In my previous article, I talked about the importance of protein and how much you really need to keep your body functioning optimally. Today’s article will focus on something gym rats have been into for a while—protein powder.
Protein powder is a great way to increase the amount of protein you’re getting in your diet. In my last article I pointed out that most people are actually protein deficient. And yes, it’s better to maintain protein levels through food-based options, but when you’re in a pinch, protein powder is a great supplement to bridge your nutritional gaps. Protein taken in the powdered form is also more easily digestible, which can actually help you lose weight and increase your muscle gains in the gym (again, I addressed this in my previous article).
So let’s get into it. I present to you my comprehensive protein supplement guide! I’ll break things down into specific categories to make it easier to read up on and help you figure out which protein powder is for you. Also pay attention to my section at the end, where I talk about the extra junk that is often found in conventional protein powders and why you should avoid them.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, most likely you are not getting enough protein in your diet. This is because most plant versions of protein are often incomplete. What this means is they do not contain all the essential amino acids necessary for the human body to function at its best. Vegetarians have to consume a lot more than omnivores because they need to build a larger amino acid pool to maintain healthy levels on all their essential amino acids. That means if you are a vegetarian you will most likely need to supplement protein with some sort of plant-based source. So when you shop for your next tub of protein powder, look at the ingredients and be aware of the benefits and limitations for these common plant proteins. On the upside, these protein sources do beat out animal-based proteins regarding fiber, which most people seem to not be getting enough of.
Many vegans and vegetarians often find soy to be a great meat substitute for their protein needs. It is a complete protein, which is generally harder to find among plant-based proteins. I personally don’t recommend consuming soy in large amounts. It is a goitrogen, which means it can have a thyroid suppressing effect, and if you’re trying to keep your metabolism in tip-top shape eating a bunch goitrogenic foods won’t be doing you any favors. In addition, soy contains anti-nutrients that, unless prepared properly, can inhibit protein and mineral absorption. Soy is also a common allergen for many and is one of the higher phytoestrogenic foods, which can mess with your natural estrogen balance, increasing or decreasing estrogen to your detriment. Finally, over 91% of soy is genetically modified. So there’s that (1).
A better plant-based protein is rice. The fact that it tends to be low on the allergen list is a win, but the fact that it lacks in being a complete protein as well as containing lectins and phytates, which can slow or block nutrient absorption and cause issues such as leaky gut, makes it a weaker option for vegetarian protein sources.
Hemp is an interesting protein. This plant protein also contains all the essential amino acids making it a complete protein. The downside, much like rice and soy protein, is that it still contains phytates and lectins. Also, many hemp protein brands will upsell the fact that hemp is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids—an essential fat we are often too low in. It is true that hemp does contain a sizeable amount of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—the polyunsaturated fats found in plants, but unfortunately plant versions of omega-3 fatty acids are not readily used in the human body. To use these fats, we have to use specific enzymes to convert the ALA fats into the useable versions such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). And what makes matters worse is as we age, our ability to make these necessary enzymes decreases (2). Finally, hemp seeds are processed into powder, the delicate polyunsaturated fats become rancid and oxidized, turning them into an unhealthy, inflammation-inducing substance.
For vegetarian or vegan protein options, pea protein is where it’s at. Unlike soy and some animal based proteins, pea tends to be great for people with food allergies. Pea protein also contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. The downside to pea protein is that, much like soy, it contains lectins and phytates which limit mineral and protein absorption. But as a whole, if you don’t consume animal products look for an organic pea protein and you should be on your way to meeting your protein demands.
Plant Protein Wrap Up
To pull all this together, I think if you are restricting animal proteins you are going to be low on your daily protein intake (I explain why in my last article); therefore, I highly recommend finding a good quality protein and use the information above to help guide you. It should go without saying that opting for organic versions is an absolute necessity. And absolutely avoid the “raw” types of protein powders. These will have much higher levels of the anti-nutrients I discussed earlier. If you want to get a raw vegetarian protein, look for a brand that uses raw and sprouted, as this method will help minimize any of the anti-nutrients that are generally found in plant proteins. I know there are a few brands out there offering such a product. Google it.
The vegetarians out there aren’t going to like me very much when I say this, but animal-based proteins are overall a better source of protein to supplement. The reason for this is that they are always complete proteins, giving you all the essential amino acids in one lump sum. They also lack the anti-nutrients that are often found in plant-based proteins. But don’t worry, I’m not going to give animal proteins a total pass. In fact, I would argue most of the animal-based protein powders are total crap. See below for what’s out there and what to avoid.
Some say eggs are the perfect food. They are a complete protein, high in B vitamins, such as choline, and an amazing nutrient for brain health (3).If you have heard the mainstream media demonizing eggs for their dangerously high cholesterol levels, take heart in the fact that most of these claims are unfounded and eggs have actually been shown to IMPROVE cholesterol and have shown no correlation to increased cardiovascular risk (4) (5) (6). This is also why egg whites have become so en vogue—because all the scary cholesterol in the eggs is found in the yolk. I believe that’s a big reason you find egg protein manufacturers use egg whites as their protein derivative. But hey, maybe this is a good thing; if the egg yolks were also used, the cholesterol would certainly be oxidized in manufacturing and that would be an entirely new issue.
With all that said, it might come as a shock when I say that I am not a fan of protein powder made from egg protein. This is because, for one, eggs can be an allergen to some folks. In addition, as far as I have found most egg protein manufacturers use conventional chicken eggs produced from inhuman and e
nvironmentally unsustainable CAFOs. I’d rather eat the eggs from happy, healthy chickens than their sick, malnourished counterparts. So unless some egg protein powder label their eggs as a pastured and/or organic, I wouldn’t buy it.
The conclusion? Don’t buy egg-based protein powders. Buy your eggs how mother nature intended—in the whole food variety. And eat both the whites and the yolks from pastured chickens. The bulk of the egg’s nutrients are found in the yolks.
Yep, there is protein made from beef. And no, this won’t taste like you’re having a liquid steak. Surprisingly, it doesn’t taste bad! Simply put, this is a great low-allergen complete protein. Since this is a hydrolyzed product, the proteins are broken down into small peptide amino acids which means high absorbability. In addition, I’ve found most hydrolyzed beef proteins do not use chemicals to break down the amino acids, but instead use a high-heat process. In this context, I feel this is a better method of processing, but in the end you will still end up with a product that has lower bioavailability and thus lower nutrient absorption than just eating a steak in its whole food form.
Heating causes a denaturing process to the protein as well. Denaturing is basically the process through which the protein begins to unwind and allow its amino acid constituents to be taken apart. This is a very nuanced and confusing topic as well. Remember how I said that denaturation is bad for bioavailability? It appears denaturing proteins and their bioavailability is food specific. For example, eggs have an increased protein bioavailability when cooked instead of when consumed raw. Conversely, I am finding that dairy products tend to have a decreased bioavailability when cooked instead of when consumed in their raw form. I would guess this is why dairy pasteurization, although good from a sanitary standpoint, actually does a great deal of damage to the food’s protein bioavailability (7).
Regarding beef protein it is difficult to say how truly absorbable and bioavailable this processed protein powder is when taken into the body. But I can say that if you’re sensitive to dairy and need a well-rounded protein powder, this could be a winner.
Casein is a protein found in mammalian milk. Generally speaking most casein found on the market comes from cow’s milk. Casein makes up close to 80% of the protein in cow’s milk (8). What is seen in casein protein as its primary selling point is how it is a “slow-acting” protein. What this means is that it tends to have a slower absorption into the bloodstream—taking about 3 to 4 hours until peak absorption and protein synthesis to take place (9). Because of its slower release characteristics, this can be a great protein to take right before bed to help slow muscle catabolism when sleeping (10).
A lot of this sounds great, but I wouldn’t recommend taking a casein protein if you are allergic to dairy (duh). In addition, look for sourcing. It’s kind of frustrating, but I haven’t had much success finding a high quality source of casein protein. Ideally, I would like to find a product that is cold/low-temp processed, as to not damage the proteins, as well as sourcing from a grass-fed, raw milk. Most casein proteins use high heat processing which damages the proteins and source their milk from conventional CAFO cows. Therefore, unless the quality is good, I wouldn’t recommend consuming on a frequent basis.
Collagen protein is made from the hide of cows generally. Much like the rest of the animal-based protein sources this protein is a complete protein, but what makes it unique is that it contains a much higher amount of the collagen-containing proteins such as glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine. These amino acids are the key components to make healthy skin, ligaments, and joints. These proteins make up about 30% of all proteins in our body and about 70% of our skin (11).
The downside to collagen protein is that it is generally lower in protein than some of the other protein powders on the market. I haven’t found any specific research finding this, but I would suspect this protein is also lower in the muscle building amino acid, leucine. Also, collagen is usually processed using a hydrolyzation method, which comes with certain limitations, which I touched on briefly in the beef protein section, but will go into further detail at the end of the article.
All-in-all, I do think that this protein has some interesting benefits. Just make sure you find a brand that uses grass-fed cows and you’ll be set. Maybe add this into another protein powder, such as a high quality whey and casein to make an even more robust amino acid profile.
Typically you will find collagen powders in two forms: gelatin and collagen forms. The gelatin version is less processed and won’t dissolve easily into cold liquid; it also has a stronger flavor some people might find unpleasant. Comparably, the collagen or peptide versions I found are more heavily processed but generally easier to digest with less nasty flavor, and they will easily dissolve into hot and cold liquids.
Cow Whey Protein
Often when you look for a protein powder, you will most likely stumble upon cow’s milk whey. Whey protein is left over from the process of turning milk into cheese. In cow’s milk, 20% of the milk protein is whey and the remaining 80% is casein. Being that whey is an animal protein, it comes with all of its essential amino acids. A feature unique to whey is that it contains high levels of the amino acid leucine, which I mentioned earlier is a significant amino acid for building muscle (12). For these reasons, I believe whey protein is one of the best proteins to take.
Be aware that whey in its concentrated form (more on this later) does contain trace amounts of lactose and casein, which are both allergens to individuals with dairy sensitivities.
And make sure to purchase versions made from grass-fed cows, low-heat/minimally processed raw, organic milk.
Goat Whey Protein
Goat whey offers many of the amazing benefits of cow whey, but interestingly has less reactivity to individuals with dairy sensitivities. The reason for this is still up for debate among researchers, but one theory is that goat’s milk contains higher amounts of the short polymer sugars called oligosaccharides. The March 2006 issue of The Journal of Nutrition published a study found that the oligosaccharides found in goat’s milk helped reduce inflammation in rats with various gastrointestinal issues (13). Goats milk also contains less lactose than cow’s milk and contains slightly more nutrients (14).
This would be my top protein powder pick. A warning though; the goat proteins I have tried do have a kind of “goaty” flavor, which some might find to be unpalatable.
Animal Protein Wrap Up
It appears that overall, animal-based proteins win out over their plant-based adversaries. Animal proteins are always complete, providing all the essential amino acids the body needs and cannot make on its own. To add, you won’t have to worry about lectins and othe
r antinutrients ending up in your protein if you choose an animal-based version.
Choose an animal-based protein as you would choose any type of meat—pay attention to how the animal is treated and that it isn’t loaded up with a bunch of chemicals. Choosing an organic source is a safe bet. Just be aware of quality. In addition, if you aren’t dairy sensitive and you choose a milk-derived protein, make sure it’s sourced from happy, healthy, grass-fed cows or goats. It’s also worth pointing out that taking whey on its own isn’t as optimal as a milk protein that contains BOTH whey and casein. This allows the protein to absorb more slowly and, as research seems to point out, helps you put on even more muscle mass than just whey or casein alone (15).
How Your Protein Is Processed
This next section will delve into the various types of processing methods that are typical in the industry. These methods are used in various protein sources—plant or animal—but you will most likely see them labeled on whey protein. This is important because some types of processing come with serious limitations, essentially wasting your money.
This method is found in various types of protein powders such as whey, casein, beef, and collagen protein. It typically uses a chemical, heat, or enzymatic process to “pre-digest” the proteins into small peptide constituents. The selling point to this process is the higher protein absorbability. Because these proteins are broken down into smaller peptides, making them basically similar to taking an amino acid supplement, they tend to be less allergy inducing. The primary issue I have concerns with in this process is the “chemical process” used to break down the protein seems questionable. For collagen powder, I know there are certain brands out there such as Upgraded Collagen Protein only use an enzymatic process. I feel this is a safer option to limit the amount of extra chemical particulates ending up in your collagen powder. I’ve noticed a lot of brands are conveniently vague as to what hydrolyzation process they use.
Similar to hydrolyzed proteins, isolates are proteins that are stripped down to their bare essentials. In the case of whey, the majority of fats, lactose, and casein are removed. The end result is a protein substance that is over 90% protein by weight. This is why individuals with dairy sensitivities can often tolerate whey protein isolate.
Currently, there are two primary methods to create an isolate protein: membrane filtration and ion-exchange. Membrane filtration is the cruder method of the two, using pressure to force the protein, generally whey, across a membrane surface. The smaller molecules are able to pass through the membrane, while the larger do not. This method tends to yield a higher percentage of particulates such as lactose. Ion-exchange is a more sophisticated method to separate the protein using mild pH changes to cause an ion attraction force between the protein molecules. This method yields very small peptides, aiding in increased absorption.
Why I am not a fan of protein isolates, specifically whey isolate protein, is due to the denatured proteins and decreased bioavailability of the proteins from this method (16). This is also true with hydrolyzed protein.
This can be a good or bad thing depending on the person. Concentrate is a more robust protein powder, still containing some fat, cholesterol, and other bioactive compounds, helping your body put these proteins to work more efficiently. To add, concentrate also contains higher amounts of dairy allergens such as whey or casein, which might not make this type of protein ideal for individuals with dairy sensitivities or intolerances. In addition, due to the minimal processing, you have to really make sure to buy a whey that comes from grass-fed cows and a low-heat process (17).
Short of drinking a glass of milk, native whey is the closest thing to the whole food form. This is great because you’re now getting a good combo of whey and casein, which seems to be the optimal blend for muscle building and ideal protein absorption. Interestingly, unlike whey hydrolysate, isolate, or concentrate, native whey is extracted from skim milk instead of being a by-product of cheese production (18), not to mention there are many naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in milk. And there’s new research suggesting specific strains of probiotics boost immunity in athletes as well as increase protein utilization (19). Only in milk or minimally processed milk-based protein products will you find naturally occurring probiotics. The downside is, as mentioned earlier, if you can’t tolerate dairy this wouldn’t be an ideal protein for you.
Final Protein No Nos
If your head isn’t spinning yet, I want to throw a couple of other things out there. Below are other nasty substances that can end up in your protein powders rendering these potentially healthy supplements into something that could harm you.
Don’t Consume A Protein You’re Allergic To
This is common sense, but if you are dairy intolerant OR sensitive, do not take a concentrate or native whey. The same goes for egg proteins and any other versions I mentioned above. Do not try to build muscle at the expense of developing gut or immune issues by subjecting yourself to an allergen your body can’t handle. I have found that people with minor dairy sensitivities can actually tolerate dairy or certain whey proteins if processed correctly (I’ll explain more on this in a bit) and if they consume a goat whey over cow. This same phenomenon occurs when some people have unpasteurized milk instead of the conventional pasteurized variety.
Be Aware Of How The Protein Is Processed
I touched on this a little bit throughout the article, but I just want to drive the point home that the method by which your protein powder of choice is made will dictate its quality. When proteins—specifically whey—are heated, the protein bioavailability is compromised (20). Sure, your body is going to be able to use a protein powder that’s cooked to death, but if you are looking to maximize protein absorption, I wouldn’t go there. Choose a cold processed/low heat method. And I can’t emphasis this enough—look for whey proteins that come from grass-fed, raw-milk to ensure lower chemical exposure and increased bioavailability.
Regarding plant-based proteins, if you stumble upon a “raw” version of a plant-protein powder you might actually be doing yourself a disservice because of the high amount of lectins and other anti-nutrients that will remain in that particular product. Raw, sprouted, plant-protein powders are the ones to go with.
Read The Labels, Avoid The Junk
If all this wasn’t enough, many protein powders add a bunch of cheap fillers and sweeteners. Many will contain GMO products, soy, gluten, and artificial sweeteners. Simplify things and just get the purest product you can find. In addition, reports have found disturbing amounts of heavy metals in a lot of conventional whey products (21). Finding products that are certified organic should at least ensure there are no GMO products contained in the protein… because whatever your stance is on GMOs, by choosing a GMO food you are increasing your risk of pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide exposure.
There’s a lot of different options and everyone is a little different. The bottom line, if you’re not sensitive to dairy I would recommend a whey/casein concentrate blend protein powder that comes from grass-fed organic cows or goats. If you have a dairy issue, you might be able to tolerate a whey isolate or beef protein. The downside to these is the bioavailability isn’t as high and you’ll have to take more to get the same results as a casein and whey concentrate. And if you’re vegetarian, I’m not trying to hate, but you have to work that much harder at maintaining a high level of necessary amino acids to keep your body fueled. You may also want to look into supplementing, but that’s for another article. Find a sprouted raw protein powder and work with that.
For the vegetarian or omnivore, there’s no perfect option, but I hope this will give you a basic primer to get you on the right path.
Thanks for reading!