It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the CNBC show Shark Tank, which features entrepreneurs pitching their brands to a panel of angel investors, is a trend incubator—and that the debut of the whole-food, high-protein donut company The Dough Bar on the program may have signaled a new era for so-called fitness desserts. In Idaho, the trend—which already has a long, if niche, history nationwide—is starting to explode at the local level.
Emily Knigge, the creator of Fit Donut in Meridian, said new customers often mistake her high-protein donut brand for the one that scored a $300,000 investment on Shark Tank. It's difficult to blame them, as the January episode aired aired within weeks of the opening of Fit Donut's storefront at 1330 E. Fairview Avenue.
"There are other companies [like ours]," Knigge said, "but there aren't any around here."
Inside, Fit Donut feels more like a gym than a bakery, with a black and gray color scheme and a hot pink counter. Posters of women running, doing sit-ups and lifting weights cover the walls, complete with slogans like "If you are going to cheat, cheat clean." The workers behind the counter wear the same uniform as their customers: leggings and Nike running shoes for the women, basketball shorts and muscle shirts for the men. Next door, the Crunch Fitness gym supplies a steady stream of walk-ins.
- Lex Nelson
Like Shark Tank's The Dough Bar, Fit Donut prioritizes its ingredients, and Knigge makes no bones about catering to weightlifters and fitness junkies with self-imposed dietary restrictions. The 16 varieties of donuts she produces are baked, not fried, and made from a blend of whole grain flours, whey protein, almond milk, cashew milk, coconut oil and Stevia. Plus, they all fit into a specific protein, carb and calorie range: Each donut has 5-9 grams of protein, 1.5-3.5 grams of fat, 1.5-4 grams of sugar and 6-9 grams of carbohydrates.
"I do try and keep things changing, but I do want them all to fit within 103 calories or less," said Knigge. "...A box of six is like the equivalent to one Krispy Kreme donut."
Before she became a fitness dessert micro-mogul, Knigge worked as a nurse, and then as a freelance personal trainer after her husband introduced her to weightlifting. While working as a trainer, she came up with the idea of making a high-protein, fit-friendly dessert as a perk for her clients.
"I just happened to have a donut pan, so I made them donuts," she said. "I thought that cupcakes were too, I don't know—there are cupcakes everywhere. But I thought, 'No one has [healthy] donuts.'"
- Courtesy Fit Donut
When clients started offering to pay for extra donuts and her friends and family began placing large orders, Knigge decided to quit personal training in favor of baking donuts full time. In May of 2017, she started her delivery business, and on Jan. 15 she opened her Meridian storefront. Now, she said, her crew bakes roughly 80 dozen donuts fresh every day.
Although Fit Donut's product is a donut by name, it's much closer to cake, with a dense, spongy texture and distinct protein powder aftertaste cut by frosting and toppings like crushed chocolate cookies and sprinkles. Each donut is frosted to order, and Knigge said the coconut cluster—which features a chocolate frosting, coconut flakes, carob chips and caramel drizzle—is her most popular offering, with raspberry glaze, caramel cream, cinnamon maple and peanut butter cup following close behind. The flavor of the month is also a big seller; Knigge added a mint chocolate donut to the menu in March in honor of Saint Patrick's Day, and kicked off April with a banana sundae-inspired donut topped with banana frosting, caramel, carob chips and almonds.
So-called protein bakeries like Knigge's have been around since the 1990s, but gained traction in recent years with the rising popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets like paleo and ketogenic. The Protein Bakery, which opened in New York City in 1999, was one of the first.
Also started by an avid weightlifter, The Protein Bakery serves up cookies, brownies, blondies, cakes and shakes made with rolled oats it claims are high in protein and fiber, and free of gluten, trans fats, preservatives and wheat. Their breakfast cookie, studded with raisins, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and almonds, packs a 5-gram protein punch.
- Lex Nelson
Lenny & Larry's was also quick off the blocks, and opened in 1993 as a collaboration between two self-proclaimed gym rats who, according to their company website, were tired of eating "chicken breast after chicken breast, protein shake after protein shake." Their vegan, Kosher Complete Cookies—the anchor of their brand, which also includes Muscle Brownies and Muscle Muffins—deliver between 8 and 16 grams of protein, and come in classic flavors like snickerdoodle, chocolate chip and mint chocolate, as well as more oddball options like lemon poppyseed and birthday cake.
Fresh Healthy Cafe on Broad Street is the only Idaho outpost the stocking products from The Protein Bakery, but Complete Cookies are ubiquitous in gas stations and grocery stores, and a host of other high-protein desserts—like Muscletech protein cookies, Optimum Nutrition cake bites and MHP pudding packs—are up for grabs on fitness retail websites like Bodybuilding.com.
The trend of tackling typical dessert foods and designing high-protein alternates isn't limited to baked goods, either. Ice cream brands like Halo Top, IceNLean and Wheyhey have brought frozen desserts into fashion too, and here in Boise, the ice cream company Killer Whey! is riding the same wave.
- Courtesy Killer Whey!
"It's essentially a product I made for myself," said Killer Whey! founder Louis Armstrong. "I'm a health and fitness fanatic, and I'm also a food scientist [with a bachelors from University of Idaho], so kind of comparing those two I decided to make a protein ice cream after eating an ice cream sandwich and realizing how terrible it was for you."
Armstrong's locally-made ice cream is whipped up from a blend of whey protein, cream, vanilla extract, Stevia, xylitol (a sugar alcohol) and a trio of gums, and comes in four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate chip and peanut butter. In flavor and texture, the product is nearly a dead ringer for classic ice cream, and only a lingering grainy feeling on the tongue betrays its high content of whey protein—an impressive 44 grams per pint.
Armstrong's company also shows just how popular so-called fitness foods have become, even with people who've never set foot inside a weight room; he lists his clients as not only weightlifters; but also soccer moms, diabetics and more. This, along with Killer Whey!'s high protein content, points to one of two debates that have sprung up around fitness desserts: How much protein is too much for the average consumer?
"Right now, I don't think there's a limit, as far as '300 grams of protein in a day is your limit' kind of a thing. But a lot of us really do meet our protein needs, and we don't need as much as we consume as a nation," said Callie Miller, a registered dietitian and nutrition counselor at St. Luke's in Meridian. "So it probably isn't best to pile up on the high protein desserts."
Miller noted that serious athletes who use the extra protein to replenish muscle are an exception to the rule, and added that people with kidney problems should be careful of eating too much protein, as it can be hard for their bodies to process.
- Courtesy Killer Whey!
The American College of Sports Medicine offers a way to calculate optimal protein intake based on recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: According to a 2015 report, protein should make up 10-35 percent of a person's daily energy intake—or, for every pound of body weight, a person should consume .35 grams of protein.
The second debate around "fit desserts" centers on health, and is encapsulated by a 2015 article published by Harvard Medical School: "Are Protein Bars Really Just Candy Bars in Disguise?" After comparing the calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fiber, vitamin and mineral content of a Snickers bar to a Nutz Over Chocolate Luna Bar (made by the Twin Falls, Idaho-based company Clif Bar), the piece concluded that "a Snickers bar isn't all that much worse than many nutrition bars."
While Miller didn't go that far, she did point out that "fit desserts" can pile up calorically if they're turned to as a substitute too often.
"From a dietitian's standpoint, unless you're really addicted to sugar it's best to go after the whole foods sources, so you aren't caving into sweets all time," Millar said. "...It's probably better to just have some ice cream every once in a while rather than something like [a protein bar] every single day."
Still, the high-protein dessert trend continues, and both Knigge and Armstrong have their own theories as to why.
"I think it's just this day and age. Everything is digital, everything is social media, everybody can see everybody else, so you kind of want what everybody else has," said Knigge. "You see all of these people with these great healthy lifestyles and you want that for yourself, but you still have that sweet craving because you've been eating sugar your whole life."
Armstrong, too, pointed to cravings.
"I think a lot of it has to do with guilt for people," he said. "Everybody loves their guilty pleasures, like donuts and pizza, you name it. So if you can create something that's healthy that satisfies those cravings, why not trade it for that and satisfy your guilty pleasure."