People have been using protein powders for years, and the protein powder market continues to grow. We can choose between animal-based or plant-based, flavored or unflavored, and what seems like endless amounts of other options. Once just a way to quickly down some extra protein pre or post-workout, powders today are in recipes, baked goods and commercial products like bars, chips and chocolate. So is protein powder safe? Let’s dive in.
Whole Foods First
In the 131 Method we always encourage a foods-first approach. When you have the option to use a whole food instead of a powder, select the whole food. Not only will you get the protein from the food, you’ll also get the other nutrients included in that food.
Let’s talk protein shakes or smoothies, which tend to be the most common ways of consuming protein powder. Many whole foods can replace powders, such as bone broth, Greek yogurt or kefir (if dairy is tolerated), seeds like hemp or chia, and even nuts or nut butters. These protein-rich foods blend well into smoothies or shakes while packing in their own respective nutrients and health benefits.
Choosing a Powder
If you love protein powder but want to ensure safety, read on. Navigating the protein powder world is tricky with all of the potentials for hazardous health choices. For the purpose of this article we focus on the most common varieties: whey, gelatin, soy, rice, and pea protein. Regardless of whether you choose an animal-based protein or opt for plant-based, the quality of the source matters! You can always check the rating of your powders on www.labdoor.com.
If choosing a plant-based protein, consider potential harmful contamination. Plants must grow in soil, and when we consume it in powder form, we also consume a concentrated form of contaminants from the soil. So, the quality of the soil and the use of pesticides must factor into your choices.
A 2018 analysis on 134 of the top selling protein powders tested for contamination. The results showed 70% of the protein powders contained detectable levels of lead, 74% with cadmium, and some arsenic (1). In addition to the heavy metals, 55% of the powders had detectable levels of the toxin Bisphenol A (BPA) (1). Of those powders, the organic samples had 40% less BPA compared to the non-organic samples (1). To avoid contaminated plant-based protein powders, look for reputable brands with third party testing or certifications like USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified.
Hold to the same high standards when choosing animal-based powders. As we discuss in-depth in the 131 Method, the quality of our animal products makes a huge difference on our health. Both whey and collagen/gelatin protein comes from cows, therefore, the cow’s environment impacts the quality of the powders just like dairy or a cut of beef. If the cow consumes genetically modified (GMO) corn feed, or becomes exposed to harmful substances, this impacts the milk, and therefore, the whey and gelatin powders.
To maximize the quality of these powders, look for grass-finished proteins. By choosing grass-finished you ensure the cow was fed a grass and pasture diet. The less junk (like glyphosate sprayed grains the animal eats) the less junk in your protein powder. You also want to look for organic certifications to ensure the protein was sourced from cows that were not treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or other synthetic drugs.
Protein powders are subject to labels that include buzzwords to catch the consumers’ attention. Therefore, you must understand some key differences when scanning your options. The term “organic” is highly regulated, whereas the term “natural” is not. Many people assume a label claiming “natural” means healthier, but truthfully there is little government regulation of the term and does not reflect whether pesticides or antibiotics were used (2). The “organic” label requires government regulation and means the food was produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, GMOs, and ionizing radiation.
The labeling of sugar-free and unsweetened bears explaining. “Sugar-free” means a product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. The number includes naturally occurring sugars derived from fruit, milk sugars, and honey. But “sugar-free” can still be used if the product contains artificial sweeteners, regardless of the amount (2). The term “unsweetened,” on the other hand, means the powder contains no added sugars or artificial sweeteners. “Unsweetened” may still contain sugars. For example, whey protein contains naturally occurring sugar due to the natural lactose content of the milk.
Picking your Protein
Here’s where choice meets intention for use. People may use the powder as a protein-booster for a dish or as the sole protein source of the meal, influencing the gram amount of protein to seek. Regardless of whether you choose a protein with 15 grams or 25 grams of protein per scoop, it is important to understand the differences in amino acid profiles.
The amino acid profiles of powders are typically listed on the container with the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and classified as essential or nonessential. Nonessential means they can be made by our body, in contrast to essential amino acids, which must be consumed through diet. There are 20 amino acids that play critical roles in the body, nine that are essential (eight of which the adult body needs) and 11 nonessential.
Complete or Incomplete?
Animal-based products are categorized as complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. The majority of plant-based products are considered incomplete because they contain too little of at least one of the essential amino acids. Old science professed we needed complete proteins at each meal. We now know that if we eat an incomplete protein at one meal, we can make up for those missing amino acids by eating a variety of protein sources throughout the rest of the day.
|Protein source||Complete or incomplete||Unique benefit||Types|
|Whey||Complete||Quickly digested protein, making it popular following resistance and endurance exercise||Concentrate: retains some lactose
Isolate: most lactose lost during processing
|Gelatin||Complete||*Contains proline and glycine||Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen|
|Soy||Complete||One of the few plant-based complete proteins||Concern with soy protein coming from GMO-sources and possible hormone disturbance (varies per individual)|
|Pea||Incomplete||Tends to be easier to digest in comparison to other protein sources||Isolate: highest protein concentration
Concentrate:slightly lower protein, may have fat and carbohydrates
|Rice||Incomplete||A great hypo-allergenic protein option||Normally derived from brown rice|
Avoid the Junk
Like all packaged foods, be wary of unnecessary ingredients often slipped into protein powders. The best way to guarantee a junk-free powder… search for brands with only one ingredient! These will most likely all be unflavored products. Another advantage of choosing a tasteless powder is that it becomes a much more versatile ingredient to use in combination with other foods.
If you need flavored protein powder, note the sweeteners used to flavor the product. Common sweeteners used include: varieties of syrup, stevia, monk fruit, sugar alcohols, and other artificial sweeteners. Sugar amounts add up quickly, and if you’re using the powder in something like a fruit smoothie, you might be tipping some sugar/carb scales! In addition, many people are sensitive to sugar alcohols in excess and some artificial sweeteners. The solution is scanning the ingredient list to minimize the amount.
Aside from the sugars and sweeteners, other ingredients sneak their way into powders. Be aware of their intended purposes, and read the ingredient list to compare brands and find the right choice for you.
- Gums: most commonly xanthan gum derived from soy or corn. Can cause gastrointestinal distress.
- Thickeners: like dextrin and maltodextrin typically derived from GMO corn or other starches.
- Skim milk powders and milk solids: used as bulking agents in lower quality protein powders.
- Vegetable oils: used to make the taste richer and creamier, but most often derived from inflammatory oils such as hydrogenated oils or omega 6-rich oils.
- Fillers: flours or added fibers like psyllium husk. Of course, we like fiber! But obtaining it from whole fruits and veggies is best!
Pros and Cons of Using Them at All
- Convenient to travel and carry
- Fast way to include protein in a meal
- Choose between plant- or animal-based
- Incorporate into: smoothies, baked goods, soups, and more.
- Harmful pesticides and contaminants
- Contribute to inflammation if poor quality
- Filled with other unhealthy ingredients
The 131 Method encourages whole food sources of protein over protein powders to ensure the most nutrient dense meals. But, we know that certain circumstances make protein powders a needed choice. We promote individualized nutrition, so if that makes sense for YOU, great! Now you know how to choose quality protein source, interpret labels, understand the amino acid profile, and scan ingredient lists for optimal ingredient options.