrients will be lost in processing.

Fairlife, then, is probably not the nutritious departure from Coca-Cola’s array of sugary drinks that its branding would suggest. More accurately, it is expected to be a product that “rains money,” to quote Sandy Douglas, the president of Coca-Cola North America. Douglas’s company has been experiencing a bit of a drought in that department in recent years, as has its biggest competitor, PepsiCo. Even though sales of sodas have picked up in the last couple months as declining oil prices have granted consumers a bit more spending money, soda sales by volume have fallen every year for the past decade.

“The big soft-drink companies have to diversify their portfolios,” says Jonas Feliciano. “The decline in carbonated beverages has made it so they can’t rely upon that backbone to fund everything.” This explains why Coca-Cola last year purchased substantial stakes in Green Mountain Coffee and in Monster Beverage Corporation.

If diversifying is what large beverage companies are interested in, Feliciano has a more literal approach for them to consider: He thinks a product like Fairlife could do well in Asia. “The high incidence of lactose intolerance among Asian consumers is statistically proven, and many consumers in those markets are undernourished in terms of protein,” he says. Nutritionally speaking, though, the argument for selling Fairlife in America appears much weaker.