Eating like a caveman is getting costlier.
That’s dour news for the growing number of Americans adopting diets that mimic the eating habits of their hunter- gatherer ancestors. The Bloomberg Protein Index, which tracks the prices of beef, beans, bacon and nine other protein sources, has jumped 28 percent in the five years through May. The measure has increased 5 percent this year, twice as fast as the gain for all food prices, as beef and pork got more expensive.
While more than half of American consumers are looking to eat more protein and millions are adhering to the Paleolithic, or Paleo, diet, the higher cost of the muscle-building amino acids threatens to curb their enthusiasm and send them in search of cheaper alternatives. That reversal may hurt foodmakers such as Kraft Foods Group Inc. and restaurant chains like Taco Bell that are advertising more protein-heavy fare.
"For people who wanted to add protein just because it’s healthy, if they start to get sticker shock, they might pull back a little bit," Darren Seifer, an analyst at researcher NPD Group Inc., said in an interview. Consumers may switch to smaller sizes or substitute cheaper options such as chicken for higher-priced sources like beef, he said.
The idea of high protein consumption as a key to staying fit was popularized in the 1960s with Irwin Stillman’s book "The Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss Diet." Robert Atkins followed in the 1970s and 1980s with diets designed to boost energy and drop pounds by limiting carbohydrates.
More recently in vogue is the Paleo diet, which encourages people to eat only whole, unprocessed foods like those available to humans in the Stone Age. About 1 million to 3 million Americans may have adopted the diet, according to an online study conducted by Hamilton Stapell, a professor at State University of New York at New Paltz.
Now, prices for some of the most common types of meat are surging this year. Pork has climbed as a virus killed as many as 8 million hogs, reducing supplies. Beef prices are up after years of drought shrank cattle herds to the smallest since 1951. Prices for eggs and dairy products also have gained in the past 12 months as export demand grows.
Not all customers are willing to pay the higher prices, said Panera Bread Co. Chief Concept Officer Scott Davis, who came up with the chain’s protein-rich egg-and-ham breakfast sandwich while dabbling in the Paleo diet.
Higher meat costs make it "a challenge to do more with protein today," he said.
Panera has a Power Menu that includes steak-and-egg breakfast bowls and Mediterranean roasted-turkey salads. The St. Louis-based company also recently added black bean and curried lentil flavors of hummus, made from protein-heavy chickpeas.
The high-protein salads and bowls are just about 20 cents more, on average, than regular salads because consumers would consider even an extra $1 a "hefty increase," Davis said. Panera shares fell 0.1 percent to $147.73 at 9:57 a.m. in New York.
Yum! Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell chain last year tested a Power Protein Menu with chicken and steak burritos and bowls -- each with at least 20 grams of protein and 450 calories or less. The items were literally beefed up with double portions of meat, as well as guacamole, corn and reduced-fat sour cream. While the chain previously had a low-calorie, low-fat menu, it no longer resonated with customers, said Melissa Friebe, the chain’s senior director of strategy and insights.