Even mentioning the words protein powder can stir up heated debates among doctors, nutritionists, athletes, vegan/vegetarians, and everyone in between.
In this article, we’ll dispel the myths and misconceptions … and break down the latest and greatest science of protein powder.
We’ll answer your most common questions, including:
- What exactly is protein powder?
- How is it made?
- What are the different types of protein powders?
- How much protein do you need?
- How/when should you consume protein powders for optimal health?
- What are the risks and benefits plant based protein powder vs. animal protein powders like whey, collagen, etc.?
- How do you choose the best one for you?
Without further ado, let us begin …
What Is Protein Powder?
Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids (the building blocks of life). Protein helps build, maintain, and replace the tissues in your body. Your muscles, organs, and immune system are made up mostly of protein.
Protein powder is a powdered form of protein made from plant-based or animal sources.
What Happens When You Eat Protein
When you eat protein, your stomach uses its acid and enzymes to break it down into those “building blocks” we talked about (amino acids).
The most important of the amino acids for building lean muscle and losing fat are called BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids.
Together, the three BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue. Here’s a brief overview of each:
- Leucine is a branched chain amino acid that helps your body synthesize protein.
- Isoleucine is a BCAA that can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
- Valine is the least important BCAA for body composition (it’s also the least-studied).
Protein powders can come from plant or animal sources, each having a different make-up of amino acids.
Different Types of Protein Powders (and Their Benefits and Risks)
There’s some intriguing science about the most common types of protein powder sources that we’ll explore a bit further …
Benefits and Risks of Whey Protein Powder
As mentioned, whey protein has been studied more than any other protein powder. A quick search of “whey protein powder” on PubMed brings up close to 600 studies to date.
While you can certainly find studies like this one that showed no link between whey protein and body composition, the overall body of evidence seems to suggest that whey works for building muscle.
A meta analysis (a review of a group of studies) published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at 14 clinical studies including a total of 626 adults and concluded that whey protein powder has favorable effects on body composition (and is even more effective when combined with resistance training).
However, there may be some side effects associated with whey protein, particularly on kidney and liver function and for those with sensitivities and allergies to dairy.
Benefits and Risks of Casein Protein
Casein is a slower digesting form of milk-based protein.
When it comes to the effectiveness of casein vs whey protein, one study showed that casein did not have any noticeable differences on body composition, strength, and power and agility compared to whey.
Casein has a few flaws as a protein source too. One study found that it promotes the growth of prostate cancer cells. And since it’s milk-based, it’s not a good choice if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Benefits and Risks of Brown Rice Protein Powder
Rice protein is a plant-based protein powder used by vegans, vegetarians, and people who can’t tolerate dairy products like whey and casein. In one study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found that rice protein had similar effects on body composition as whey.
In other words, there was no difference between the group of subjects that took rice protein and the one that took whey protein; both experienced positive body composition changes.
One of the main complaints you’ll hear about rice protein is it’s high in potentially toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
While it’s true consuming high amounts of some of these metals can lead to negative health effects, heavy metals are in all plants that grow in soil. Here’s a quote from Jon Barron’s research article on the topic:
In summary, don’t have a knee jerk reaction to the label “heavy metals.” (Both calcium and iron are technically heavy metals.) Yes, obviously, when it comes to “toxic” heavy metals, less is better than more. But the issue is far more nuanced than a simple label–or even numbers on a chart for that matter. You have to factor in whether or not the element actually has any “proven” toxicity (tungsten has no demonstrated toxicity), whether it’s organic or inorganic (organic arsenic is virtually ignored by the body), and whether it’s bound or unbound (bound cadmium has only 2-6% absorbability).
Yes, plant-based protein powders contain higher levels of heavy metals than animal proteins. But it’s important to understand how these heavy metals actually get absorbed in your body before jumping to conclusions.
That’s why it’s up to you as the consumer to ask the manufacturer of your protein powder what their heavy metal contents are, especially if they use rice protein (if they won’t share those numbers, it’s a big red flag).
And choose a rice protein from organic brown rice sourced outside of China to avoid ingesting potential chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Benefits and Risks of Pea Protein
Pea protein is another popular plant-based source of protein. It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in vegetarian / vegan / dairy free powders for several reasons:
- It’s a “complete” protein source that contains an impressive BCAA profile.
- Pea protein powder is among the most hypoallergenic of all protein powders, as it contains no gluten or dairy.
- It’s easy on the gut and doesn’t cause bloating, a common side effect of many other protein powders from animal sources.
- It has been shown in small studies to have similar effects to whey protein on body composition.
- Pea protein has a PDCAA (digestible indispensable amino acid score) of .89 (whey is 1). When combined with rice, hemp, and/or soy in certain combinations, you can get this number to 1.0–the same as whey!
While pea protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or soy, it is a promising protein source for those looking for alternatives to dairy proteins. Again, organic pea protein is always a safer choice because you’re ingesting less pesticides.
Benefits and Risks of Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein is another popular plant-based protein powder. Most men should avoid it because it contains isoflavones and phytoestrogens that share similarities with estrogen.
It’s often extracted using hexane, a petroleum-based solvent … and most soy comes from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans.
However, according to several studies, soy protein may have body composition benefits for older women.
One study showed that a daily supplement of soy protein prevented increases in subcutaneous and total abdominal fat in older women. Another showed soy protein had a mild effect on body composition in elderly women.
One caveat: whey has been shown to be more effective than soy for improving lean body mass when combined with resistance training. So if lean body mass is your goal, you may want to consider other protein sources than soy if you’re using a protein powder.
How Is Protein Powder Made?
Protein powder processing methods depend on the type of protein and the company making it.
Whey Protein Processing
Most commercial whey protein powders are made using a high-heat, acid-flushed, “ion exchange” process to separate the whey from the cow’s milk. This can strip away vital nutrients.
So why do companies use it?
Because processing protein with acids is cheaper, of course.
If you decide a whey protein supplement is best for you, I recommend choosing one that’s from grass-fed cows, cold processed, and has zero sugar and as few ingredients as possible.
What if you can’t tolerate milk-based products or prefer plant-based protein powders though?
Plant Based Protein Processing
Many of the supposedly-healthy plant proteins used in supplements and packaged foods today are processed using hexane, a petroleum-based neurotoxin. Using hexane is an efficient and highly profitable way for food manufacturers to remove oil from plants and separate the protein.
If you decide a plant protein powder is a better option for you, look for plant-based protein powders that are organic and “enzymatically sprouted,” which means all-natural enzymes are used rather than chemicals to separate the protein from the plant.
Also, sprouting grains used in plant-based powders (e.g., rice, pea, amaranth) increases many of the plants’ key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, ﬁber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain sensitivities.
Who Should Take Protein Powder?
Protein powders are not just for gym rats. In fact, most people could stand to get more protein in their diets. Here’s why:
- For healthy adults, low protein diets can lead to weight gain and increased fat mass.
- Eating more protein can help increase levels of the hormone glucagon, which helps control body fat.
- Eating protein can help strengthen bones as you age.
Adding protein powders to your daily regimen is an easy way to get more protein in your diet.
So How Much Protein Do You Need to Achieve Maximum Benefits?
It depends on several factors:
- How much muscle you currently have. The more muscular you are, the more amino acids your body needs to maintain your current body composition. If you don’t know your body composition and want to make real, measurable improvements to your health, go see a personal trainer who offers body composition analysis so you can get a “baseline” of where you’re currently at.
- Your activity level. The more you move, the more protein your body needs.
- Your age. The older you get, the more protein your body needs to maintain its muscle.
- Your hormones. If your body has high levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), it will use protein more efficiently than someone with low levels. These hormones decrease as you age, which is one of the reasons why older adults need more protein.
So back to the original question: how much protein do you need?
The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.
However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).
It’s not necessarily optimal.
Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers compared muscle development in three groups of athletes on the same exercise routine but with different protein intake levels.
One group was given 1.4g/kg of body weight, the second group received 1.8g/kg of body weight, and the third group got 2.0g/kg of body weight.
The researchers found that 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition in athletes.
Non-athletes and particularly older adults need at least 0.8 g/kg per day to help preserve current levels of muscle (or “lean body”) mass.
This is the bare minimum though.
Most health experts who have studied protein extensively recommend closer to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day for most people.
For further reading, see our article How Much Protein Do You Need Each Day?
When Should I Take Protein Powder for the Most Benefit–Before or After a Workout?
If your goal is to lose body fat and increase lean body mass (muscle), then the answer is both.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers concluded the following:
High-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g
That’s 27-34 grams of protein both before and after a workout for a 150-pound adult.
Couple other interesting things the study authors noted:
- Despite claims that you need to take protein immediately (within 1 hour) after a workout to maximize gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive.
- Even minimal-to-moderate pre-exercise high-quality protein taken immediately before resistance training is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-exercise period. In other words, eating protein before your workout may have more impact.
Long story short, eat a little protein before and after a workout if building muscle and/or losing body fat is your goal.
What Is the Best Protein Powder?
“Best” is an ambiguous term. The best protein supplement for you depends on your age, your health goals, and a number of other factors.
Here are a few common things to consider:
- What protein powders get absorbed by your body best?
- What are the benefits and risks of all the ingredients in your protein powder?
- What protein powders do not cause digestive distress (gas, bloating, etc.) when you take them?
- What type of protein is best for your unique health needs (losing muscle, building fat, etc.)?
I personally make a big shake with a variety of protein powders (80-100 grams total) and will split it up into two or three shakes that I’ll drink at various points throughout the day.
The criteria I use to select protein powders is quite simple:
- Natural, USA-sourced ingredients I can pronounce
- No added sugar or other junk
- Reasonable cost per gram of protein
Pure Food is one of the few powders that meets these standards.
Choosing a protein powder is a highly personal decision though.
For most people, the potential benefits of protein powder outweigh the risks if your diet is lacking in protein and/or you want to improve your body composition.