Past Issues

The business of fitness and wellness.

More protein, please.


From muscle-builder to mainstream ingredient, protein has come to dominate the American diet.

Beyond powdered shakes and ready-to-drink options, added protein now appears in cereal, cookies, and countless other packaged foods. As a result, protein has become more than a supplement — it’s the main course. 

While we’ve generally accepted (and seek out) the presence of protein, it’s worth considering how and why protein became ubiquitous with ‘healthy’ eating in the first place. Plus, as plant-based options replace animal protein and dairy alternatives take over, the future of protein just might reinvent the category altogether. 

Bulking season. Once, protein shakes were reserved for athletes and bodybuilders attempting to bulk up. Today, two in five (46%) Americans say they regularly consume protein drinks and shakes. And whether it’s from a powder or whole food, most Americans eat double the amount of protein the average person needs (the recommended amount is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight). 

Back to the future: The precursor to modern protein supplements can be traced back to 1950. 

  • Irvin Johnson, a gym owner in Chicago, originally created Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food. 
  • Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell Company and Strength & Health magazine, followed suit with Hoffman’s Special Hi-Proteen. 
  • Initially, soy served as the base but, eventually, Johnson turned to dried milk and eggs. 
  • In the ’90s, MET-Rx and EAS put whey protein on the map. 

Whey is the undisputed champion of protein supplements. In 2017, the global whey protein market was valued at $9.4B and is expected to reach $14.5B by 2023. That’s pretty impressive when you consider the fact that whey is simply a byproduct of turning milk into cheese. For years, whey went to waste. 

Now, thanks to the popularity of protein powder, cheese-making operations are essentially whey factories. This helps explain why Glanbia, an Irish cheesemaker, acquired some of the top-selling powdered protein brands, including Optimum Nutrition, BSN, and Isopure. 

Of course, protein didn’t become a billion-dollar business simply because there was excess whey sitting around. As one of the three basic macronutrients—in addition to carbohydrates and fat—we need protein to survive. Over the years, while carbs and fats have been demonized for contributing to poor health or the obesity epidemic, protein emerged as the best option for a healthy active lifestyle. 

Too much of a good thing. Yes, protein is healthy, but obsessing over it isn’t. In reality, we’re more likely to consume too much protein than not enough. But that’s not what packaged food companies, supplement manufacturers, and marketers want us to believe. By employing many of the tactics associated with the new wellness lexicon, we’ve been force-fed a high-protein diet that promise results for obtaining an idealistic and aspirational fitness lifestyle. 

As Yvette Quiazon, a global ethnographer and brand strategist at Why-Q, told Eater: “What we consume has become much more than just fulfilling nutrition. It’s also a reflection of who we are.” Somehow, protein supplements have become a projection of our healthy active identity. 

Still, despite its appeal, questions related to how much protein is too much remain. High-protein diets have been shown to affect kidney health. And like any food, overdoing it on the protein can lead to the associated excess calories being stored as fat. 

The more troubling issue with protein supplements is the lack of regulation and FDA oversight. As recently as 2018, studies have found many of the top-selling powders to contain concerning levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and toxins like bisphenol A (BPA). 

While nutritionists and dietitians like Maxine Siegel, RD, who heads Consumer Report’s food testing lab, emphasize that whole food protein sources are best, that won’t stop the wholesale protein ingredient market from ballooning to an estimated $40M by 2024. 

Beyond whey: As food engineering technology continues to improve, whey could be the next protein source ripe for disruption. 

  • The alt-protein craze fueled by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has propped up pea protein, turning it into a $1.6B industry by 2029.
  • Like peas, the demand for soy protein will increase, propelling the market to $12B by 2027. 
  • With Tilray’s $317M acquisition of Manitoba Harvest, hemp-based protein will move further into the mainstream. 
  • Edible insects are a viable source of protein and could become an $8B business by 2030, according to Barclays.
  • Because algae are 50-70% protein, the global market for algae products is projected to reach $15B by 2024.
  • Finnish startup Solar Foods produces nutrient-rich protein, dubbed Solein, using only air and electricity. 

Zooming out: Beyond the impact that alternative protein sources will inevitably have on the existing market, they also have a place within a broader conversation about global sustainability. Increasingly critical environmental conditions have highlighted an urgent need to develop sustainable food sources, and mounting global populations have further begged skepticism surrounding the current trajectory of food production, and protein in particular.

Plant-based meat alternatives have already begun to move this conversation towards a sustainable solution. As protein production dips into new areas that promise sustainability, the brands at the forefront of innovation will undoubtedly see their projected growth backed by necessity.

Headlines & Happenings

🌱 CBG is the new CBD 

Promising to relieve inflammation, anxiety, pain, and more, CBD has gone from niche use to commoditized ingredient almost overnight. In the process, this cannabinoid has become a pillar of wellness that’s expected to grow into a $22B market by 2022.

Now, there are early indications that CBD could be outdone by another cannabis molecule. 

  • It’s science. The cannabis plant produces more than 100 cannabinoid compounds, like THC and CBD. Having witnessed the rise of CBD, growers are beginning to key in on and isolate the various molecules in hopes of striking gold. 
  • Enter CBG. Despite an ongoing debate related to its effectiveness and legality, CBD’s skyrocketing popularity in wellness has dubbed it “the new kale”. CBG (cannabigerol) is in a similar spot — there aren’t many studies to cite, but advocates believe it’s even better than THC or CBD for treating anxiety and chronic pain. 
  • A word of caution: Speaking to Medium, Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, said cannabinoids like CBD and CBG represent serious potential, but also that we can’t let enthusiasm and marketing claims outpace scientific evidence. 

Looking ahead: Whether or not there’s definitive science in support of CBG’s efficacy, if there’s a profit to be made, the wellness industry will ship first and ask questions later. Given the success of CBD, CBG could get a full-blown marketing makeover, turning this little-known compound into a commoditized ingredient

+ While we’re here: The Cannabis Industry Goes All-in On Wellness 

🍻 Raise a glass to wellness 

While the rise of functional beer, non-alcoholic options, and sober-friendly culture has become apparent, the motivations are less obvious. As the category evolves, a few trends, along with their underlying drivers, have begun to reveal themselves.   

Beer. To combat slumping sales, craft beer is moving in on the wellness scene: see Sufferfest, Athletic Brewing, and Wellbeing Brewing. Same goes for big bev brands: Heineken 0.0, Sam Adams 26.2 Brew, and Michelob ULTRA.

Booze. As the Atlantic reported, millennials are sick of drinking. Enter non-alcoholic spirits like Seedlip, Ceder's, Whissin, and Strryk. While some companies are forgoing alcohol altogether, others are offering healthier versions. See: Haus, an all-natural apéritif, and all-natural winemaker Dry Farm. 

Booch. Besides non-alcoholic spirits and all-natural options, hard kombucha—like brands JuneShine and Boochcraft—is emerging as a preferred alternative. In 2018, hard kombucha sales were double the previous year. And in 2019, the category was up 247% in the 52-week period leading up to April 20, 2019, according to Nielsen data

But why? As a recent Fast Company article points out, the popularity of performance beers like Sufferfest can, in part, be attributed to the overall rise of the $4.2T wellness industry. Moreover, the article concludes, health-focused alcohol is like the drinkable version of Outdoor Voice’s “doing things” motto — a sentiment that, as the company describes it, prioritizes “moving our bodies and having fun” above obsessing over performance. Through that lens, healthier alcohol just might be an acceptable respite from our endless pursuit of wellness.


  • Athleta signed its first-ever sponsored athlete in Allyson Felix, after Felix spoke out against Nike’s treatment of pregnant athletes. 
  • WHOOP is developing risk assessment tech that can predict when an athlete is at risk for injury. 
  • Tyson plans to launch a line of functional snacks under a new brand called Pact. 
  • Ritual, makers of direct-to-consumer vitamins for women, dropped a line of merch. 

💰 Money Moves

WellSet, an upstart tech booking platform, raised pre-seed funding from a group of private equity and angel investors including Kelly Noonan Gores and Broadway Angels. The specifics of the funding were not disclosed.

PowerPlant Ventures raised $165M to invest in plant-based nutrition. The fund has already invested in startups Vive Organic and Your Super.

Zero, an app used to track intermittent fasting, raised $2.8M from True Ventures and Trinity Ventures.

AllTrails, the outdoor adventure platform, acquired GPSies, a German recreation site, expanding the company’s reach in Europe. The terms of the deal were not released.

High-performance bicycle producer, Ventum, raised an undisclosed amount of Series A funding. The company is the Official Global Bike Partner of IRONMAN.

DTC plant startup Bloomscape raised $7.5M in Series A funding led by Revolution Ventures and Endeavor. More From Fitt Insider >> Issue No 18, Happy Plants: “...startups like The Sill, Bloomscape, and Horti are tapping the wellness craze by mailing house plants to millennials.” 

NakedPoppy, a natural makeup startup, raised $4M in seed funding from Cowboy Ventures, Felicis Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Maveron, Polaris Ventures, and Slow Ventures.

Allan Fisher, founder of Holmes Place, and son Jonathan, invested in a controlling stake of global boutique fitness brand, Trib3. The details were not disclosed, but the move comes as part of the company’s Series A funding.

Bridges Fund acquired a majority stake of énergie Fitness, the UK-based franchise gym operator. Terms of the deal were not released.

Luxury fitness brand, The Athletic Club, acquired fitness chain Prairie Life, expanding operations in the great plains region.

Natur International, the Dutch maker of plant-based foods and drinks, acquired a controlling stake in Temple, the turmeric beverage brand.


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