Protein is one of the three macronutrients required by the body for optimum growth, development and functioning. The best protein powder has the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats and calories and doesn’t have any contaminants or unhealthy additives.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fats) required by the body for optimum growth, development and functioning. The recommended protein intake varies with people based on different factors, such as age, general health and physical activity. Most adults need a protein intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Many people cannot meet the protein requirement through their diet due to various reasons, such as food preferences, allergies or busy schedules. Some people, such as athletes and fitness enthusiasts, may not be able to meet their protein needs met entirely through their diet without compromising on calorie or carb intake. For such people, protein powders seem to be a convenient and effective remedy.
Protein powders are a concentrated protein source in powder form. The best protein powder for a person depends on factors, such as dietary preferences (low-carb diet, vegan, etc.), tolerance to different protein types and any underlying health conditions. An ideal protein powder must provide all the nine essential amino acids without an unnecessary load of fats or carbohydrates. It should also not contain any harmful ingredients or contaminants.
The US Food and Drug Administration does not regulate dietary supplements, including protein powders, as strictly as pharmaceuticals. Their safety must be ensured by the manufacturer, who also needs to mention all the ingredients in the correct proportions on the label. It has been found, however, that some protein powders may contain unhealthy or harmful substances, such as heavy metals and pesticides. They may also contain added sugars or sweeteners. Hence, while choosing a protein powder, ensure that it contains the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats and calories as would fit in the diet without any contaminants or unhealthy additives. It is advisable to check whether the manufacturer has taken proper steps to reduce contamination. Choosing products that have undergone third-party testing is preferable. Some protein powders may interact with medications; hence, checking with your healthcare provider is always a good idea.
The various protein powders available on the market can be categorized into two broad groups:
1. Animal-based protein powders
As the name suggests, these protein powders are derived from animal sources, such as milk and eggs. Some protein powders may be made from collagen, a protein derived from the bones. Collagen does not contain all the essential amino acids. Hence, it is called an incomplete protein and is thus not as popular among fitness enthusiasts as milk and egg-derived proteins.
Milk-derived protein powders: They are quite popular protein supplements. Two types of milk-based proteins are available:
- Whey protein: It is one of the most consumed protein powder sources and derived from whey (the watery liquid that separates from curds while making cheese). Whey protein may be derived from cow or goat protein. Some people who are sensitive to cow’s milk find goat milk-derived whey easier to digest. Whey contains all the essential amino acids, including the branch chain amino acids. It is absorbed quickly and, thus, is a great pre- or post-workout choice. Whey protein boosts muscle growth and athletic performance when consumed along with a proper workout regime. Besides improving athletic performance, whey protein is also used to meet the protein needs of people with lactose intolerance and other conditions, such as asthma, protein allergy, high cholesterol, obesity and certain cancers. Depending on the manufacturing process, whey protein is one of three types:
- Whey protein concentrate (WPC): It is the most inexpensive and least processed form of whey protein. It contains about 30 to 90 percent protein. Thus, it has a higher content of carbohydrates and fats. WPC is generally used in protein bars and beverages, bakery products and nutritional food products. It may not be suitable for people with diabetes, weight watchers and those looking for a low-carb and low-fat protein source.
- Whey protein isolate (WPI): It is a popularly consumed form of whey protein. It is more processed than WPC, providing at least 90 percent of protein content with fewer carbs and fats than WPC. Being the purest form of whey, it is also more expensive than WPC. WPI also has a lower composition of lactose than WPC.
- Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH): This is the most processed variety of whey protein. The processing also involves protein breakdown or hydrolysis, making it easier and faster to absorb. Hydrolysis also reduces the likelihood of allergic reactions without compromising protein quality. WPH is generally used in infant formulas and nutrition products meant for medical use or sports.
- Casein protein powder: It is also derived from milk and provides various essential amino acids like whey protein. Unlike whey protein, however, it is more slowly digested. Thus, it cannot provide the rapid protein boost necessary for muscles right after a workout or physical activity. It will, however, keep the body fuller for longer, making it suitable for situations such as fasting.
2. Plant-based protein powders
Plant-based proteins are derived from plant sources and are suitable for vegans and people with lactose intolerance or an inability to properly digest milk protein. The commonly used sources for plant-based protein powders include pea, hemp, rice, soy and chia. They also provide a boost of fiber along with protein and are reported to be more easily digested by many people. They may not contain all the essential amino acids. Plant proteins derived from hemp and soy or those made from a protein blend from different sources can provide all the essential amino acids.
Medically Reviewed on 7/7/2021
Harvard Health Publishing: “The Hidden Dangers of Protein Powders.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders
RxList: “Whey Protein.” https://www.rxlist.com/whey_protein/supplements.htm