How to Choose a Protein Powder
Disclaimer: This is not medical or personalized nutrition advice, but general education. Discuss your own nutrition needs with your healthcare provider or qualified nutritionist.
What is protein powder?
It’s a supplement, concentrated from food sources of various amino acids. Amino acids are necessary for tissue maintenance and growth, hormone production, and immune cell creation, and nutrient transport. That means you can’t grow, protect, or operate your body without protein!
Protein powder does NOT replace quality whole food sources of protein. It should be used in addition to nutrient-dense foods to increase your total protein intake. Athletes, people with chronic illnesses, and those with food allergies are examples of people who may benefit from using protein powder.
Protein powder can be used in smoothies, bars, energy bites, baked goods and other recipes, or simply mixed in water. Some versions contain added enzymes to support digestion. If you tend to feel bloated after a protein shake this is a good option for you.
The tastier it is, the more processed it is. This is a sad but true statement. Protein isolates have more protein per ounce, but it takes more processing to create them. Protein concentrates are less processed and still contain high amounts of protein. Look for a protein powder that is minimally processed. A review of protein powder creation practices determined that:
“Various physical instabilities, such as unfolding, adsorption, denaturation, aggregation, and precipitation, may occur during the drying process. Deamination, oxidation, β-elimination, hydrolysis, racemization, isomerization, and disulfide exchange are irreversible reactions that are considered chemical degradations for biopharmaceuticals….In addition, the protein sequence, hydrophobicity, isoelectric point, and carbohydrate content play key roles in the susceptibility of proteins to inactivation. Degradation of protein products may result in reduced bioactivity with increased immunogenicity.” (Emami, Vatanara, Park, and Na, 2018)
This basically means that proteins can become damaged during processing, shipping, and storage, and that damages can have harmful health effects.
Avoid fillers: These dilute the amount of protein per ounce of powder, and are can be harmful in large doses. Popular fillers include maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, modified food starch, gum acacia, xanthan gum, rice powder, lecithin (soy or sunflower), carrageenan, the list goes on.
Sweeteners: These improve the taste of protein powders and can also create adverse affects when consumed in large doses. Examples (listed from most potentially harmful to least) include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, sorbitol, xylitol, cane sugar, stevia, and monk fruit.
Other add-ins: Artificial flavors and artificial colors. Unnecessary and also potentially harmful.
Use caution: Just like any food and especially processed food, excessive use of protein powder can trigger the development of sensitivities or allergies. Consume in moderation with a specific purpose in mind.
Finally, just like all other supplements in the US, protein powders are directly regulated by the FDA. There are periodic inspections by the FDA of manufacturing facilities to ensure Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), but these inspections are not frequent enough to provide assurance of continued quality. It is your responsibility and privilege as a consumer to select what you deem to be a quality supplement. Many companies will list 3rd party inspection performed by organizations such as NSF, USP, Informed Choice, or BSCG. You can confirm and request reports from these inspections to determine if you are comfortable with the quality of your product.
Types of Protein Powder
The following are individual protein powder sources. The nutrient content and benefits I discuss pertain to the particular food source and do not include the addition of other ingredients. For animal proteins, I prefer grass-fed and/or organic as these animals tend to be treated with more compassion and are typically happier and healthier.
This product contains the highest amount of protein per ounce of powder. Beef protein is highly absorbable, provided you have sufficient enzymes. It’s rich in creatine, which supports workout stamina. It’s high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs - leucine, isoleucine, and valine) which are important for muscle growth. Beef protein is often preferred by those in the Paleo community. It has a slightly salty, chalky taste that mixes well with chocolate and peanut/almond butter.
Whey is the liquid byproduct of cheesemaking, and can be used fresh to make lactofermented vegetables and other fun foods. Filtration of liquid whey removes fat and lactose, and it then like other proteins it is sprayed and dried into a powder. Whey is absorbed quickly and may prompt higher insulin release than other proteins, which may be a concern if you have blood sugar dysregulation. BCAA content is very high in whey protein, which is why many athletes and body builders prefer it. It’s lower in arginine (an amino acid that supports growth hormone production) than most plant proteins, so if you are concerned with overall physical growth or muscle growth, you may want to choose a different protein. Quality sources of whey will be labeled cold-filtered and be rBGH free. Whey is commonly used in protein bars.
Casein is the primary protein present in milk. Micellar casein is the most absorbable form, Casein absorbs more slowly than whey and is used by athletes for overnight muscle growth and fullness. The controversial book “The China Study,” which analyzed research on how animal protein consumption correlate to cancer and other disease development in rural China, primarily compared casein consumption rather than total animal protein. Casein is in some protein bars, sometimes labeled as “milk protein.”
This protein is very absorbable, and quite useful for those who don’t digest plant proteins well. However, egg is a common allergen, so look for digestive or skin reactions. You may digest whole eggs just fine but still have a reaction to processed egg protein. This protein is the popular RX Bar and other Paleo bars.
The new kid on the protein block! This is an animal protein that is more sustainable than other sources. Made from responsibly raised crickets and used in select protein bars.
This very absorbable “incomplete” (it’s missing tryptophan) protein is rich in glycine (cellular rejuvenation) and proline (joint health). It’s popular with functional medicine doctors, the Paleo and Keto communities, and gut health specialists. Collagen is not a protein source that supports muscle growth. Instead, it primarily encourages hair, skin, nails, and joint replenishment, as well as supports the mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract.
The most bioavailable plant protein, soy protein is called “complete” because it contains all the essential amino acids (like animal proteins). Soy protein also has the highest amount of protein per ounce. Soy contains phytoestrogens, which are complicated little buggers and can both increase and decrease body estrogen production. It’s best to avoid all processed soy products if hormone dysregulation is a concern. Soy protein is commonly used in protein bars. Soy is genetically modified unless it is USDA certified organic, so if that is a concern for you be sure to check the label.
The most hypoallergenic plant protein, and second-highest protein content per calorie.. Pea protein is rich in leucine and valine (BCAAs) and very supportive of muscle growth. It is also high in iron and can be higher in sodium than other proteins. Due to its high lysine content, pea protein can spontaneously become glycated during production and storage, and this promotes increases in beneficial gut bacteria. Peas tend to be genetically modified, so if GMOs are a concern for you, choose from one of many GMO free options.
Currently the most popular plant-based protein, used alone and in blends with other plant proteins. Rice protein has the. most grams of protein per calorie, and has more isoleucine and valine than whey. It’s rich in methionine (necessary for mood and detoxification). One downside to rice protein is that it can contain higher amounts of arsenic and cadmium, regardless of the country of origin. Rice is commonly used in protein bars.
Pumpkin is a “complete” plant protein especially rich in leucine. It also has much higher levels of arginine (nitric oxide) and tryptophan (melotonin) than most other proteins. Pumpkin seeds are rich in iron and fiber, and this is often transferred along with the protein into the powder. Pumpkin seed protein is a great option for anyone who wants to increase circulation and support hormone balance.
Protein made from hemp seed powder has the most arginine and is considered a “complete” protein. Hemp is also rich in iron and lots of fiber. Hemp protein is often minimally processed and contains naturally occurring essential fatty acids (EFAs) which are quite sensitive to heat. Some hemp protein products will contain rosemary or oregano essential oil to prevent oxidation (rancidity) of these fatty acids.
A few final thoughts…
In comparison, plant proteins may promote less insulin release than animal proteins, but there is so much conflicting research with so many variables that it is unwise to claim that as fact.
You should also know that the Clean Label Project and Consumer Reports have tested various protein powders and found traces of heavy metals, sometimes in much higher doses than expected. This should be somewhat obvious because the foods that protein powders come from also have heavy metals due to absorption from the soil in which they are grown.
What surprised me about these reports was that plant protein powders contained, on average, twice as much lead as whey and egg proteins, and certified organic products were the worst. This is likely because plants are incredibly adaptive and absorb whatever is in the soil in which they are grown. However, organic protein powders contained about half as much BPA (an endocrine disruptor) than other types. Furthermore, animals who consume these contaminated plants have detoxification abilities that remove some of the heavy metals, leaving us with less contaminated animal protein.
Something else to consider is that some of the protein powders that rated poorly in these studies have less lead than found in a sweet potato. So…do we just stop eating food?
I think this information means that we should use protein powder supplements list any other supplement: with purpose, in moderation, and we should switch brands occasionally to avoid potential excessive contamination.
What do I do with all that information?
Rather than tell you what to eat, my practice is to educate clients so that they can make informed choices for themselves. This is SO important for building confidence in around food. So, my question to you is:
Based on the information you now know, which protein seems to best fit your needs?
There may be more than one, and that’s great! You can try one first and switch to another, or purchase or combine your own blend of your favorites. An excellent way to do this is on the website TrueNutrition which has a custom protein powder generator!
You can also try one of the following brands:
Blended plant protein (Garden of Life RAW or Organic Plant Protein, Vega Protein & Greens or Sport, Aloha, PlantFusion, Amazing Grass Sport Protein)
Brown Rice (SunWarrior, Jarrow, Nutribiotic, NOW foods, NKD nutrition)
Pea (Nutrasumma Fermented, NOW foods)
Hemp powder (Navitas, Nutiva Hemp Yeah)
Whey (Tera’s Whey, Naked, Opportunities, Nutrasumma, SFH Pure, Garden of Life)
Collagen (Bulletproof, Vital Proteins, Ancient Nutrition)
Beef (Paleo Pro, Ultimate Paleo Protein)
Note: I am not affiliated with any of these companies.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if you come across a fancy new protein that I need to try!
Busnelli, M., Manzini, S., Sirtori, C. R., Chiesa, G., & Parolini, C. (2018). Effects of Vegetable Proteins on Hypercholesterolemia and Gut Microbiota Modulation. Nutrients, 10 (9).
Burd, et al., Differences in postprandial protein handling after beef compared with milk ingestion during post exercise recovery: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102 (4), 828-36.
Campbell, T.C. & Campbell, T.M., 2005. The China Study. Dallas: BenBella Books.
Chalvon-Demersay, et al., 2017. A Systematic Review of the Effects of Plant Compared with Animal Protein Sources on Features of Metabolic Syndrome. The Journal of Nutrition, 147 (3), 281–292.
Emami, F., Vatanara, A., Park, E. J., & Na, D. H. (2018). Drying technologies for the stability and bioavailability of biopharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutics, 10 (3), 131.
Raikos, V. Duthie, G., and Ranawana, V. (2015). Denaturation and Oxidative Stability of Hemp Seed (Cannabissativa L.) Protein Isolate as Affected by Heat Treatment. Plant Food for Human Nutrition, 70 (3), 304-9.
Patel, S. & Rauf, A. (2017). Edible seeds from Cucurbitaceae family as potential functional foods: Immense promises, few concerns. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 91, 330-337.