Nutrition Lab: Protein Powder 101
Protein powder has always been controversial. Bodybuilders tout protein powders as an essential component in their quest for the perfect physique. Unfortunately, contamination of protein powders is not uncommon, and they regularly contain substances that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Many people use protein powder after their workouts to help build muscle, but is it really needed?
For the average person, the recommended daily intake of protein is 0.8-1g per kg of body weight, but this amount rises to 1.2-2g per kg for athletes. This amount works out to about 66-110 g per day for a 55 kg (120 lb) woman or 96-160 g per day for an 80 kg (180 lb) man. Is this a lot? Do we need to do better? Not according to recent data from Statistics Canada which found the average 19 to 30 year-old Canadian woman eats 72 g of protein per day and the average Canadian man eats about 110 g of protein per day.
So, you can easily meet your protein needs with whole foods in your diet. Even so, many athletes like the convenience of protein powders so let’s decipher what they are, and you might use them.
What is Protein Powder?
To understand what protein powders are let’s do a quick review of basic chemistry 101.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When amino acids are linked together in short chains, they are called peptides. When amino acids are linked together into much larger chains, they are called proteins.
Protein powder is produced by separating protein from food sources and is also often broken down into peptides and amino acids. Protein powder also contains small amounts of carbs, fats, minerals, and water.
Classifications of Protein Powder
There are three significant classifications of protein powder:
- Protein Concentrates – in protein concentrates, the non-protein components of the food are removed, and the result is about 70-80% protein.
- Protein Isolates – are produced when they “isolate” the concentrated protein. As a result, you get a much higher percentage of pure protein (about 90%).
- Protein Hydrolysates – hydrolysates are made by breaking protein down into its peptide, and amino acid components with the aim being to allow for faster absorption. In reality, your gut readily absorbs each type of protein powder.
Whey too Many Types! What do They Mean?
Whey is the most common type of protein powder, and it is a dairy based protein. Whey offers all the essential amino acids and is quickly digested which makes it a great source of protein after a workout. Whey can help in fat loss, the synthesis of lean muscle mass, metabolism, and cardiovascular health.
Because whey is a dairy source, some people who are lactose intolerant may be unable to consume it. Also, to flavor whey powders many companies use sweeteners and chemicals.
Another part of the dairy family is casein protein. Casein has similar benefits to whey, but this protein takes longer to digest and is therefore often not recommended after a workout. Casein may contain more chemicals to make it tastier.
Egg proteins are mostly isolated from egg whites and are a great alternative for people with milk allergies. This powder is excellent for muscle protein synthesis and is easily digested by the body which makes for a great post workout option.
Soy protein is the most common plant-based protein as it provides all essential amino acids. Soy protein has been shown to have benefits on the immune system, promote bone health, and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers. Soybean crops have been shown to be genetically modified and may have negative effects on hormone levels.
Weight Gainer is a protein powder used to bulk up. It combines whey protein with high carb sources to produce a calorie-dense powder. Higher calorie formulas are useful for people like bodybuilders or athletes who train for many hours a day who may not have enough time to consume all the calories they need from food to counterbalance the calories they burn while working out.
These weight gainers usually contain chemicals, sweeteners, and other hidden toxins to provide a calorie-dense powder and may also increase fat weight in the athlete if taken in excess amounts not needed to fuel the body.
Benefits of Protein (Powder)
Athletes use protein powder for various reasons. Most commonly, active people assume that they cannot meet their protein needs from diet alone. Also, athletes find protein powder convenient because it is easily transportable and requires little preparation.
In general, the benefits of protein powder are not unique to this vehicle for supporting adequate dietary protein. Including sufficient protein in your diet is linked with improvements in lean body mass, strength and power and supporting reductions in body fat.
Risks of Protein Powder
Contamination and overconsumption are the two major risks associated with protein powder.
Regulation of this billion dollar supplement industry is still in its infancy. It is still very much buyer beware out there. Random testing of supplements has routinely found that many contain substances such as antibiotics, hormones, and heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
According to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) “athletes are responsible for any substance found in their sample.”
Research has found that higher protein intake beyond the recommendations can lead to dehydration and constipation increasing the risks of renal cell cancer, kidney stones, and heart disease.
Other possible risks associated with protein powder are:
- Severe acne in adolescents because of the milk hormones in dairy-based powders,
- A possible link to insulin resistance (and eventually type 2 diabetes) from amino acids in powders,
- Life-threatening conditions if protein consumed is impure or contains harmful chemicals,
- Compromised vitamin and mineral intake,
- Cardiac, renal, bone and liver abnormalities associated with dietary intake coming predominantly from protein powders.
Other risks associated with supplements according to the CCES include the supplement:
- Not containing active ingredients listed on the label
- Not accurately listing the amount of ingredients per dose.
- Not accurately listing ingredients.
- Not listing important cautionary information
- Making false certification claims (e.g., WADA)
Are Your Supplements Safe?
By now you’ve probably gotten the message that it is impossible to know if your supplement is 100% safe. The best you can do is weigh the evidence.
If you’re going to take a protein powder before a sports competition, it is important to make sure that your protein powder of choice does not include ingredients that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to check for any potential illegal substances.
These substances may include anabolic agents, peptides hormones, growth factors, beta-2 antagonists, hormone and metabolic modulators, diuretics, or masking agents. A stamp of approval is present on supplements that have completed the illegal substance test. Don’t see the stamp? Be sure to check at wada-ama.org/en/content/what-is-prohibited for the safety of brand before consuming the supplement before competition.
You can also check out the NSF International Certified for Sport Program website to help you make your decision.
Bulking Up Your Protein
Meet your protein needs by including good sources of protein at all meals and snacks. Good sources of protein include nuts and seeds, Greek yogurt, milk, legumes, eggs and lean meats and fish. Eat a snack of protein and carbohydrates after resistance exercise to promote muscle gain. About 20 g of protein, immediately after exercise, to replenishes your protein stores and facilitate muscle building.
Even a busy athlete can get all the protein they need from regular whole food. If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and still want to try protein powder be sure WADA has approved the one you use. Even so, recognize that even third-party tested supplements may become contaminated and there is always a risk of testing positive for banned substances when using supplements. Choose the powder, or even better the protein food, that’s right for you.
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
Joanne TullDecember 5, 2018 at 9:03 am
It is such a nice blog about the protein powders. You’ve described all the classifications of protein powder very well. Thanks for sharing such a great information with us.
Ashley LeoneDecember 5, 2018 at 12:42 pm
Thanks, Joanne! Reuby, my nutrition student contributor, did a fantastic job on this one 🙂
Jonny EnglishApril 15, 2019 at 8:39 am
Nice blog about protein powders. I have so many doubts about protein powders but now its all clear after reading this. Thank You !!!
Ashley LeoneApril 18, 2019 at 9:39 am
Thanks Jonny! Glad I could shed some light on protein powders for you.