Protein Powder 101

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Apparently this is the question of the week!!! I dunno what caused all of you to ask at the same time but I have received sparkmails, formspring questions, wall questions, and seen it on the status of some friends so here is my two cents! This information is based on my personal experiences and nutrition research. Like everything in my diet it is biased in the direction of finding the most natural and wholesome choice possible (although all protein powders are inherently a processed substance).

Do I need a protein powder?
Anyone eating a healthy diet, vegetarian/vegan included, should be consuming adequate amounts of protein (protein needs are often grossly inflated in our country) and does not NEED a protein powder. With that being said, I own and use protein powder and don’t think there is anything wrong with using a healthy one in moderation. A good quality protein powder will not hurt you and provides the basis for a quick recovery smoothie or meal when desired. Whole foods are usually best but adding a protein powder to a healthy diet of whole foods is an easy way to up protein intake. Some people may not need this extra protein but others find that it makes them feel better, fuller, stronger, more energetic, whatever it is and this can be very beneficial when used as it is meant to be a diet SUPPLEMENT (not food replacement).

I am going to start here with types of protein powders and talk later about how they are sweetened. Most kinds of powder are available in most versions of sweeteners so you can read my opinion on both and then match together what you like.

Kinds of Powders

Whey: I don’t personally consume this because of the dairy but for those who do why can be a fabulous option. This is probably the most common type of protein powder available. This is good because it means there are tons of options, this is bad because it means that most of those options suck health wise. Many of these powders are aimed at men who think they need tons of protein powder to bulk them up. They may pack a lot of protein but they also pack a lot of fillers, preservatives, artificial ingredients, you name it. Also some may have inflated serving sizes to appear as if they have more protein. Ironically I have found that the cheapest and the most expensive powders are often poor quality. The cheapest because they use poor quality ingredients and fillers and the most expensive because they add crazy claims to the package and then add questionable ingredients, stimulants, and caffeine that purport to give you a better workout. Avoid both. Seek out a protein powder which has a minimal ingredient list. You also do not want hydrolyzed whey, most whey protein powders are. Often the ones that are not will indicate that by saying something like cold processed or microfiltered. Good quality whey protein is usually expensive. This is why even before I stopped consuming dairy I used plant based protein powders. Jay Robb is a gold standard in whey protein. I have seen other good brands as well but could not tell you what they are, but they do exist.

Egg White: This is rare. I have not looked into it much but I know Jay Robb makes one. Like all of his products I imagine they are great quality. However my instinct is that if you are using an animal sourced product to go for the whey instead unless you have an intolerance.

Brown Rice: This is my go to protein powder. It is extracted from brown rice. One thing to be aware of is that brown rice protein may seem a little chalky to those not used to it but I have found it blends and cooks well. I am currently using Jarrow Formulas brand which I find to be a good quality at a lower price. If I had a bigger budget I would order Sun Warrior natural (the vanilla and chocolate have stevia). This is a raw sprouted brown rice powder that is supposed to be top of the line and comes highly recommended from many sources that I trust. It is about $45 for 2lbs online. Jay Robb also makes an excellent quality sprouted brown rice powder. The Jarrow I am currently using is not a sprouted product. Some say that this feature makes the protein more absorbable and easily digested. I am happy with the Jarrow but will probably switch to the Sun Warrior as soon as I can find a good sale.

Hemp: This is my second most used source of protein. Hemp protein is unique. It comes from hemp seeds. Do to the makeup of hemp seeds most hemp powder is only about 50% protein (as opposed to 100% in most other good quality proteins). It is also available in up to 70% protein. Usually I would say this is a bad thing because it indicates fillers, etc. This is not the case with hemp. Due to the makeup of hemp seeds the other 50% is comprised of fiber and OMEGA-3 fatty acids, this is a good thing. This is extremely healthy fat that most diets lack enough of. This is the reason people take flaxseed, chia seed, fish oil, or are encouraged to eat fish. It also is filling. For this reason I do not recommend avoiding hemp protein even though you are getting less protein/ calorie consumed you are consuming other very beneficial ingredients. Manitoba Harvest is a reputable and reasonably priced brand of hemp protein although I am sure there are other good quality ones as well. They also offer many different options in their products.

Pea: This is less common and more expensive. I have never tried it but have read it has a sweeter flavor and smooth texture.

Soy: This protein source is fairly common and I do NOT recommend it. I do not think there is anything wrong with soy and consume it in the forms of edamame, tofu, tempeh, etc. However, soy in protein powders is highly processed (like soy milk and meat replacements) which is the type of soy that should be limited. The standard American diet is already extremely high in soy (used in most processed foods) and while humans can benefit from moderate amounts of unprocessed soy, large amounts may be harmful. With other good quality sources of protein powder available I see no reason to use soy. In addition soy is a common intolerance.

Blends: These would be a blend of other powders; most commonly plant based, and should be evaluated on an individual basis. They are less common and tend to be pricier. Your best bet if you want a blend may just to buy a few different powders and mix them yourself.

**The above list is not all inclusive but covers the majority**


Sugar: Sugar can appear in many forms (as sugar, as fructose, or however else they choose to label it). I would recommend avoiding it. By adding sugar you are adding unnecessary calories and sugar is not something we want to add to our diets, we get too much already. Look for powders that list 1g or less of sugar on the label.

Sucralose (Splenda): Unfortunately, this artificial sweetener is one of the most common in protein powders, usually the ones aimed at body builders such as at GNC or the cheaper mainstream brands that you find at places like Target. It is cheap and mainstream and manufacturers like to add it since it doesn’t add calories or carbs. You won’t find it in most plant based protein powders which are aimed at more health conscious consumers or at any powder sold in Whole Foods. I recommend avoiding this at all costs, in protein powder and in general as it is essentially poison (feel free to read my blog on artificial sweeteners). Read the ingredient list carefully. You would be better off with real sugar.

Stevia: There is a lot of controversy surrounding Stevia at the moment. Many are hailing it as the big natural, calorie free sugar breakthrough and use it at every occasion. I choose not to. Why? Because not that long ago Splenda was hailed in the same way and it turns out, that’s basically poison. The big claim is that Stevia is all natural because it is from a plant. I think we are back to playing the same game that we did with sucralose and aspartame. These are new artificial sweeteners that have not been proven safe. Many people love to talk about how safe they are because "Stevia is all natural, from a herb" While this may be true it is only relevant to those people using the actual plant leaves that have been dried into tiny pieces. In this case it is green and looks like a herb. What most people are consuming is a highly processed extract in either white powder or liquid form or even flavored?! I am so not convinced. While I would consider using the actual plant in small quantities I just cannot tell myself that the food industries newest toy is really all that different from those in the past. Give it a few years and the same horror stories will start to emerge. The food industries favorite thing to do is to take natural plants, process them until they in no way resemble their origins and then sell them to us, no thanks. So anyways that’s my two cents. However for those who choose to use Stevia it is now much more common and many powders sweetened with Stevia are available. Most of the highest quality brands offer two versions, a Stevia and an unsweetened.

Natural/ Unsweetened: This is what I use. I believe it is truly the best option. Unsweetened protein powder is the most versatile as it can go in sweet or savory recipes. It is the best for your health as well, nothing artificial and no unnecessary refined sugar. If you like to use your protein powder in sweet recipes (like smoothies!!) you can add any kind of natural sugar you want and control the amount! In addition by blending with fruit your drink is sweet enough (try banana for the sweetest) and all healthy. About the only thing unsweetened isn’t good for is drinking plain with water but eww, then you are defeating the rule at the top about adding to a healthy diet not making into a food (which it’s not!)

Other Notes

*You do not need several servings of protein powder a day or performance powders that claim to pack 100g of protein a serving (their serving is just 4x bigger and the calories will reflect that.

*The more a protein powder claims to do for your performance or health, the more suspicious you should be of it.

*You want to avoid any protein powders that have preservatives, long ingredient lists, or other “fillers.” None of this is necessary.

* It can be a good idea when using plant based protein powders frequently in your diet to mix them up by alternating or actually mixing them. Also look for organic or non GMO if possible.

* Protein is 4 calories a gram so most good quality protein powders will be in this ratio (an exception is hemp- see above). Most common is around 25g protein and 100cals a serving. Some may be double or half that- rice protein is often about half of that but the ratio is still roughly the same. If you want a specific brand you can always double or half the serving size as needed.

* Right now I have the Jarrow Formulas plain (berry is also unsweetened and good) and Manitoba Harvest Hemp in my house and find both to be budget friendly and good quality. In the future I would like to try the Sun Warrior natural as my budget allows (I do not consume dairy so whey protein powders are out for me).

* Jay Robb is a top quality brand (and expensive) in every category he makes. I recommend the natural unsweetened. Manitoba Harvest is a fantastic brand of hemp protein. Sun Warrior is a premium brand of brown rice powder. I use Jarrow Formulas because of the lower cost and have found it to be high quality. There are many other quality brands out there as well. I recommend perusing Whole Foods if you have one for an awesome selection.

**If you have a specific powder in mind and would like my opinion please feel free to leave a comment with a link to the online nutrition facts/ingredients and I would be happy to give an opinion. **
Share This Post With Others
Member Comments About This Blog Post
  • LAVAL54
    Hi thanks for this blog ,I made a decision today to start a brown rice protein shake in order to loose weight ,please let me know how many shakes a day I should have ?and any suggestion about a recipe's and what to add in this shake, thanks I need suggestions and idea and how many pounds you had lost. Please I need your help.
    Thanks emoticon
    2315 days ago
    Stumbled on your blog when I was searching for information on protein powders. Good job! TY for all that typing!
    3201 days ago
  • JENNY712
    GREAT blog and wonderful information. emoticon emoticon
    3416 days ago
    thanks for writing this blog. I've been hearing alot about protein and how I should consume some regularly beyond my diet plan to help me build my body and for good replenishment after a tough workout. Ive just been lost as to where to start, what to look for and what's good or not. Thanks for the valuable info.
    3789 days ago
    Thanks for such a terrific and informative blog!! you answered many questions...and honestly, I think my diet is just fine the way it is in comparision with my exercise level without incorporating the protein powder....glad I did a Sparksearch to find your blog!

    3790 days ago
  • UMA2011
    Great Blog Post. I don't like most protein powders so I try to get my protein from the food source itself. However, a quick protein fix every now and then might be nice...
    3819 days ago
  • no profile photo CD7328836
    Great blog! I have a question... what is whey protein isolate? Is it the same as whey protein? Can you check out this protein powder and let me know if it's okay? I'm trying to find a "clean" protein powder. Thanks!

    3986 days ago
  • CRON23
    Great Blog! I look forward to reading more! emoticon
    4042 days ago
    I love this blog! I'm exploring the world of "cleanish" protein powders right now. The one I bought recently has steevia in it. It's interesting to see your perspective on steevia, because I have been suspecting the same thing. Sounds too good to be true! Plus, artificial sweeteners give me a headache, can't even chew sugar free gum anymore. And I swear I've been getting minor headaches the last couple of days after I drink my protein powder!
    4048 days ago
  • no profile photo CD7202971
    Like everyone else on your blog, thank you so much for your information! I would love your review of the protein I am currently using:

    Also, what are your thoughts about baking/cooking with protein powder? I keep reading people going back and forth about how the efficiency of it can be affected. I would love to add it in this black-bean-brownie recipe I found, but besides never having cooked the black-bean-brownie dish before, I am hesitant to just dump a bunch of powder in there.

    Thanks again!
    4067 days ago
    That makes a lot of sense, thanks. Also thanks for sending me a message letting me know you'd responded here - otherwise I never would have seen it. :)
    4075 days ago
    Susan- Thank you for a great question!

    First the nutrition makeup of brown rice and brown rice protein powder are very different. Brown rice is primarily a carb and is obviously in rice form, while the powder is just the protein out of the rice and is obviously in powder form which can be added to smoothies/yogurt/oatmeal/baked goods/etc.

    I do try and avoid processed food and am very careful in my selection, BUT I do not think all processed food is necessarily bad. For example, Larabars are a great convenience food and while they are "processed" the ingredients are dates, nuts, and sometimes another fruit or spice. I wouldn't eat them everyday but this is the real world and sometimes we are in a rush and that's the best option! Most bars I would NOT eat but like larabars there are some good choices.

    I feel similarly about protein powder. Most, I would never use but some like my brown rice protein, in which the ingredients are basically brown rice protein and natural vanilla flavor (vanilla extract), I think are a great convenience food. Of course it is great to get protein from a whole food source but if I am running low on time and I can blend together a few fruits and veggies with some protein powder and get a healthy filling balanced primarily whole foods meal, well then I am all for it. This is especially great when I am running from class to the gym to babysitting to class, etc. Optimally I would sit down to a complete meal but obviously that's not gonna happen. Refueling with a healthy protein shake can be a great option, especially compared to most of the other quick alternatives.

    I don't think protein powder is a NECESSITY, even though I am vegetarian and don't consume dairy, I can get plenty of protein from food, this is true for everyone- even vegans but sometimes it is just an easy and quick source and can help balance out my meal so in these cases I want the most optimal protein powder available rather than one filled with crap. It may not be a "whole" food but it is pretty close.

    4075 days ago
    Hi, I guess I'm confused. If you're trying to avoid processed foods and are suspicious of food companies taking something from its natural source and selling it to you looking completely different, why don't you just eat brown rice instead of using a brown rice-based protein powder?
    4075 days ago
    Thank you so much for your blog! I'll have a look at a shop nearby that sells protein products and will keep your advice in mind.
    4079 days ago
    I appreciate your thoughts on soy products. I'm not so sure I can agree that soy milk is highly processed. In light of that, what type and brand of milk do you consume?

    4108 days ago
  • LOVE_2_RUN
    Awesome blog! Thanks so much. I will definitely be checking out some of these options next time I make a trip to Whole Foods, I wish they were closer to me!
    4110 days ago
    TRIATHLONBABE: Thanks for your nice comments! Amazing grass is great stuff, although out of my budget I would love to be able to purchase it. All of their products are high quality and taste pretty good. For those interested in trying if you go on their website you can get a variety pack of 5 packets for a couple bucks including shipping (single serving packets) Also they frequently run promotion codes that are sometimes up to 40% off so always do a quick google search before purchasing!

    As far as the FRUITEIN Rainbow Shake I like how it is a blend of protein although would prefer personally that soy was not included. It seems like a nice mix benefits in one powder. I answered a question about this below which you can see for more details. Often I would like to have my protein powder and greens powder separate so I can choose how to supplement but I think having a mix around as an option is great. This seems to have a powerhouse of ingredients although I am not sure about the actual quantities of each. For example I purchase bee pollen and spirulina individually but adding a little bit won't hurt you just might not have enough for full benefits of each superfood.
    The biggest reason I would not purchase this is because the second ingredient is fructose. There are 10g of added sugar which would be way to much unnecessary added sugar for my liking. The same thing with the other product, there is the soy again along with the fructose. I do not think these are bad products and would suggest them over many others but they would not be optimal based on my personal choices. If they are working for you that is great!
    4110 days ago
  • no profile photo CD3514403
    I'm so glad you posted this blog! I will definitely be rethinking my protein powders once I get mine used up. It definitely makes me rethink using Truvia too, you stress some great and important factors about everything. I love your blogs as always. emoticon
    4110 days ago
    Inspired: I agree that the small amt of sugar is much better than tons of the artificial stuff, it probably tastes better too. It is unfortunate that they can't just remove it though!

    As far as a complete protein. Hemp is a complete protein. As far as the rice powder I have not done significant research into this but I there are opposing viewpoints on "complete" protein. The definition of complete protein requires not only all of the essential amino acids but requires them in a certain proportion. So while something like brown rice protein has all of the essential amino acids it may have less proportion wise than a "complete" protein. I have done reading which explains that contrary to popular belief you do not need to have all of these combined perfectly in a meal. Our bodies are very efficient at what they do and will properly combine the amino acids within your body. A plant based diet will provide plenty of all the amino acids your body needs. I don't recommend soy protein. If you feel more comfortable with whey that is fine too. Another option is the blends of different protein powders or creating your own blend. I believe although am not positive that pea and rice protein are complimentary and together form a complete protein. I believe that protein combining is now a largely discredited theory which would indicate we do not need to consume complete proteins as long as we are consuming an adequate variety in our diets.

    4110 days ago
    Hi Angelica,

    I love reading your blogs, they really help me to choose the right stuff!

    I've started using Nature's Plus Fruitein for my morning smoothie and also Amazing Grass meal. What're your thoughts on these?



    4110 days ago
    Hey thanks for the great post! Kelly, I talked to you brifly about this but for everyone else, Optimum Nutrition makes a
    "Natural" Whey that doesn't contain sucralose. It DOES however, contain evaporated cane juice powder, which although a sweetener, I would much rather consume than something artificial. The powder has 3 grams of sugar per serving.

    Also, just out of curiousity..
    I wanted to try the rice protein but I was hesitant to purchase it due to it being an incomplete plant protein. Do you know anything about this? (Maybe there is something added to it?) I may be wrong but I believe hemp is complete.. and definitely soy..
    4110 days ago
  • no profile photo CD2415256
    I do not currently consume protein powder but I have been looking into it. I am finishing up some protein bars that have too much sugar and fillers so I look forward to the switch to a more natural supplemental form of protein. Thanks for all the great info emoticon
    4111 days ago
    RLM- I think it's great you are moving away from Sucralose. See my artificial sweeteners blog for more info but it is just not something I can get behind! Changing your protein powder is one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount in your diet!

    Lilasiago: Thanks for sharing. I actually add spirulina to many of my smoothies. The 4 calories/ g really works well for determining if a protein powder has other calorie giving ingredients like sugar. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell you about non caloric fillers or sweeteners. I have actually looked at that product in Whole Foods. I have not tried it because if you read the sweetener portion of my post you will see that I do not consume Stevia and I do not believe they have an unsweetened version.

    It seems like there are many beneficial ingredients and that the sugars are just coming from the fruit. It may be a good blend for those that consume Stevia and want to get a lot along with their protein powder. My personal preference is to get things that have one focus, the best quality product in that category and then combine them as I desire. For example I have my protein powder, as well as an enzyme I take for my digestion in pill form, spirulina, and I have been looking to purchase another greens powder that would have the vegetable/fruit/herb extracts. I prefer this method because I can pick and choose how I would like to supplement based on what I am eating and ensure that I have the best quality of each product. However I think this would still be a good option and is an easy way to incorporate many products into one. The biggest reason I would personally avoid it is because of the Stevia, otherwise I think it would be an awesome choice to have on hand in addition to others.

    Roxy: Give the rice protein a try!

    Kuangie: I agree with you. If you look closely you will see I recommend against soy and the first protein I discuss is whey. I personally don't consume it but think it can be good option for many. I dedicated the most space to discussing it because I think while it is an awesome option there are many that are not good quality so i wanted to discuss what to look for.
    4111 days ago
    What about whey protein powders? Forgive me, as I am protein powder dumb, so this info is great. One of the cardiologists I work with highly reccomends whey protein, and strongly discourages soy types.
    4111 days ago
  • CAROLYN1213
    Great info. Thanks for sharing.
    4111 days ago
    wow...I love vanilla protein powder and now looking for Brown Rice protein.

    THank you for sharing
    4111 days ago
    I had never thought to apply the 4 calories per gram of protein concept to the nutritional label. Great idea! This the one I have been using for the last year but I might try the hemp one now. A friend recommended it and it contains spirulina. I'd be curious to know what you think of it.
    4111 days ago

    Comment edited on: 3/17/2010 8:06:50 PM
  • GFMAMA888
    SSPAMCHOP I like the Optimum Nutrition brand too! I noticed it has sucralose in it though and I am trying to get away from art. sweeteners as much as possible d/t stomach issues I have.

    Thanks for the great info!
    4111 days ago
    SSPAMCHOP: Thank you for bringing up casein that is not a protein powder I am familiar with and have never seen it sold.
    4111 days ago
    Great info--don't forget casein, which is also milk-derived. It's more slowly digested than whey protein, so it keeps you feeling full for longer. After a workout, I mix 1/2 whey and 1/2 casein, so the when is absorbed quickly and I have the benefit of the slower-absorbing casein over time.

    EDIT: I strongly recommend Optimum Nutrition brand protein powders if you're going for the less-than-perfectly-clean protein powders (otherwise, stick with brown rice protein, which is great). Their proteins mix really well with just water (even the casein, which is traditionally a little clumpier) and you can even cook with them. I buy all of mine from, which is much cheaper than buying it at the store.
    4111 days ago

    Comment edited on: 3/17/2010 6:28:37 PM
    Great info!
    4111 days ago
  • Add Your Comment to the Blog Post

    Log in to post a comment

    Disclaimer: Weight loss results will vary from person to person. No individual result should be seen as a typical result of following the SparkPeople program.