So you’ve decided you need more protein in your life. Whether you’re working out and looking to build muscle, going vegetarian, or simply hoping to make more filling smoothies, protein powders are an attractive option. Once you start trying to figure out which protein powder to buy, though, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the wide variety of options. I know I was. So I did some research, and now I’m writing this post so you guys don’t have to put nearly as much time and effort into making this decision as I did 🙂
Before we really get into the nitty gritty details of how to choose the right protein powder, lets back up and talk about what protein powders actually are. And what protein itself is for that matter.
What are protein powders?
At the most basic level, protein powders are dried and powdered foods that are high in protein. Depending on the food, the process for getting from food to powder can differ (I’ll cover that in the next section), but in the end you have a powder meant to dissolve in water and taste like either chocolate, vanilla, or fruit.
As a bioengineer, however, I know that ‘protein’ when used as a word for a macronutrient (like carbohydrate or fat) doesn’t mean quite the same thing as ‘protein’ when used to describe the building blocks of nearly everything in our bodies, and I set out to figure out what the difference is.
A brief bit of biology for you if you’ve forgotten: in the body, proteins are composed of amino acids linked together in a chain. Depending on the combination of amino acids, our bodies can create thousands of different proteins, each with a very unique job at the cellular level. (For example some proteins are responsible for moving things in and out of the cell, others carry things to destinations within the cell, and many participate in the ‘unzipping,’ reading, and repairing of DNA).
When you eat something that has ‘protein’ in it, you are eating proteins that other living things have built, whether it’s an animal or a plant. Once you eat the food, your body breaks down the proteins into their respective amino acids and uses those to make the proteins your own cells need. So in essence, your body is recycling those proteins, breaking apart old ones to build new ones. Cool, right?
There are 10 amino acids that our body makes, and 10 our body does not produce that we need to consume from the food we eat. Some foods and protein powders are labeled as “complete proteins.” This means that the proteins in that food or powder contain every single amino acid our bodies cannot produce themselves that we need to build proteins. So likewise, foods that are “incomplete proteins” only contain some of the amino acids we need. Protein powders exist in both categories, and I’ll talk a little bit more about those below.
What Kinds of Protein Powder Exist?
Whey is the most common and popular type of protein powder. It is extracted from cow milk and is a complete protein. It is also a good source of less-common amino acids such as leucine. Whey protein powder comes in three different types that are differentiated by the amount of protein they contain and how bioavailable that protein is (how easily your body can absorb it).
The general process for producing all types of whey is the same up to a certain point: enzymes are added to milk to begin the process of making cheese, and the milk separates into curds which are used to make cheese, leaving behind whey in the liquid.
Whey concentrate is about 25-80% protein, usually on the high end in protein powders (you might see WPC80 on the label). The other 20% is a combination of lactose, fat, minerals, and moisture. This type of whey is also the least bioavailable.
Whey isolate is slightly more processed than whey concentrate, resulting in less of the “other stuff” such as the lactose. This whey is generally 90% protein, but is also usually much more expensive than the concentrate version above.
However, this extra processing causes the loss of several beneficial components of the protein, and ultimately renders it more damaging than beneficial. The main loss is of alkalizing minerals. (Alkalizing is the opposite of acidifying, and keeping the pH of your body balanced is important for health). The problem with this is that if this protein is consumed without alkalizing foods (such as fruits and vegetables, soybeans and tofu, some nuts, seeds, and legumes), it can cause over acidification in the body, leading to problems such as metabolic acidosis, with consequences that include waste of muscle and bone tissues, total metabolic shut down, and increased vulnerability to degenerative disease.
Another loss in the processing of isolate whey is most of the fat. While at first this might sound like a good thing, many nutrients tend to bind to fat, so in particular you would be missing out on phospholipids (they make up all of your cell membranes) and IgG (immunoglobulin G, which is a main antibody in your body).
When whey protein is labeled as hydrolyzed (abbreviated WPH), it means that the chains of amino acids have already been partially broken down for you, making it easier and faster for your body to process this protein. This is the sort of protein recommended right after a workout because it has such high bioavailability and can give you the energy you need right away.
While whey protein powder can be a wonderful source of protein, you MUST make sure you are purchasing the right kind. Often whey is processed using acid processing, which exposes the protein to both acid and heat, both of which damage the protein and actually make it insoluble in water. But because the point of protein powder is to be dissolved in water, the producers end up adding chemical agents to increase the solubility. Things they add include genetically modified soy lecithin, chemical surfactants (which are used in soap, like polysorbate 80) propylene glycol, and ethoxylated mono-diglycerides. And to make it taste good, they will usually add artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which is a well-known carcinogen.
What is the right kind? Choose organic, hormone/antibiotic free, cold processed, water soluble, and free of all those nasty additives listed above. Here’s one that I have found that seems to meet those criteria: Naked Whey
Casein is another protein powder derived from milk. The protein distribution in milk is about 20% whey and 80% casein, which is sometimes referred to as milk protein, and it naturally contains the minerals calcium and phosphorus. This type of protein absorbs into your body much, much slower than whey, making it a better option for a long-term steady supply of protein to your body (7-10hrs). In addition, due to this slow release, your body ends up being able to use more of this protein, because if your body is supplied with more of something than it needs at a time it will dispose of it (the exception to this is the fat-storing process). But generally, flooding your body with any nutrient means your body will extract all it needs and you will pass the rest in your waste. This is a reason I’m not a fan of taking multivitamins, because most of those contain way more than your body needs, so you’re basically paying for your body to dispose of most of that, when you can get what you need in the right quantities from food. (end rant).
A note of caution about anything derived from cows: We all have heard about all the hormones and antibiotics given to cows to either help them grow faster to be eaten or produce more milk in less time. And hopefully you’ve heard that often these hormones and antibiotics end up in the beef and milk you buy at the store. These are definitely NOT good for you. And protein powders derived from milk are not excluded from this effect. So look for protein powders derived from organic and antibiotic/hormone free milk.
Egg white protein powder is derived from (you guessed it) egg whites. Since it is derived from only the whites of the eggs, it does not have cholesterol or as much fat as an egg, but it still contains the vitamins A, B, and D that are found in eggs. Also, since it is not derived from milk it is lactose free. It might be a good option for those with a lactose intolerance because it compares well with whey in that it is both a complete protein and has similar amounts of protein per serving.
However you need to be cautious with egg white protein powder for several reasons. First, it comes with all the risks of raw eggs, meaning if it is not cooked you could contract salmonella from it. Another reason to cook it is to deactivate the protein avidin, which can bind to the B vitamin and prevent your body from absorbing it.
Another word of caution I have for you concerning eggs is this: in order for your body to absorb all the vitamins found in egg whites, you should eat them with egg yolks. Without the egg yolks, you don’t get nearly as much absorption of vitamins A or D because they are fat soluble, meaning they cannot dissolve in water and therefore need fat to be absorbed into the body. Egg yolks contain this needed fat. Egg yolks also contain cholesterol, which you often hear is bad for you. And from most sources you commonly hear about, it is. But the amount of cholesterol from eggs is not enough to hurt you, as long as you aren’t eating more than 7 a day on average.
Pea protein powder is touted as the super food protein powder for vegetarians. It’s made from yellow peas, and has an impressive amino acid profile for a plant-based source. It is lacking only one amino acid, cystine. Since it is not derived from dairy it is lactose free, and it also is not a grain so it is gluten free.
A quick note about gluten free: I see this all the time, people choosing ‘gluten free’ foods and equating that to ‘healthy’ foods. This is definitely not the case. While consuming too much gluten is not good for you, not consuming any is also not good for you, unless you have a gluten allergy. So not only can gluten be part of a healthy diet, just because something is gluten free absolutely does not mean that it is healthier than it’s gluten-containing counterpart. And something I find really disturbing is that it has now become popular for companies to label their food gluten free, even when it is naturally gluten free (i.e. it would never have gluten in it in the first place). So escape from that corporate trap and don’t let “gluten free” on the label decide whether or not you buy something.
Moving on, since pea protein is not a complete protein, it would be a good idea to supplement with a protein powder that is either complete or contains the missing cystine (or just actually eat meat or eggs if that is an option for you).
If you’re looking for a plant-based complete protein, soy could be a good option for you. As I’m sure you know, soy is an alternative for many foods these days, ranging from milk to meat (soy milk and tofu). It’s fairly cheap and provides the many nutrients found in green vegetables. It performs similar to whey, although it’s protein density per serving isn’t as high.
However, there are risks to consider with soy as well. It has been well-documented that soy can interact with estrogen and skew your hormone levels, increasing the amount of estrogen in your body. This can sound especially alarming to men who are looking to keep levels of testosterone high for muscle-building. However if this is your only source of soy, you probably won’t notice a difference in terms of your estrogen level.
The biggest problem with soy (and like I’ve said before with pretty much anything) is eating too much of it. If you drink soy milk and have tofu regularly and eat soy cheese then adding soy protein powder would probably have an adverse effect, if all the other soy hasn’t already. In summary (and I cannot stress this enough) EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.
Further, there are several correlation studies that link soy to a laundry list of health issues ranging from vitamin B12 deficiency to increasing your risk for breast cancer. To read more about this, follow this link. My opinion remains that small amounts of this stuff is probably ok: it’s like eating McDonalds. We know its really terrible in several ways, but eating it a few times a year probably won’t contribute negatively to your long term health if the rest of your habits are healthy.
While brown rice is mainly a carbohydrate, brown rice protein powder is made by extracting the protein from the rice grain, making a relatively low carb protein source. While studies show that brown rice performs similarly to whey, it is another case of a lower amount of protein per serving. It is also not a complete protein, lacking lysine.
As stated above about pea protein powder, since brown rice protein powder does not contain all the amino acids it should not be your sole source of protein. Blend it with a complete protein or even pea protein since they are not deficient in the same amino acids.
Brown rice is great if you are allergic or sensitive to soy and lactose, but it still has gluten in it, so it is not a good option for those who must eat gluten-free. I have also read in many places that it tastes awful and doesn’t dissolve well into shakes, and while I have never tried it myself, I want you to be warned.
Note about brown rice: brown rice has been found to have dangerous levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen. This is why many people advise rinsing your brown rice before eating it.
Hemp is sort of the new superfood on the block. Among its benefits are a complete protein profile, a richness in omega 3 and omega 6, both very healthy fats that our bodies need (omega 3 supports heart health and omega 6 reduces inflammation), and lots of fiber, making it very filling.
Those of you who are savvy with your terminology know that hemp and marijuana are from the same genus. However, hemp has been selected and grown specifically to have long stalks and as few flowers as possible. Marijuana plants are grown for the exact opposite characteristic of having as many flowers as possible, as those are the source of THC, the compound in marijuana that makes you high. Hemp has only trace amounts of THC, so it is impossible to get “high” on hemp, and eating it is completely safe.
The last option to consider is a pre-made blend of different plant-based protein powders. As mentioned above, not all plant-based powders provide a complete protein, so blending them is a great option to complete the proteins.
Choosing the Right Protein Powder
So you look at all of this and maybe you still aren’t sure how to choose the right protein powder. But what if the answer is none of them?
Most protein powders on the market today, whey being the worst offender, are filled with flavorings, sugars, and preservatives. I mean, I don’t completely blame them, it is pretty hard to make most of these protein powders palatable. But these things are definitely not good for you and absolutely not part of a clean eating diet. (Clean eating seeks to avoid all chemicals and additives in food, getting nutrients from the least processed sources). Even if it says it only uses “natural flavorings” that doesn’t mean its good for you. Please don’t ever forget that “all natural” does not mean “all good for you.” (Remember, nature produces just as many poisonous plants as nutritious ones.)
So what’s a health conscious person like me or you to do? Get your proteins straight from the source! Forget all the hassle of choosing a protein powder and just incorporate protein into your life.
If you’re not into eating meat or dairy products, and vegetables and rice just aren’t your thing, hemp seeds could be just the thing you need. Like every other source of protein powder, you can get the same benefits with none of the additives by simply eating hemp seeds. Now, you might not want to just eat them by the spoonful, but they are great for adding to shakes. This recipe by Catherine Rudolph is said to taste just like ice cream when frozen. (How awesome is that? Healthy protein ice cream!) I personally add a serving to my fruit smoothie in the mornings, and I love it. It gives the smoothie the extra boost it needs to really be a complete meal.
Whatever you choose, at least now you can make an informed decision, and that is ultimately what I am here for.
So what choice did you make? I’m dying to know. Let me know in the comments below and we can chat about it!
Pssst! Not sure where the heck to buy hemp seeds? I had no idea either. Apparently they aren’t in normal grocery stores. But I found them on Amazon, and after using them for awhile, I love them! I definitely recommend these: Organic Hemp Seeds