Protein Powder 101
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Apparently this is the question of the week!!! I dunno what caused all of you to ask at the same time but I have received sparkmails, formspring questions, wall questions, and seen it on the status of some friends so here is my two cents! This information is based on my personal experiences and nutrition research. Like everything in my diet it is biased in the direction of finding the most natural and wholesome choice possible (although all protein powders are inherently a processed substance).
Do I need a protein powder?
Anyone eating a healthy diet, vegetarian/vegan included, should be consuming adequate amounts of protein (protein needs are often grossly inflated in our country) and does not NEED a protein powder. With that being said, I own and use protein powder and don’t think there is anything wrong with using a healthy one in moderation. A good quality protein powder will not hurt you and provides the basis for a quick recovery smoothie or meal when desired. Whole foods are usually best but adding a protein powder to a healthy diet of whole foods is an easy way to up protein intake. Some people may not need this extra protein but others find that it makes them feel better, fuller, stronger, more energetic, whatever it is and this can be very beneficial when used as it is meant to be a diet SUPPLEMENT (not food replacement).
I am going to start here with types of protein powders and talk later about how they are sweetened. Most kinds of powder are available in most versions of sweeteners so you can read my opinion on both and then match together what you like.
Kinds of Powders
Whey: I don’t personally consume this because of the dairy but for those who do why can be a fabulous option. This is probably the most common type of protein powder available. This is good because it means there are tons of options, this is bad because it means that most of those options suck health wise. Many of these powders are aimed at men who think they need tons of protein powder to bulk them up. They may pack a lot of protein but they also pack a lot of fillers, preservatives, artificial ingredients, you name it. Also some may have inflated serving sizes to appear as if they have more protein. Ironically I have found that the cheapest and the most expensive powders are often poor quality. The cheapest because they use poor quality ingredients and fillers and the most expensive because they add crazy claims to the package and then add questionable ingredients, stimulants, and caffeine that purport to give you a better workout. Avoid both. Seek out a protein powder which has a minimal ingredient list. You also do not want hydrolyzed whey, most whey protein powders are. Often the ones that are not will indicate that by saying something like cold processed or microfiltered. Good quality whey protein is usually expensive. This is why even before I stopped consuming dairy I used plant based protein powders. Jay Robb is a gold standard in whey protein. I have seen other good brands as well but could not tell you what they are, but they do exist.
Egg White: This is rare. I have not looked into it much but I know Jay Robb makes one. Like all of his products I imagine they are great quality. However my instinct is that if you are using an animal sourced product to go for the whey instead unless you have an intolerance.
Brown Rice: This is my go to protein powder. It is extracted from brown rice. One thing to be aware of is that brown rice protein may seem a little chalky to those not used to it but I have found it blends and cooks well. I am currently using Jarrow Formulas brand which I find to be a good quality at a lower price. If I had a bigger budget I would order Sun Warrior natural (the vanilla and chocolate have stevia). This is a raw sprouted brown rice powder that is supposed to be top of the line and comes highly recommended from many sources that I trust. It is about $45 for 2lbs online. Jay Robb also makes an excellent quality sprouted brown rice powder. The Jarrow I am currently using is not a sprouted product. Some say that this feature makes the protein more absorbable and easily digested. I am happy with the Jarrow but will probably switch to the Sun Warrior as soon as I can find a good sale.
Hemp: This is my second most used source of protein. Hemp protein is unique. It comes from hemp seeds. Do to the makeup of hemp seeds most hemp powder is only about 50% protein (as opposed to 100% in most other good quality proteins). It is also available in up to 70% protein. Usually I would say this is a bad thing because it indicates fillers, etc. This is not the case with hemp. Due to the makeup of hemp seeds the other 50% is comprised of fiber and OMEGA-3 fatty acids, this is a good thing. This is extremely healthy fat that most diets lack enough of. This is the reason people take flaxseed, chia seed, fish oil, or are encouraged to eat fish. It also is filling. For this reason I do not recommend avoiding hemp protein even though you are getting less protein/ calorie consumed you are consuming other very beneficial ingredients. Manitoba Harvest is a reputable and reasonably priced brand of hemp protein although I am sure there are other good quality ones as well. They also offer many different options in their products.
Pea: This is less common and more expensive. I have never tried it but have read it has a sweeter flavor and smooth texture.
Soy: This protein source is fairly common and I do NOT recommend it. I do not think there is anything wrong with soy and consume it in the forms of edamame, tofu, tempeh, etc. However, soy in protein powders is highly processed (like soy milk and meat replacements) which is the type of soy that should be limited. The standard American diet is already extremely high in soy (used in most processed foods) and while humans can benefit from moderate amounts of unprocessed soy, large amounts may be harmful. With other good quality sources of protein powder available I see no reason to use soy. In addition soy is a common intolerance.
Blends: These would be a blend of other powders; most commonly plant based, and should be evaluated on an individual basis. They are less common and tend to be pricier. Your best bet if you want a blend may just to buy a few different powders and mix them yourself.
**The above list is not all inclusive but covers the majority**
Sugar: Sugar can appear in many forms (as sugar, as fructose, or however else they choose to label it). I would recommend avoiding it. By adding sugar you are adding unnecessary calories and sugar is not something we want to add to our diets, we get too much already. Look for powders that list 1g or less of sugar on the label.
Sucralose (Splenda): Unfortunately, this artificial sweetener is one of the most common in protein powders, usually the ones aimed at body builders such as at GNC or the cheaper mainstream brands that you find at places like Target. It is cheap and mainstream and manufacturers like to add it since it doesn’t add calories or carbs. You won’t find it in most plant based protein powders which are aimed at more health conscious consumers or at any powder sold in Whole Foods. I recommend avoiding this at all costs, in protein powder and in general as it is essentially poison (feel free to read my blog on artificial sweeteners). Read the ingredient list carefully. You would be better off with real sugar.
Stevia: There is a lot of controversy surrounding Stevia at the moment. Many are hailing it as the big natural, calorie free sugar breakthrough and use it at every occasion. I choose not to. Why? Because not that long ago Splenda was hailed in the same way and it turns out, that’s basically poison. The big claim is that Stevia is all natural because it is from a plant. I think we are back to playing the same game that we did with sucralose and aspartame. These are new artificial sweeteners that have not been proven safe. Many people love to talk about how safe they are because "Stevia is all natural, from a herb" While this may be true it is only relevant to those people using the actual plant leaves that have been dried into tiny pieces. In this case it is green and looks like a herb. What most people are consuming is a highly processed extract in either white powder or liquid form or even flavored?! I am so not convinced. While I would consider using the actual plant in small quantities I just cannot tell myself that the food industries newest toy is really all that different from those in the past. Give it a few years and the same horror stories will start to emerge. The food industries favorite thing to do is to take natural plants, process them until they in no way resemble their origins and then sell them to us, no thanks. So anyways that’s my two cents. However for those who choose to use Stevia it is now much more common and many powders sweetened with Stevia are available. Most of the highest quality brands offer two versions, a Stevia and an unsweetened.
Natural/ Unsweetened: This is what I use. I believe it is truly the best option. Unsweetened protein powder is the most versatile as it can go in sweet or savory recipes. It is the best for your health as well, nothing artificial and no unnecessary refined sugar. If you like to use your protein powder in sweet recipes (like smoothies!!) you can add any kind of natural sugar you want and control the amount! In addition by blending with fruit your drink is sweet enough (try banana for the sweetest) and all healthy. About the only thing unsweetened isn’t good for is drinking plain with water but eww, then you are defeating the rule at the top about adding to a healthy diet not making into a food (which it’s not!)
*You do not need several servings of protein powder a day or performance powders that claim to pack 100g of protein a serving (their serving is just 4x bigger and the calories will reflect that.
*The more a protein powder claims to do for your performance or health, the more suspicious you should be of it.
*You want to avoid any protein powders that have preservatives, long ingredient lists, or other “fillers.” None of this is necessary.
* It can be a good idea when using plant based protein powders frequently in your diet to mix them up by alternating or actually mixing them. Also look for organic or non GMO if possible.
* Protein is 4 calories a gram so most good quality protein powders will be in this ratio (an exception is hemp- see above). Most common is around 25g protein and 100cals a serving. Some may be double or half that- rice protein is often about half of that but the ratio is still roughly the same. If you want a specific brand you can always double or half the serving size as needed.
* Right now I have the Jarrow Formulas plain (berry is also unsweetened and good) and Manitoba Harvest Hemp in my house and find both to be budget friendly and good quality. In the future I would like to try the Sun Warrior natural as my budget allows (I do not consume dairy so whey protein powders are out for me).
* Jay Robb is a top quality brand (and expensive) in every category he makes. I recommend the natural unsweetened. Manitoba Harvest is a fantastic brand of hemp protein. Sun Warrior is a premium brand of brown rice powder. I use Jarrow Formulas because of the lower cost and have found it to be high quality. There are many other quality brands out there as well. I recommend perusing Whole Foods if you have one for an awesome selection.
**If you have a specific powder in mind and would like my opinion please feel free to leave a comment with a link to the online nutrition facts/ingredients and I would be happy to give an opinion. **