Over the weekend at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, nutrition companies debuted new products designed to arrest the attention of a captive audience of exercise enthusiasts, bodybuilders, and bro scientists.
While ketogenic foods dominated displays at last year's Olympia Fitness & Performance Expo in Las Vegas, spring's big bodybuilding event showcased protein-laden sweet treats.
"Keto to sweet-o, I love it," said Bill Miller, a construction worker who had brought his 10-year-old son to the Arnold. "I'm getting my kid into healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, so it's cool how every company is giving away some kind of cake or cookie at their booth."
Advances in food technology, particularly related to dairy and the lower costs of whey, have enabled manufacturers to improve the quality and variety of healthy, low-fat foods they distribute.
"Our signature product is still whey protein—after all, our parent company, Glanbia, has a leading market position in dairy production—but we've gotten much better at doing sweet and savory tastes," Susan Goodell, who handles marketing for Optimum Nutrition, told Motherboard.
Michael Shoretz, the CEO and creator of Enlightened Ice Cream, stressed that his product is intended for mass-market distribution rather than the freezers of muscled-up meatheads. "We are working to get our pints into all the regional grocery store chains, and to sell them at a price point that's competitive with Ben & Jerry's and other brands," he said. "A product with 'diet' packaging like Skinny Cow can't match Enlightened's nutritional profile, and there are few other healthy ice cream alternatives for consumers."
Bill Miller agreed that healthy offerings are scarce at the convenience stores where he buys lunch. "I'm out in the sticks [in rural southern Ohio], and I'm happy as heck to find something like a Quest bar when I stop for a quick bite, even if their bars taste like sawdust. My son won't touch the things, though."
"Optimum introduced cake bites, soft chewable protein treats with flavors like red velvet and birthday cake, after extensive taste-testing, because plenty of people want something that's sweeter than the typical protein bar," said Goodell. "And our research folks have worked overtime to make the mass gainer powder dissolve more smoothly and taste better. Getting the flavor of our products right is a way to stand out in a crowded marketplace."
Of course, not all high-protein treats have proven to be as nutritious as they claimed. Lenny & Larry's Complete Cookie, one of the first products of its kind, initiated a recall in December 2016 because of dairy contamination in their chocolate chips (the cookies are marketed as vegan) and now faces a class action lawsuit in which the company is accused of overstating its cookies' protein content.
"[Lenny & Larry's] recalled chocolate chips tasted just like regular chocolate chips (made with milk) for the same reason that these cookies taste like regular cookies," wrote fitness journalist Anthony Roberts. "I'm guessing the rest of the macronutrient claims aren't accurate, either."
Michael Shoretz assured Motherboard that Enlightened Ice Cream, which attracted long lines to its booth, was as healthy as advertised. "We are deeply concerned with quality assurance and have our products tested regularly by a private, independent laboratory," he said. "I started my career as a personal trainer, and I invested my savings from that to get this ice cream right--the taste and the nutrition--because I was trying to create something that I had wanted, a type of frozen dairy dessert that didn't exist before."
Powerlifter and bodybuilder Cory Gregory, who owns the nutrition brand Max Effort Muscle, emphasized that supplement companies can falter when they try to do too much. "We sell five products, with three targeted around the workout, and you can mix and match them at one flat price," he said. "Once you've been in this business long enough, you know what sells and what doesn't."
Bill Miller, the construction worker who subsists on Quest bars, praised the quality of the foods he had sampled but wished they were available at cheaper prices. "I mean, I'm not gonna lie—the Kit Kat is delicious and a lot of places, even my son's school, sell the packages three for a buck. Yeah, I want my protein to have a good flavor, but we'd probably all be healthier if we could afford to eat this stuff three times a day."