If you’re living an active lifestyle that involves working out frequently, you’re probably familiar with one of the most-used and oldest supplements available – protein powder.
Since it first appeared in the 1950s, protein powder has evolved through many stages into the supplement it is today. Throughout those transitions, one thing has remained constant: protein powder can be a quick and convenient way to meet your daily protein needs.
Why is protein so important? Protein helps increase lean muscle, preserve muscle, aids recovery and even helps produce important hormones needed for growth and repair in the body. Even if you think you know about protein powders, you probably have a few misconceptions. Here we address five of the most common concerns.
There are different kinds of protein
A good brand will provide a minimum of 80 percent protein per serving. That serving can contain a variety of different sources of protein, including plant and dairy. The majority of protein powders on the market today are made from dairy sources.
Dairy can be separated into whey isolate, whey concentrates, whey hydrolysate, caseinate or even basic milk protein. Dairy protein has a high nutritional value that is highly bio-available, providing all the essential amino acids needed for repair and growth at a high absorption rate. Many protein powders contain a mix of a few of these sources of protein within one blend. Why a blend? That’s because different proteins taste different. Pure isolates and hydrolysates tend to be bitter and astringent, while concentrates and caseinates are creamier. Providing a blend gives a balance in flavor without compromising on the quality.
Plant-based proteins can be made from soy, brown rice or even green peas. Vegan blends offer a variety of vegetarian proteins blended into one powder, to ensure a full complement of the essential amino acids.
How to get the best quality
There has also been some concern over ‘protein spiking,’ when lesser quality proteins and aminos are used to spike protein powders but are not revealed under quality testing.
The best way to make sure you’re getting a good, high-quality protein powder is to purchase a product that has been manufactured in an audited facility that practices cGMP (current good manufacturing processes). This ensures the products have been tested using third-party validation.
Reputable companies will follow strict guidelines to ensure they meet quality standards and deliver a quality product. Look for a cGMP certification on the label or on the company website.
Overwhelmed by the number of protein powder options on the market? Go for dairy sources that are grass-fed and hormone-free. Look for products that have been third-party tested, meaning they are free from impurities.
It can contain fillers
The majority of protein powders will be blended with other ingredients including flavors, suspension compounds and sweeteners and may also contain a few other supportive ingredients. Flavor systems and sweeteners can be natural and artificial, including stevia, aspartame, sucralose and/or acesulfame potassium. Sweeteners are blended to give a more complete taste on the palate without added calories from sugar, so it’s more likely that you’ll see more than just one sweetener on a protein label.
Suspension ingredients help keep the protein suspended in the solution you mix it with and can include natural gums such as xanthan gum, cellulose, guar or carrageenan. These ingredients do not add any extra calories and most act as fibers in the body. Some protein powders provide added muscle-building ingredients such as BCAAs, glutamine or even creatine, while other protein powders may provide added enzymes such as lactase, bromelian, and amylase, or prebiotics like inulin or FOS (fructoligosaccarides) to aid with digestion.
It doesn’t equal bulk
Your diet makes you bulky, not protein powder. Most protein powders provide about 100 to 120 calories per serving – not enough to make or break your diet.
Just remember a protein powder is to be used to supplement what you’re not getting from your diet. That means you have to count the calories you get from your protein shakes into your daily calorie intake. Consider using protein powder as a snack: pre- or post workout is ideal.
Protein powder and hormones?
Additionally, you need to consider the protein powder you choose, because you could be getting a protein powder from dairy sources that contain added hormones. It has been shown that dairy is a source of estrogen exposure in humans. This is the result of certain dairy industry practices, where estrogens are given to ensure dairy cows are producing plenty of milk. Whey protein will only be as clean as its source, so be sure to purchase a product that indicates if the protein is clean-sourced and hormone free.
It changes with heat
The protein contained in a powder will already have gone through some processing. The powder you purchase will only go through a blending process – no heat is involved. If you choose to cook or bake with it, the same thing will happen as when cooking a piece of meat or eggs: heating or baking causes de-naturation, or a change in the structure of the protein. This change doesn’t mean the protein is less nutritious or effective.
Heat can change the structure of the active peptides and may destroy added digestive enzymes or pre or probiotics, but it will still provide you with a great source of protein when added to any of your favorite recipes that require heating or cooking.
How much protein you need
Like any supplement, protein powder should only be used as a supplement to whole food and a good diet plan. Protein powder is a convenient way to get in a quick source of protein when you’re short of time or miss a meal. Daily protein needs for athletes and those looking to gain and maintain a lean and muscular physique are one gram to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Try to maintain about 40 percent of your daily calorie needs as protein.
However, this may increase or decrease depending on your goals – if you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle or just maintain. Consider using protein powder once o twice a day to help meet this daily requirement. Protein powder can provide 20 to 30 grams of protein per scoop. Make sure to meet the rest of your protein needs with high-quality meals.
Lauren Jacobsen is a nutritional biochemist who works as nutrition director for Kcal, which produces Fuel-Up protein powders.