Inside Scoop: A guide into what to look for and avoid when choosing a protein powder.

This post was submitted by Henry Walker, creative copy and content writer. 

Unlike carbohydrates and fats, our body doesn’t store protein.

And we all know that protein, a vital macronutrient, plays an important role in creating and maintaining cells in our body systems, for example:

  • Our hair & nails are mostly made of protein.
  • Protein is used to build & repair tissue.
  • Protein makes enzymes that help in digesting food, building new cells and body chemicals.
  • Protein plays a key role in regulating the concentrations of acids and bases in our blood.

Protein also helps reduce muscle loss, maintain a healthy weight, curb hunger and assist in speedy recovery post an injury. So you must add healthy animal or plant-based sources of protein to your daily diet. In some cases, protein supplements may be needed.

You can download the Healthiest Food-Based Protein Sources List below.

Athletes, recreational gym-goers and anyone attempting to lose weight knows the importance of protein to grow and build lean muscles, improve strength, recover faster after exercise and prevent muscle loss during weight loss.

So, what does this mean? We all need to get our daily recommended intake of protein from our diet.

How much protein do we need?

Adults need an absolute minimum of 46-56 grams of protein per day. These requirements change with age, activity level, pregnancy and individual circumstances. You can calculate your optimal intake here.

FUN FACT: Our red blood cells contain a protein compound known as hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout the body so that our entire body can get the proper and necessary nutrients.

Essential vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and our body needs 20 amino acids to function optimally.

9 of the amino acids are classified as essential, which means that your body cannot produce them on its own and they must be obtained through food.

Nonessential amino acids are also as critically important, but they are made by the body itself from essential amino acids, so they are not ‘essential’ in the sense that we don’t need to worry about obtaining enough of them from our diet.

Do We Need Protein Supplements?

The simple answer to this question for a healthy adult on a balanced diet and that doesn’t have unique requirements or circumstances is, NO.

But, now you may see why so many of us have been led to believe that we’re not getting enough protein from our diet and that we need extra protein in the form of protein powder, protein bars and shakes to be healthy.

If you have a healthy and balanced diet with plenty of plant and animal-based sources of protein such as nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, beans, fish, eggs and chicken as some examples then you can simply rely on food and may not need to supplement with protein powders.

In fact, too much protein can be hard on the kidneys and liver as well as lead to digestive upset, nausea, cramping and irritability.

For this reason, it’s best that we first resort to food for our requirements and use supplementation when and if necessary.

Who can benefit from supplementation?

  • Athletes, body builders or gym-goers looking for quick exercise recovery options.
  • People with compromised digestive health that require an easy to digest meal.
  • After surgery or medical procedure.
  • On-the-go and busy professionals looking for the occasional quick and easy meal or snack option on the go.
  • Anyone that needs to up their overall protein intake to build muscle or lose weight can incorporate protein powder in smoothies, snacks or in baking.

When it comes to supplements, there’s so much misinformation on the science behind the ones that work. You can download the Complete Supplement Guide below that outlines the best supplements and brands out there that could be right for you.

Choosing a Protein Powder: What To Look For?

Whether you’re looking for an animal or plant-based source of protein powder, here are the top 4 things to consider:

1) Ingredient List: As with any packaged food that you pick up from the store, the first thing you should look at is the full ingredient list. Make sure that it’s ingredients that are easy to read and recognize.

We would say that a good protein powder would have no more than 5-8 ingredients. If it’s a vegan protein powder blend, then all protein types (rice, pea, hemp etc.) can be counted as 1 ingredient. Learn more on reading food labels here.

2) Sugar Content: Another important aspect when choosing a protein powder is the amount of sugar it contains and what is the source of this sugar, natural or artificial.

Generally, it’s best to purchase protein powder that’s naturally sweetened with stevia, monk fruit or a little bit of coconut sugar.

Since most of us use protein powder in foods that already contain some sugar such as smoothies, pancakes, snacks and desserts, our recommendation is to look for protein powders with 4 grams of sugar or less per serving. And, avoid sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame and high fructose corn syrup.

3) Amino Acid Profile: You want to make sure that you have a full amino acid profile and that the protein powder that you choose contains all the essential amino acids that your body needs.

4) Sourcing & Quality: Make sure that you are purchasing from a brand that sources high-quality ingredients. For example, whey protein made from grass-fed cows, if using rice then tested for arsenic content and purity.

The Best & Worst Types of Protein Powder

Protein powders are an easy and convenient source of complete and high-quality protein but remember that those powders don’t contain the fiber, vitamins and minerals which we can get from natural food items. Protein powder is nothing but a ‘supplement’.

There are two main categories of protein powder:

  1. Source of animal protein: Milk, beef, egg, fish, meat.
  2. Plant based protein: Pea, hemp, rice and other sprouted grains and seeds.

Animal-Based Protein

Animal protein powders usually have other important nutrients such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), heme-iron and zinc. In general, animal protein tends to deliver all the amino acids that we need for our body.

Whey protein, a dairy-based protein powder, is very popular because of its taste, high quality (if you purchase the right kind) and reasonable price and it come in three varieties:

1) Whey concentrate: about 80% protein and contacts some lactose.

2) Whey isolate: about 90% and almost lactose-free.

3) Whey hydrolysate: it’s pre-digested for quick absorption. It spikes insulin levels much faster.

Whey protein is one of the most popular protein powders amongst athletes.

Whey protein is a mixture of Immunoglobulins, Alpha-lactalbumin, Bovine serum albumin and Beta-lactoglobulin. It contains all nine essential amino acids yet it has low lactose content.

The gut absorbs the whey isolate protein much faster than other sources of protein and whey is easily digestible provided that a person doesn’t have a dairy allergy or intolerance.

Whey protein has been shown to promote muscle synthesis, it may lower blood pressure, the risk of type 2 diabetes, inflammation and may provide antioxidant defense against free radicals.

A good quality whey protein like the one below from Garden of Life would be our top choice if you’re looking for an animal-based protein source.

Keep in mind that animal agriculture is responsible for a large percentage of the world’s carbon footprint, so make sure that you have a balanced diet and lots of variety with plenty of plant-based meals.

You can download the Healthiest Food-Based Protein Sources List below.

Plant-Based Protein

Plant-based proteins are rich in vitamins, fibers and minerals and they are typically derived from peas, sprouted grains, hemp and soy, which are suitable for vegans and people who are allergic or intolerant to animal-based supplements.

So, what should you know when you’re choosing a plant-based protein?

Soy protein

is one of the most popular plant-based protein options. It’s made from soybeans and contains all the essential amino acids to support muscle growth.

Soy protein isolate consists of 90 to 95% protein and is the most processed form of soy that you can find. See the image below to see where it falls in the production process at the very bottom. (Image Source: Examine.com).

While some studies have shown that it’s effective for building muscle, bone health, reducing cholesterol and weight loss, the big concern with soy protein isolates is when it comes to cancer. We have mixed evidence and some studies have shown that it raises the risk, while others that it lowers it.

What we do know is that it can interfere with hormone production including thyroid hormones and we like to err on the side of caution, so it’s definitely one protein powder that we DON’T recommend buying. If you enjoy soy based products then go for the least processed including edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso and tamari.

Hemp protein

comes from the seeds of the hemp or cannabis plant. Hemp protein powder has more moderate levels of protein, but the important thing is that it contains all the essential amino acids and is considered a complete protein.

Hemp protein is one of the easiest to digest from all the plant-based options. It contains fiber as well as good amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Hemp protein can be a little expensive and it may cause digestive upset in some people because of the high fiber content.

Pumpkin seeds

are high in protein and healthy fats but when it’s made into protein powder most the fat is removed. While it’s low in some of the essential amino acids, pumpkin seed protein is still very nutritious, high in antioxidants, iron and zinc and generally less likely to be allergenic.

Brown rice protein

is not a complete protein as it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids but it may be as effective as whey protein for building muscle post weight training.

This type of protein is typically made by extracting rice proteins from sprouted brown rice. We can use this protein powder in baking, soups, smoothies and protein shakes. The best part of rice protein powder is that it is free of gluten, dairy and soy.

One thing to watch out for with rice protein is for potential contamination with arsenic. Make sure that the brand that you buy carries out regular testing of its products.

Pea protein powder

is made from yellow split peas. Pea protein is rich in the essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that stimulate your body to make muscle protein.

Pea protein also helps balance blood sugar levels, aids in weight loss and supports cardiovascular health.

Blended protein powders

Choosing a protein powder is definitely not an easy task. We like to go for plant-based blended protein powders like the one below from Genuine Health. What that means is that the powder has a combination of brown rice, pea, hemp, pumpkin seed, and other plant-based proteins blended together which helps deliver all of the essential amino acids that our body needs.

Do you use protein powder supplements? What is your favourite brand? Share it below and don’t forget to download the Healthiest Food-Based Protein Sources List below.

Henry Walker

Henry Walker is a creative copywriter and content writer who enjoy writing. He is writer by the day and reader by night. He is currently working in digital marketing with Healthy Planet Canada. He enjoys writing about all things art, entertainment and food.

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