Photo by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
While we’ve come a long way in dispelling the lexicon of diet culture, there still remains a widely held belief that carbs are the enemy. The keto diet—which continues to be questioned for potential health hazards—is still going strong, encouraging a low carb, fat-rich intake. But there appears to be a new offshoot of this minimal carb mindset, in which protein works as the stand in.
People are obsessed with protein. And more than that, they’re obsessed with sneaking protein in places it might not otherwise belong. First, there was the TikTok trend of protein coffee, or “profee,” which combines coffee with a protein shake or powder for weight loss and energy. Then there was “dry-scooping.” It involved swallowing dry, pre-workout energy powder, then chasing it with water, with the intent of getting an increased and more concentrated workout boost.
Combine this protein passion with the keto craze, and you get high-protein, low-carb bread. Cloud bread—a fluffy, cotton-candy-like concoction of eggs, cream of tartar, and cream cheese—was first introduced by the Atkins diet in the ’70s, but has recently made its way back on TikTok. Type “protein” in the search bar, and you’ll find various anabolic (muscle-building) bread recipes, from French toast to banana bread.
“This has been going on for a while now on TikTok, and it’s because of things like the keto diet, which is funny, because the keto diet is not necessarily high protein. It’s high fat with moderate protein and low carb,” says Samar Kullab, a registered dietician who shares nutrition tips on TikTok. “We’re obsessed with getting so much protein, however our body doesn’t store protein. When we have such large amounts of it, it gets stored as fat. So some people might be getting more protein than they actually need.”
And this trend has made its way to the food market, as breads are replacing carbs with innovative ingredients. Innova Market Insights, a food and beverage intelligence company, listed “nutrition hacking” as a top trend of 2021. Although consumers favor natural products, there is a growing interest in modified foods for increased health benefits. And protein-fortified bread is one of them.
A few brands have found much success replacing white flour with protein-rich foods, like chickpeas and eggs. Banza, one of the most popular alternative pastas on the market, released chickpea pizza crusts just last year. Touting double the amount of protein as its alt-bread competitor, the cauliflower crust, these pizzas have been a game-changer for low-carb devotees. Another brand, Crepini, has been reimagining traditional crepes as egg wraps, adding additional nutrition from sweet potato, turmeric, and cauliflower.
But perhaps the most buzzed-about bread on social media is Better Brand, a company specializing in bagels that contain the same net carb content as two banana slices, the same protein content of four eggs, and the same sugar content as one stalk of celery. The bagels, which are sold in minimally designed, Gen Z-friendly packaging, have been making their rounds on TikTok.
“There was so much innovation going on in the plant-based space. People were literally turning beans into meat,” says CEO and founder Aimee Yang. “So I was like, ‘Well, if we’re that far in the innovation journey, why can’t we create a world where we can eat freely, and turn the worst-for-you foods into foods that are actually good for you?’”
The company’s trademarked “grain-changing technology” utilizes ingredients that are extremely novel, yet completely non-GMO. The first item on the ingredient label, for example, is modified wheat starch. “It has 90% of what causes carb content extracted out of it, but with the fibers remaining, so it still can retain the viscoelastic properties of the wheat and get us that texture that we’re really used to,” Yang says.
“The dough that we work with is so novel that, if you took it to any manufacturer, no one would have any idea what to do with it,” she continues. “We’ve really customized this entire process, from proofing, to cutting, to baking, to temperatures, to molding—everything to cater to the dough.” The product also leans into enzymes, or biological catalysts extracted from plants, to help form the softness and chew of a traditional bagel.
As for whether or not these barely-there-breads are doing more harm than good, Kullab is cautiously optimistic. “Some of these brands are helpful for people that are watching their carb intake, such as those with diabetes or insulin resistance, or even those who are just trying to follow a gluten-free diet,” she says.
“However, they are not what we need to be eating to lose weight. What I recommend is choosing more complex carbs—those that come from foods like fruit, vegetables, potatoes, beans, squash, or any whole grain product. We don’t necessarily need to cut out the carbs that we love in order to achieve our goals.”