When it comes to convenience, nothing beats a scoop or two of protein powder blended with some fruit, greens, almond milk and ice for a quick and healthy meal or snack. For anyone living the typical ‘on the go’ lifestyle, protein powder seems to be a godsend for athletes, dieters, or just about anyone who wants to make a healthy choice but has little time for meal prep or cooking. And while protein powder boasts convenience, if you are anything like me, you have probably also wondered if the convenience factor of protein powder and bars is somehow overshadowing the possible negatives that might come with relying on these hyped-up products on a regular basis.

Almost every canister of protein powder you see makes some type of compelling claims. Everything from, low calorie and low glycemic to high ORAC values (a measure of antioxidant capacity), probiotics, and even hypo-allergenicity. But is it really just all good stuff in there, or does something you don’t want get added to protein powders in the processing?

I often recommend protein smoothies as a way of getting a balanced meal and a serving of greens (depending on the recipe) and I have received many questions both online and in person regarding the best and healthiest brands of protein powder.  This motivated me to buy many different varieties available in both health food and standard grocery stores.  In this post, I will give a basic explanation of why we need protein, share my research and opinions on the healthiest options, and offer a few tips on what you should look for and what to avoid when shopping for protein powder.


What is Protein

Protein is a macronutrient (macronutrients are necessary for growth, metabolism and other functions of the body) that is broken down into amino acids when digested.  Amino acids are “the building blocks of life” and the body needs a variety of them to function properly. Some amino acids must come from our diet – these are the essential amino acids and some the body can make for itself (most of the time) – these are non-essential amino acids.

Essential amino acids – the body can’t manufacture, and thus we must consume in our diets.
Non-Essential amino acids – amino acids the body can make for itself (most of the time).


Why Do We Need Protein

As mentioned, proteins are broken down into amino acids to produce things like enzymes, hormones, antibodies and more, they are the building block of the cell and help to transport substances and make repairs throughout our body.  The presence of amino acids in our blood plasma also causes an increase in hormones that aid in controlling body fat stores and improve use of fatty acids for energy production. When you consume protein after a workout, it facilitates recovery by providing the tools the body needs for cellular repair and restoration.


How Much Protein Do We Need

From Precision Nutrition:

  • Basic protein intake:  0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 g per pound) of body mass in untrained, generally healthy adults.
  • Athletic high intensity training: 1.4-2.0 g/kg (or around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of body mass.

While there are some naysayers to the idea that protein is vital to maintaining a lean physique, there is a growing body of research that indicates the consumption of protein also helps you maintain a healthy body composition, strong immune system and healthy metabolism while also promoting satiety.

Please also note that macronutrient ratios and food choices often need to be adjusted based on individual need.  The goal is to start with what works for most people (see above), record what you are doing so you can make sure you are compliant and then make adjustments as needed.


Main Types of Protein Powder

Whey

  • Whey is a complete, dairy-based protein shown to be easily absorbed and utilized by the body, especially post workout.
  • Popular options include “hydrolyzed” “isolate”, neither of which seem to be necessary to get the benefits of whey protein. “Hydrolyzed” means the product has broken down to improve digestion. “Isolate” means the protein has gone through a purification process.
  • Attention should be paid to the source and processing of the whey – as this process is not regulated by the FDA.
  • Avoid pasteurized dairy sources and artificial sweeteners.
  • Choose whey from organic grass-fed dairy.
  • Whey and casein are diary based proteins so avoid if you have a dairy allergy.

Soy

  • Soybeans contain all of your essential amino acids (referred to as a complete protein)
  • Soy protein performs comparably to whey protein as a workout recovery drink.
  • Soy isoflavones can potentially interact with hormones like estrogen and potentially skew hormone levels when taken in excess. For men, specifically, the fear is that increased soy intake could reduce testosterone levels. However, research suggests that the effect of this isn’t always a a huge concern unless you are ingesting large amounts of soy.
  • There is quite a lot of research being done on the potential negatives of soy but I find this research to vary quite a bit so it is hard to say for sure whether one should avoid soy or that we don’t need to worry.
  • Some of the above mentioned negatives are:
    • most soy available in the USA is often genetically modified.
    • soy is high in phytic acid which can prevent absorption of important minerals.
    • the processing of soy to create soy protein powder could render the proteins ineffective.
  • I personally avoid soy and I do not use soy protein powder because of the GMO and phytic acid research claims but I remain optimistic about soy products and if I have a little tofu now and then I am OK with it.

Vegan Protein Powder Blend
Plant-based proteins are fantastic because they eliminate potential allergens and are often made from organic ingredients by reputable companies that (one must hope) are concerned with creating high quality ingredients that are processed correctly. Sources of vegetarian protein are commonly derived from peas, hemp and brown rice.

The down-side of one single type of vegetarian protein is that most are incomplete proteins, meaning it will not contain the all essential amino acids the body needs to function properly. Vegan protein powder blends solve this issue by providing a complete array of the essential amino acids in vegetarian form. The result is a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free supplement that can nutritionally stand up against animal-based products, without users having to worry about amino acid deficiencies, allergens, or stomach upsets.


Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Protein Powder

    1. What is the source of protein? (vegan, whey, egg, etc)
    2. Is it a complete protein? (you need to make sure you have a source of essential amino acids in your diet)
    3. Is the serving size appropriate for my purposes? (a reasonable serving that doesn’t ruin the taste of a smoothie should give 16-20 grams)
    4. Is there any sugar or an artificial sweetener in my protein powder? (if so, am I ok with that? – most of the time the answer to that is no)
    5. Is this protein certified by a governing body or quality control company?  (supplements are not regulated by the FDA so you should feel good about the standards of the company you are buying protein powder from)
    6. What type of potential toxins may be in this?  (many powders have dies, or other harmful contaminants that we will cover in the next section)
    7. Is the taste tolerable enough that you will eat this?  (healthy protein often tastes like junk!  I have a vegan protein and a whey version because I sometimes don’t finish the smoothies made with the vegan protein because of the taste)

Taste

This is the number one criteria because, well, if it’s doesn’t taste good, you won’t drink it! If you’re adding fruits like bananas and berries to your shake, save yourself some grams of sugar or artificial flavors and get a plain neutral-tasting powder. However if you prefer to just add water or some type of milk, go for a product that has fruity flavor from natural fruit extracts. Some companies will ship you free samples if you request them on their website, or you can buy single-serve packets instead of investing in the whole canister if you’re not sure about the taste. Which brings us to the next important criteria…


Nutrition Facts

What does the Nutrition Facts Panel say? Are you getting straight protein or are you mistakenly looking at a meal replacement that has carbs and fat as well. Is there sugar in it? An artificial sweetener? How much protein is in one serving?


Quality Ingredients

This is big one, and there are three main things to consider when looking at the ingredient list:
1) Is it organic? You don’t want any pesticide residues adding to your toxic load. Non-GMO and organic would even better. 2) Is it plant-based? Legume, hemp and grain-based products are naturally more hypoallergenic, taking care of the finally criteria.
3) Is it allergen-free? Milk/casein/lactose, gluten/wheat, soy, eggs and nuts are among the top allergens that people react to without even knowing it. If your protein powder is causing digestive upset, ezcema, or even brain fog, it’s not worth it.


Heavy metals

You’ve heard of mercury as a heavy metal we need to be wary of when choosing fish. And who could forget the arsenic scare in brown rice? Protein powders are also at-risk for contamination with neurotoxins like cadmium, arsenic and lead. Consumer Reports did testing on some popular protein powders and found that several brands, including Muscle Milk, Myoplex, Designer Whey and GNC, all had traces of these dangerous elements.


The top five picks I’ve listed are clear of heavy metals (at least from what I know) and contain no refined sugar. FYI Certain flavors of Terra’s whey does contain stevia.

Taste Complete Protein? Grams of Protein per /Source 100% Organic

Allergen-free
(milk, gluten,soy, eggs, nuts)

Vega One moderate $$$$ 15 grams/Pea no yes
Terra’s Whey good, but contains stevia $$$$ 20 grams yes, and non-GMO no – made from milk
Amazin’ Grass good $$$$ 20 grams Organic Hemp, Chia, Quinoa plus the highest quality Organic Pea 100% grown yes, and non-GMO yes
Garden of Life Raw ????? $$ 17 grams/Blend of Sprouted grains, legumes and seeds yes, and non-GMO yes


Protein Product Brand Awareness

From Consumer reports
“The results showed a considerable range, but levels in three products were of particular concern because consuming three servings a day could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by USP.”

The article goes into detail about the heavy metals in our environment and how they can accumulate in the body. My advice – don’t read the article. DISTURBING to say the least.

Meet your daily protein requirements through a balanced diet combined with a organic grass fed whey or a vegan blend is with an emphasis on real food protein sources as much as possible. Try using protein powder or a bar no more than once per day.

Sources:
http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/protein-drinks/index.htm
All About Protein
Protein Powder Reviews
Research On Why You Should Avoid Soy