Protein has been a real trend in food in recent times. I'm sure you've seen food marketers trumpeting "high protein" claims on packaging of everything from cereal to bread.
Unlike some of the other trendy claims we see on packaged food (think "no refined sugar" or "natural"), this one has some legs. There's some solid science behind why some of us, at least, might benefit from foods with a bit of a protein boost.
While it's seldom useful to think of food in terms of nutrients (who ever knows how much protein is in their plate of food?), protein is one that's worth at least knowing about. It's the building block of the body. Its main role is growth and repair; it helps in the formation of muscles, hair, nails, skin and organs. Those whose bodies are under extra demand – athletes; growing teenagers; pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who are sick or injured – need more protein to keep that growth and repair going.
Another group being studied more in terms of protein requirements is older people. Some of us may not realise that people over 70 need significantly more protein – and it's likely not everyone in that age group is getting enough.
A recent study in Finland echoed previous research, in finding that adequate intake of protein is associated with a reduced risk of frailty in older women.
However, what's recommended as "adequate" in Nordic countries is more than our own health guidelines here in New Zealand.
In the Finnish study, "adequate" protein intake for people over 65 was defined as at least 1.1g per kg of body weight – in line with the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations.
In New Zealand, though, our recommended daily intake for over 70s is somewhat lower – just 0.94 grams per kilogram.
That might not be enough to prevent muscle loss and subsequent frailty. With local research from Auckland University showing well under half of older adults are not meeting the adequate targets for protein, researchers suggest that an officially "healthy" diet is not enough to slow the age-related loss of muscle mass. It's the same in other countries; older people who eat more protein retain their muscle mass and are able to move better; less protein means more likelihood of decline and sarcopenia – the loss of muscle.
Niki Bezzant: The healthy way to snack
So what does this mean in food terms?
For an older person weighing 70kg, the Finnish level of protein would be 77 grams. You could get that in the form of two large eggs (13g); two slices wholegrain bread (6g); half a cup of yoghurt (10g); a small chicken breast (33g) and a handful of peanuts (9g).
The trick for older people is to get good amounts of protein in, along with all the other nutrients, when you need fewer calories than you once did. Spreading out your protein intake through the day is one way of doing that; think protein foods in each meal and snack. In that context, a "high protein" claim is your friend.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide; www.healthyfood.com