Walk into any health food store or large grocery chain and you’ll likely find shelves lined with protein powders. I hear quite a bit of confusion from my clients and my functional nutrition students about them, which is why I want to share my definitive guide to protein powders with you today.
Why Have Protein Powders Become so Popular?
Consumers are spending lots of money on protein powders – 4.7 billion dollars in 2015 in the US alone, and marketers predict that amount will rise to 7.5 billion by 2020. In my experience, people are gravitating towards protein powders because:
- Some of us aren’t able to meet our protein needs through food alone. The average person needs 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight each day, but that can increase depending on our activity levels, illness or trauma.
- Protein powders have expanded to include a wide spectrum of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, greens, herbs, etc. They’ve become a meal replacement in addition to just a protein powder.
- Convenience – we all lead busy lives, and the ‘shake and go’ culture of protein powders makes it easier for people to meet their nutritional needs during times of chaos.
- Some protein powders can be easier to digest and absorb when mixed into liquids like smoothies or elixirs, as opposed to the extra work the body needs to do to break down a steak or a cup of beans. That is why we recommend them in the clinic often, for those who might digestive issues.
Let’s talk about some of the common types of protein powders and how you can decide which one might be right for you.
The Animal Proteins
Animal-based protein powders contain a full spectrum of amino acids (with an exception – see below) and people tend to be less allergic to them as many brands are gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, grain-free, dairy-free (except for whey), etc. When choosing an animal-based protein powder, the source is important. Aim for powders that are derived from organic, pasture-raised animals and don’t contain artificial preservatives or genetically modified ingredients.
Here are some of my top recommendations:
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. Collagen makes up our body’s skin, bones and connective tissues, and collagen protein powder can help improve our skin’s elasticity and diminish the signs of aging, as well as reduce joint pain and boost muscle strength. There are also collagen supplements on the market that you can take orally.
Some advantages of collagen are that it’s virtually tasteless, it goes well in hot or cold drinks, and dissolves very easily. One of my favourite combinations is collagen mixed with hot water and Elixir. People also have a very low propensity to be sensitive to it.
Collagen however does not have adequate amounts of tryptophan, and therefore is not a complete protein. As with any supplement, this illustrated the importance of still eating enough protein in your regular diet.
Product I Recommend: Great Lakes Gelatin Collagen Hydrolysate
Gelatin comes from the connective tissue of animals and contains high amounts of the amino acids proline and glycine, which can help reduce inflammation and enhance detoxification. It’s wonderfully supportive to the joints, skin and muscles, and can also aid digestion and help improve leaky gut syndrome.
Product I Recommend: Great Lakes Unflavoured Beef Gelatin
Bone Broth Protein Powder
You may have heard about the health benefits of bone broth lately, and now those benefits are available in protein powder form. Bone broth is an incredibly nourishing food, filled with collagen, gelatin, glutathione – an antioxidant that is anti-inflammatory and helps with healing and repair, as well as glutamine for a healthy gut.
Bone broth powders come in many flavours, so you can have it in the savoury or sweet form. I like to add the unsweetened version to a vegetable soup to make it a complete meal. Or, use the sweet version in a smoothie.
Product I Recommend: Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein
Beef Protein Powder
This is a newer type of protein powder on the market and it is often used to improve exercise performance and recovery. The burgeoning body of research on beef protein powder indicates it supports resistance training, boosts lean body mass, improves upper body muscles and stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
Beef protein powder is also highly concentrated and the way it’s processed allows for better absorption. This is a great option for those of you who exercise regularly or are looking to improve athletic performance.
Product I Recommend: PurePaleo Protein
Whey is an extensively studied protein and it was one of the original sources for protein powder before all of these other options became available. On the positive side, whey has been shown to increase lean body mass, boost muscle protein synthesis and increase the production of antioxidants.
However, whey from cow’s milk is highly allergenic, especially in children. The most common symptoms I see in my practice from dairy sensitivity are skin issues (eczema and psoriasis), ear infections, upper-respiratory tract infections, post-nasal drip, irritable bowel, headaches, and fatigue. Although, symptoms can take on any form.
Whey protein is probably the last on my list to recommend to you, but if you are going to use it, aim for something that is organic and use it in rotation with other protein powders.
Product I Recommend: Organic Whey Protein
Can you see yourself eating crickets? Don’t write this protein powder off just yet – it’s new on the market and is very rich in protein, iron and Vitamin B12. I also like this one because it’s sustainable and requires less land and resources than larger animal proteins.
If you’re feeling adventurous, this is a new one to try!
Product I Recommend: Entomo Farms Cricket Protein Powder
Egg White Protein Powder
Eggs are a superfood that provide a wide spectrum of amino acids that assist with healing and repair. They are great for the brain and nervous system, too. More than half of an egg’s protein content is found in the whites; plus they contain Vitamin D, selenium, potassium and sodium.
Egg white protein may help improve muscle strength, improve cholesterol levels, improve lean body mass and can scavenge free radicals. This protein isn’t one of my “go to’s”, as I like people eating the whole food, as there is so much valuable nutrition in the yolk.
Product I Recommend: Now Sports Egg White Protein Powder
For vegans and vegetarians, there are a number of plant-based proteins to choose from. Vegan proteins are often high in fibre and typically derived from beans, grains, nuts and seeds. So be mindful of whether these foods work for you. They don’t contain the balanced spectrum of amino acids that animal proteins offer, but you can mix and match to get the complete amount that you need.
Here are some of the best plant-based protein options:
Pea protein is a great choice for weight loss and appetite control, plus it has one of the best blood sugar balancing effects. It also contains branched chain amino acids, which are great for muscle recovery and repair.
Product I Recommend: Now Pea Protein
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein is equally effective as whey protein at boosting lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass. It contains a broad spectrum of amino acids, especially methionine, tyrosine and cystine, which help to build cartilage, synthesize neurotransmitters and build glutathione respectively. Brown rice protein helps balance blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol, plus it is usually less allergenic.
Brown rice has made headlines recently for its arsenic content, which is why I recommend an organic brown rice protein.
Product I Recommend: Raw Whole Grain Brown Rice Protein
I don’t recommend soy protein powders. Soy is a controversial topic, but based on the research I’ve conducted it is not the most optimal protein source for those looking to improve and maintain health.
Soy can reduce thyroid function and enlarge the thyroid. As soy mimics the qualities of estrogen, it can disrupt other areas of the endocrine system and may impact fertility and early puberty. Men are not immune to the effects of soy, either – soy consumption is linked to lower sperm count. Evidence isn’t strong that soy protein halts menopausal symptoms or bone health, either.
Plus, soy is highly genetically modified, and GMOs have a wide range of health effects. Given the abundance of vegan and vegetarian protein options, you won’t miss out by skipping soy protein.
Fermented foods are wonderful for gut health and the immune system. When protein powder is fermented, that further allows us to access, digest and absorb its nutrients. Fermented proteins are easy to digest and our bodies can easily access the amino acids for healing and repair.
This is a great option to ‘up the ante’ and maximize the power of your protein powder.
Product I Recommend: Genuine Health Fermented Vegan Protein
I like to recommend protein blends that mix different types of vegan proteins together like pea, brown rice, hemp, etc. This ‘mix and match’ approach to protein powder offers you a more balance amino acid profile, so you get the best of all worlds. The blends are greater than the sum of their parts!
Product I Recommend: Raw Plant-Based Complete Protein Powder
Pumpkin Seed Protein
In addition to its high protein content, pumpkin seed protein is high in zinc (great for the immune system), rich in antioxidants and anemia-reducing iron. Its content of tryptophan can help with insomnia and it’s a wonderful source of beneficial fats.
Pumpkin seed protein is a great option for those who are allergic to nuts, or cannot tolerate beans and grains.
Product I Recommend: Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder
Hemp Seed Protein
Hemp seeds are a complete source of protein and some evidence suggests they are easier to digest than proteins made from grains, nuts and pulses. In addition to protein, hemp seeds are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and have the ideal ratio of omega 6:omega 3 (which is anywhere from 4:1 to 2:1).
Product I Recommend: Organic Hemp Protein Powder
How Do I Choose?
The protein powder you choose will depend on your individual health needs – like whether you are dealing with an injury or health condition, how much you exercise and your body type. Your choice will also depend on your lifestyle and how you envision yourself using protein powders (while smoothies aren’t the only way to consume them, it is an easy one and if you hate smoothies then you may struggle with finding ways to use it).
I don’t believe you only need to choose one type of protein. It’s important to rotate between different types of proteins to ensure you obtain a spectrum of amino acids and to prevent sensitivities from developing.
Concentrate, Isolate or Hydrolyzed?
When you separate the liquid from the protein, you’re left with a concentrate. Isolates are further distilled and often have a higher protein content than the concentrates. When proteins are hydrolyzed, they are broken down and partially digested to improve absorption and assimilation.
Concentrates are often more economical but not as concentrated, so what you choose will depend on your budget and health status.
- Flavour: There are a wide range of flavours in the world of protein powder and it can take some trial and error to discover the ones you like. Flavoured ones are nice for smoothies, elixirs and baking, while unflavoured or natural ones have savory applications too. Many companies offer individual or sample sizes so you can try them before buying a full tub.
- Texture: Some protein powders, especially the vegan ones, are grittier than others.
- Sugars: Watch for excess sugars added to protein powders to make them taste like chocolate milkshakes or mocha lattes. Don’t forget that even natural sweeteners have distinct flavours (stevia for example); it’s great to taste and sample to discover your favourites. To sweeten my shakes, I use berries or other fruits.
- Additives: Read labels and check for added thickeners, stabilizers, gluten, gums, vegetable oils, etc.
- GMOs: I always recommend GMO-free protein powders.