Last Updated on March 10, 2010 by Jimson Lee
This article was guest blogged by Mitch Pellecchia of VitaCost.com who wrote A Guide to Vitamin B12 Supplements. His other upcoming articles include Amino Acids, and Essential Fatty Acids and Fish Oil. I like the fact that he cites all his references at the end of the article.
What is protein powder?
Because protein is necessary for the healthy function, structure and regulation of body cells, tissues and organs, protein powders are formulated to inspire a maximum metabolic effect in the body. Protein powders are used aggressively by bodybuilders and athletes to improve performance and may be essential to supplement the diets of those who don’t eat enough meat, chicken, fish, beef liver, soy, protein-containing vegetables, etc. – foods known to be good sources of protein. Vegans often don’t get enough protein through diet.
- Proteins are large molecules composed of long chain amino acids
- Protein powder is a dried derivative of animal or vegetable sources of protein, each of which is produced using various processes.
- Protein is needed to build muscle and maintain lean muscle in the body
- Protein is essential to the healthy functioning of every body system
Protein powders target in the body:
- Protein synthesis – for increased muscle mass and enhanced muscle recovery
- Energy production – to boost endurance and fight fatigue
- Fat utilization – reduce body fat and aid in weight management
- Cell health – for immune system strength and overall wellness
The hundreds, if not thousands, of protein powders and brands on the market all contain one of more of the following five sources of protein, and all are processed in ways formulated to mix with a beverage or make a protein shake or smoothie.
- Cow milk
- Goat milk
Cow milk and goat milk proteins include whey and casein, which are separated from lactose and fat in a filtration process that leaves the proteins intact. Casein is the more prevalent protein in both cow and goat milk at roughly 80 percent. The remaining 20 percent of protein is whey.
Soy protein typically comes from dried, defatted soy flakes which are subject to either a water or alcohol extraction process (to remove carbohydrates) and are then dried and ground.
Hemp protein is made from hemp oil which is cold-pressed from hemp seeds. The remaining hemp meal is cold-milled and the protein separated.
Egg proteins are derived in large part from egg whites and are isolated through some type of spray-drying or freeze-drying process.
How protein powders work in the body
Although protein powders may be derived from only one food source of protein, many combine the benefits of several sources, enhancing their overall benefit to the body system. Protein powder regimens and blends usually target specific metabolic purposes or pathways, such as energy production, fat utilization or digestion; or physical activity such as intense exercise, weightlifting or distance running. Certain protein powders are better than others at encouraging healing and trauma recovery, and all protein powders digest and absorb differently into the body. Protein unused by the body is excreted as waste.
Casein protein powder digests slowly which, before bedtime and between meals, can deliver a steady supply of amino acids needed to stop muscles from breaking down (catabolizing) during long periods of physical rest. Casein is insoluble in liquid, which is the reason why it digests slowly. Casein occurs as tiny micelles or globules after filtration. Goat milk casein may digest faster than cow milk casein.
Whey protein powder is more soluble in liquid, which makes it easier to mix with liquids and digest as a beverage – perfect for before and after workouts when it’s crucial for amino acids to flow steadily to muscles for strength, recovery and to stave off catabolism.
Whey is said to have the highest Biological Value (BV) of all the proteins. The higher the Biological Value of the protein, the more nitrogen the body absorbs, uses and retains. As a result, proteins with the highest BV promote the most lean muscle gains.
Egg protein powder is among the most popular because it’s typically devoid of fat and carbohydrates and is easy to digest and absorb. Egg protein powder typically contains high levels of sulfur-containing amino acids, which are said to be critical to hormone-producing pathways in the body. Egg protein powders are considered good for those who are allergic to cow milk proteins and for those who eat few eggs. Egg protein is said to have the highest BV next to whey protein
Soy protein powder tends to be rich in glutamine and arginine. It’s absorbed quickly and easily into the body and delivers a multitude of health benefits, including soy isoflavones known to benefit the immune system. Reports differ as to whether soy is a complete protein source – most say it isn’t.
Despite myths perpetuated by the bodybuilding community that soy protein imparts estrogen-like effects on the body and competes with the anabolic effects of testosterone, soy protein has been found to benefit muscle health in male bodybuilders.
Hemp protein powder is typically 50 percent protein. Hemp protein powders are typically high in fiber and contain beneficial fats omega 3, 6 and 9, GLA (gamma linolenic acid) and chlorophyll.
Protein powder benefits and claims
Researchers at the Nutrition Institute in Knoxville, Tennessee say that protein powders are full of biologically active components that may play a role in optimizing the health of everyone – not just for bodybuilders and athletes. Among the general health benefits of protein powder, say experts at the American College of Nutrition, are lower levels of body fat, enhanced weight loss capabilities, lean muscle preservation and improved immune function.
Research indicates that shakes or smoothies made from protein powder are said to be particularly beneficial when consumed before and after workouts. When compared with carbohydrate drinks or consuming nothing at all, beverages fortified with protein powder may lead to superior gains in muscle strength and mass.
- Soy protein powders are said to provide women with needed isoflavones that help balance hormones and strengthen bones.
- Whey protein powders work quickly to increase protein synthesis.
- Egg protein powders may help maintain and build new muscle and stimulate protein synthesis better than carbohydrates alone.
- Hemp protein powders are rich in essential fatty acids.
What to look for in a protein powder
Most often used by athletes to enhance endurance and by bodybuilders to build muscle, protein powders may serve a variety of other lifestyles. To achieve optimum metabolic results from any protein powder, experts say consumers should look for the following ingredients as an indication of a quality and effectiveness:
- Creatine – an amino acid that when taken as a supplement to whey protein may increase levels of insulin in the body, leading to heightened cell energy.
- Glutamine – an amino acid that supports the immune system, enhances muscle recovery, aids digestion and promotes muscle growth.
- Arginine – aids in the production of nitric oxide to increase blood flow and add volume to muscle cells by helping them retain water.
- Carnosine – an amino acid dipeptide that helps muscles contract more intensely and for longer periods of time.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA – eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid may preserve muscle mass by helping the body burn fat stores.
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) – stimulates muscle growth and encourages fat loss.
- GLA (gamma linolenic acid) – a needed precursor for many prostaglandins responsible for promoting fat metabolism and muscle growth.
- MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) – fuel for muscle during workouts.
- Carnitine – a pseudo amino acid that burns fat for fuel during exercise. May enhance testosterone activity in muscle cells and aid in muscle recovery.
- Vitamins and minerals – experts advise to look for 50 percent or more of the RDI for essentials.
- Fiber – five grams of fiber per dose is suggested.
- Colostrum – contains insulin-1 growth factor to stimulate muscle growth.
- Digestive enzymes – help the body digest and absorb protein quickly and deliver protein to muscles fast.
Part 2 will discuss:
- Side effects of protein powder, safety and toxicity
- Clinical studies and protein powder research
- Protein powder efficacy and the FDA