Written by Anne Marie Berggren, RD, MS, CDN / May 14th, 2023 / Leave a Comment
We have so many choices these days, it can be overwhelming. Protein powders are no exception, having gained in popularity and diversity as time goes on. In this article I will layout some of the differences between 4 of the more common base protein choices and offer some insight as to why you may choose one over another depending on what your needs and goals may be. While most of our nutrition is best consumed as whole foods, I find that protein sources can be lacking in many meals and diets, and using a protein powder can give you options and versatility in meeting your protein needs.
If you have good protein sources at all of your meals and snacks, you may not need a protein powder. Good sources of protein include animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as plant sources such as nuts and seeds, beans, and peas. Whole grains also supply some protein. Breakfast often is a lower protein meal for people, as can be snacks.
Some diets may also be lower in protein, such as entirely plant based diets. There are, of course, protein options for plant based diets, but the total amount of protein is harder to achieve in sheer volume of food compared to how much protein you get when eating animal products.
Eating animal products or not is a personal choice and their is no wrong answer. But if you consume an entirely plant based diet and your goal is to build muscle, optimize fullness and satiety to curb appetite, or even optimize protein intake to support mood, protein powders can be a great option.
The More Obvious Factors that Narrow Down Your Protein Powder Options
If you do not consume animal products, then this will narrow your options down to a point. Whey and collagen protein powders are animal based products. Collagen is not discussed here as it is not the best option for the goals discussed here, such as building muscle, reducing hunger, or supporting mood with neurotransmitter precursors. Soy, pea, and hemp are plant based and provide all of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Food allergies or sensitivities may also lead you to choose one product over another. Pea and hemp protein are generally considered to be hypoallergenic, in that they are not one of the eight most common allergens. These include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
These foods account for the majority of food allergies in the United States and other developed countries. However, it is important to note that other foods can also cause allergies and intolerances in some individuals. Some examples include sesame, mustard, and gluten-containing grains such as barley and rye.
Furthermore, it is possible to have a food sensitivity, or delayed inflammatory to response, to almost any food. This, however, is more controversial and difficult to assess. For example, when I was in the midst of dealing with SIBO, a food sensitivity assessment test revealed I was having an inflammatory response to pea protein. While different than an IgE mediated food allergy, sensitivities can contribute to ongoing inflammation in the body that may make it difficult to heal and can be assessed by IgG linked to complement proteins such as is done with the FIT test.
Additionally, it’s important to read ingredient labels on all protein powder products to ensure that if you are gluten intolerant, for example, that there is no gluten in the mix.
Problematic Ingredients to Avoid
Protein powders are often sweetened, flavored, or have other ingredients added to them. You may opt for a flavored protein powder if you intend to consume it primarily as a shake, as picking vanilla or chocolate may make this easier and more palatable. But also look out for what types of sweeteners are used, what other ingredients may be added, and consider if you want something with added vitamins and minerals or other ingredients.
I recommend avoiding anything with carrageenan, an emulsifier that is known to cause gut inflammation, corn syrup, and artificial colors and sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, or acesulfame K. Healthier sweetener options include stevia, monk fruit, coconut sugar, or the sugar alcohols erythritol or xylitol.
Protein powders may or may not contain added vitamins or minerals which is something to consider in terms of what you want out of a protein powder. Some will add several whole food based powders as an extra source of nutrition. This may be something that appeals to you, however, if you suspect you are dealing with any food sensitivities, these types of products could be problematic.
You may prefer more of a raw ingredient that you can add to and build upon. Plain powders that are just the protein are good for adding to recipes to boost their nutrition content.
Contamination and Quality Issues
Contamination is another issue with supplements, as is the accuracy of labeling. Does the product truly contain what it says it does? Is it contaminated with lead?
In the United States, if a supplement has been tested for contamination and quality, it may carry certain labels or certifications to indicate that it has undergone testing. Here are a few labels you might find on a supplement indicating it has been checked for contamination:
- USP Verified: The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) is an independent, nonprofit organization that sets quality standards for medications, dietary supplements, and food ingredients. The USP Verified mark indicates that the supplement has met the organization’s rigorous testing and quality requirements.
- NSF Certified for Sport: The NSF International’s Certified for Sport program is specifically designed for athletes and ensures that the supplement has been tested for banned substances, contaminants, and other impurities. This certification is widely recognized in the sports industry.
- GMP Certified: Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification indicates that the supplement has been manufactured in compliance with specific quality standards and regulations. While GMP certification does not directly address contamination testing, it ensures that the supplement has been produced under controlled conditions to minimize the risk of contamination.
- Third-Party Tested: This label indicates that the supplement has been tested for contaminants by an independent third-party laboratory. While it doesn’t specify the exact contaminants tested, it suggests that the product has undergone additional scrutiny beyond the manufacturer’s claims.
- Quality Seal: Some supplement manufacturers may use their own quality seal to indicate that their products have undergone testing for contaminants. However, it’s important to research the credibility and reliability of the manufacturer before relying solely on their seal.
The absence of these labels doesn’t necessarily mean that a supplement has not been tested for contamination. Some reputable manufacturers may conduct thorough testing without displaying specific labels or certifications. To ensure the quality and safety of a supplement, it’s advisable to research the manufacturer’s practices, read product reviews, and consult with healthcare professionals if needed.
Protein Powders Are Not All Created Equal
The protein content of different protein powders can vary, but on average, whey protein powder tends to have the highest protein content per serving, with approximately 20-30 grams of protein per 30-gram serving.
Soy protein powder and pea protein powder typically have slightly less protein per serving, with approximately 15-25 grams of protein per 30-gram serving. While hemp protein powders typically have even less protein per serving, with approximately 10-15 grams of protein per 30-gram serving. The lower protein content isn’t necessarily a problem if you are eating protein from other sources at other meals and snacks throughout the day.
Generally, we can absorb somewhere around 20-30 grams of protein at a meal. Going beyond that is likely just stressing your body and you will not be able to utilize the additional protein.
Additionally, different protein sources will have different amino acid profiles. Amino acids are the tiniest, building block like components of proteins, and they play different roles in the body. Your choice of protein may differ depending on what your needs and goals are. Are you recovering from a workout? Looking for a satiating snack to curb your appetite? Or are you trying to fill a gap in your diet?
Here is a chart comparing the amino acid profiles of whey, pea, soy, and hemp protein powders (amounts are in grams per 30-gram serving). Keep in mind that 30 grams of a powder does not mean it has 30 grams of protein:
A Quick Comparison of Overall Characteristics of Various Protein Powders
In addition to differences in their amino acid profiles, these different protein powders also vary in terms of their source, taste, texture, and potential allergenicity. Personally, I typically use protein powders in a smoothie with other ingredients, like fruits, nuts, and vegetables, so the texture differences have not really stuck out to me. Here are some additional differences to consider:
Whey Protein Powder
- Whey protein is derived from milk and is a complete protein source, meaning it contains all essential amino acids.
- It is also highly digestible and quickly absorbed by the body.
- However, it may not be suitable for those with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy, and some people may find it causes digestive discomfort.
Pea Protein Powder
- Pea protein is derived from yellow split peas and is also a complete protein source.
- It is less allergenic than whey protein and may be a good option for those with dairy allergies or intolerances.
- However, it may have a gritty texture and a slightly earthy flavor that some people may not enjoy.
Soy Protein Powder
- Soy protein is derived from soybeans and is also a complete protein source.
- It has a smooth texture and a neutral flavor that can be easily incorporated into a variety of recipes.
- However, it is a common allergen and may not be suitable for those with a soy allergy or sensitivity.
Hemp Protein Powder
- Hemp protein is derived from hemp seeds and contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source.
- A 1/4-cup (30-gram) serving of hemp protein powder contains around 120 calories and 15 grams of protein. That’s less protein per serving than soy or pea protein powders.
- It is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in hemp protein powder can vary depending on the brand and how it is processed. However, on average, hemp protein powder contains approximately 1-2 grams of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 fatty acids per serving (approximately 30 grams). While hemp protein powder is a good source of omega-3s, it’s not great for boosting EPA and DHA levels. These long-chain omega-3s are primarily found in fatty fish and seafood and may be more effectively obtained through dietary supplements or fortified foods.
- Hemp protein powder has a nutty flavor and a slightly gritty texture that may not be as smooth as other protein powders.
- It is hypoallergenic and may be a good option for those with allergies or intolerances to other protein sources. It is also a good choice for vegans or vegetarians, as it is a plant-based protein source.
Why Use a Protein Powder?
Protein is an important part of a balanced diet, playing many roles in the body and offering many benefits when consumed in optimal amounts. When we think of protein, we usually think of it building and maintaining muscle. But did you know it is also an important part of neurotransmitter synthesis? Protein can help support a good mood and help you deal with stress.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Protein needs vary according to age, health condition, and lifestyle. Some disease states or physical ailments may decrease or increase the body’s needs for protein. And, like most things in life, there is a bell curve to it. There can be too little protein or too much in the diet.
Generally, somewhere between 0.8 -1.1 grams per kg of body weight meets the estimated needs of most individuals. If your goal is to build muscle, higher amounts of protein, ~1.6 grams/kg, are optimal.
The amount of protein that is best for building muscle after exercise depends on various factors such as body weight, exercise intensity, and training status.
However, a general recommendation is to consume between 0.14-0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.3-0.5 grams per kilogram) within 30 minutes to 2 hours after exercise. For example, a 150-pound (68 kg) person would need to consume between 21-34 grams of protein after exercise.
Additionally, some studies suggest that consuming more than 20-25 grams of protein after exercise may not provide additional benefits for muscle growth in individuals who are already consuming enough protein in their diet.
It’s important to note that protein is just one aspect of the diet and that adequate calories and nutrients are needed to support health and build muscle. A lot of protein in the context of too little calories will not allow the body to use protein for protein, it will need to break the protein down for energy.
A balanced diet that includes a variety of protein sources is key for muscle growth, as different protein sources provide different combinations of amino acids that work together to support muscle protein synthesis.
Important amino acids for building muscle include:
- Leucine: This is considered the most important amino acid for muscle growth because it activates a signaling pathway called the mTOR pathway, which stimulates protein synthesis and muscle growth. Good dietary sources of leucine include animal-based proteins like beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as plant-based sources like soy, nuts, and beans.
- Isoleucine: This is another branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that works together with leucine to stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth. Good dietary sources of isoleucine include animal-based proteins like chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as plant-based sources like soy, nuts, and beans.
- Valine: This is the third BCAA that works together with leucine and isoleucine to promote protein synthesis and muscle growth. Good dietary sources of valine include animal-based proteins like beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as plant-based sources like soy, nuts, and beans.
- Lysine: This is an essential amino acid that is important for muscle growth and repair, as well as the production of collagen, which is essential for connective tissue health. Good dietary sources of lysine include animal-based proteins like beef, chicken, fish, and dairy products, as well as plant-based sources like beans, lentils, and quinoa.
- Methionine: This is an essential amino acid that is important for the production of new muscle tissue and the synthesis of creatine, which is important for energy production during exercise. Good dietary sources of methionine include animal-based proteins like beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as plant-based sources like nuts and seeds.
It’s important to note that protein should be consumed in combination with carbohydrates after exercise to replenish glycogen stores and support muscle recovery. Consuming a balanced meal that includes protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats within a few hours after exercise can also help support muscle growth and recovery. Additionally, engaging in regular strength training exercise and consuming a balanced diet that includes adequate protein throughout the day are both important for building and maintaining muscle mass.
Ways to Use Protein Powders
While some may easily get enough protein from meat and other foods they eat, I’ve found it tricky to get optimal amounts of protein as someone who generally only has meat with 0-2 meals/day. It can be easy for the days to slip by and realize you are eating a fairly low protein diet. This is why protein powders can be so helpful for some people. They are easy to consume right after exercising, can be added to a smoothie, or to other foods you eat.
Protein powder can be a versatile ingredient that can be incorporated into various recipes to boost protein content. Here are some different ways to use protein powder in cooking:
- Smoothies: Add a scoop of protein powder to your favorite smoothie recipe for an extra protein boost. It can work well with fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and liquid of your choice.
- Protein Pancakes or Waffles: Substitute a portion of flour with protein powder in pancake or waffle recipes. This can add protein while maintaining the desired texture.
- Protein Bars or Balls: Make homemade protein bars or energy balls by combining protein powder with nut butter, oats, and other ingredients of your choice. These can serve as convenient and nutritious snacks.
- Protein Oatmeal: Stir protein powder into your oatmeal while cooking to enhance the protein content. Add your favorite toppings such as fruits, nuts, or seeds for added flavor and nutrients.
- Protein Baked Goods: Incorporate protein powder into recipes for muffins, cookies, or bread. It may require adjusting other ingredients to achieve the desired texture.
- Protein Pudding or Mousse: Create a creamy and protein-rich dessert by mixing protein powder with ingredients such as Greek yogurt, almond milk, or avocado.
- Protein Ice Cream: Blend protein powder with frozen bananas, milk or milk alternative, and other desired ingredients to create a homemade protein-rich ice cream.
When using protein powder in cooking, it’s important to consider the flavor and texture of the powder, as some variations may impact the taste and consistency of the final dish. Experiment with different recipes and protein powder types to find combinations that you enjoy.
Some shakes come pre-made with these protein powders, but buying the powders in bulk is much more economical. Some people are fine just mixing them with water and use cups with a wire ball inside to help mix the powder in as the container is shaken.
You could use water or a milk or milk alternative of your choosing to mix the protein powder with.
This could be a little odd if consumed at room temperature, so you may want to add ice. I’m from Florida originally, and like lots of ice always.
Frozen fruit or even vegetables is another way to add that nice icy chill if you are not just having a protein powder, but making a smoothie.
My favorite way to use protein powders is in a smoothie. With the smoothie you make the powder into more of a meal, or just a sort of value added nutritious snack.
Add frozen berries, frozen banana (peel them first, cut into pieces, and then freeze), a handful of spinach or kale, and some nuts, seeds, or a nut butter and you have essentially made a well rounded meal or snack.
You can use the milk or milk alternative of your choice to make it more rich tasting, and more nutritious.
And again, don’t forget to add some ice if you aren’t using any frozen fruits.
I do prefer the Nutribullet, which is pictured above. I recommend this or any other high powered blender of your choosing. The older style blenders with less power tend to leave the added fruits and vegetables pulpy and stringy compared to the new, high powered ones.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to send along a comment.
Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.