This article is non-specific to any particular vendor. Do your homework and price comparison before purchasing protein powders and supplements, either locally or online. My only advice is to buy supplements from companies who do NOT make prohormones to avoid contamination.
For those who prefer REAL food over powders, read Eating Real Food Instead of Protein Powders.
For the best overall book on Protein, I recommend reading Lyle McDonald’s The Protein Book, which is now available as an eBook.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I am an affiliate of Lyle’s books, and therefore will earn a commission on sales made from my links]
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 Protein Powders
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.
Side Effects of Protein Powder, Safety and Toxicity
There is literature which suggests that protein supplementation, without a balanced diet or sufficient exercise, may lead to dehydration, gout, liver and kidney damage, calcium loss and adverse gastrointestinal effects. Although little evidence suggests any toxicity or safety problems are associated with the general use of protein powder, it is neither inspected nor regulated by the FDA and, as such, its purity, safety and efficacy may be questionable from blend to blend and brand to brand. Consumer agencies warn users to be wary of protein powders manufactured outside the U.S.
Nutritionists and trainers suggest using protein powder with a purpose in mind and one focused on reasons for boosting protein intake such as enhanced endurance, a desire to build lean muscle, trauma recovery or muscle healing or a boost in immune system strength.
One documented setback to whey protein is its quick digestion and absorption into the bloodstream, resulting in many of its health-enhancing qualities being destroyed by the liver before benefiting muscle tissue. For this reason, protein powders made exclusively with whey protein may do nothing to stop catabolism, experts say. There are whey protein powders available, however, with delivery systems specifically designed to slow the absorption of whey protein and deliver more of its benefits to muscle.
Clinical Studies and Protein Powder Research
Incontrovertible scientific evidence suggests that protein is needed by all body systems to ensure good health. Clinical findings regarding protein powder, however, are relatively inconsistent, as are the criteria for control and experimental groups used in various published studies. Notwithstanding it’s ranking by the FDA as a dietary supplement:
- Some studies indicate that soy protein powders may be superior to milk-based protein powders in helping to balance hormones in women and strengthen bones.
- Reports from Ohio State University researchers imply that a protein powder regimen may strengthen a man’s prostate.
- University of Tokyo research indicates that long-term benefits of using protein powders result in quicker workout recovery and heightened levels of oxygen in the blood, possibly increasing overall athletic endurance.
- Research published in the Alternative Medicine Review reveal numerous benefits to engaging in a protein powder regimen:
– More lean tissue mass and muscle strength when used in conjunction with exercise
– Peak power and work performance
– Balanced cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels
– Improved markers of health in cases of liver toxification
– Strengthen healthy cells and fight free radicals
– Helps boost levels of glutathione (a potent antioxidant) to enhance immune system strength
– Improve gastrointestinal immunity in infants when added to baby formula.
Protein Powder Efficacy and the FDA
Protein powders in the U.S. are sold without FDA approval of safety or effectiveness. One downside to efficacy is that some nutritionists insist that an increase in muscle mass resulting from the use of protein powder over time may just be muscles retaining water – with a prolonged regimen sustaining these results. On the upside: protein powder supplementation may indeed build muscle mass, improve endurance and benefit a healthy immune system.
As a result of continued research, perspectives and opinions by nutritionists and dieticians regarding the effectiveness of protein powder supplementation have shifted in recent years. New findings suggest that, as a result of poor diet, escalating stress and new trends in bodybuilding and athletic performance, humans need more protein now than ever – and protein powder may be the most practical way to add pure protein to the diet without the fat and carbohydrates found in whole food protein sources.
Protein powders may do more good than harm, say experts, when used as directed and in conjunction with a balanced diet and sufficient exercise.
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11. What’s shaking? Men’s Fitness. March 2007 v23 i2 p28(1).
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Good article. I just wanted to comment on some of the ingredients that you mentioned experts said you should look for when picking a protein powder for optimum results. From my experience you don’t see some of these ingredients in your normal protein powders, you would have to buy a all-in-one protein to get these.
For omegas I just supplement with separate (highish volume DHA/EPA) tablets as physio that worked on me a few times suggested I should as I can’t imagine protein powders containing that much but you may not need that much if you are already getting enough omega from your diet.
Thanks Jim…useful as usual
Michael Zweifel says
How about whey isolate vs whey concentrate? I’ve always recommended and preferred isolate as it seems to be eaiser on the stomach and absorbed better. Any thoughts?