Protein powder has become a go-to supplement for athletes and bodybuilders alike. It’s the ultimate convenience food – simply scoop, mix with your liquid of choice, and voila! You’ve got yourself a protein-packed shake that will help your muscles repair and rebuild after a workout.
Precisely, what is protein powder? It’s a dietary supplement made from various sources of protein such as whey, casein, soy, pea, and hemp. These powders are manufactured using techniques that involve extracting and processing the protein from its source. Let’s look at how these protein powders wind up on shelves at health food and grocery stores, so you can decide whether drinking a protein shake is a smart choice.
The Making of a Protein Powder
One of the most popular sources of protein powder is whey, a by-product of cheese production. But how exactly do manufacturers extract the protein from this liquid gold?
To begin, the whey is separated from the curds during the cheese-making process. From there, the manufacturers use techniques to isolate and concentrate the whey protein and create a highly refined powder that’s rich in this muscle-building nutrient.
The first step in this process involves filtration, where the whey passes through a filter to remove any unwanted components such as fats, lactose, and minerals. Next up, centrifugation separates the proteins from any remaining liquid. But the process doesn’t end there. To further refine the protein powder, manufacturers may also use ion exchange to separate the proteins based on their electrical charge, creating an even purer product.
The result is a high-quality, concentrated whey protein powder that’s low in fat and carbohydrates and rich in essential amino acids. They use the powder to create a variety of protein-rich drinks and snacks, from shakes and smoothies to bars and baked goods.
Other Types of Protein Powder
Although whey protein is one of the most common types, soy protein is popular, too. To make soy protein powder, manufacturers clean, dehull, and isolate the protein from the fiber and starch in the soybean. Then they use other techniques, like extrusion, chemical processes, and treating the protein with acid and alkaline, to produce a more refined soy protein product.
Another popular protein source is pea protein. Pea protein powder comes from yellow peas. Making it requires a similar sequence of separating the protein from the starch and fiber, cleaning and drying it, and grinding it into a powder. Then manufacturers add sweeteners and flavorings to improve their taste. Unfortunately, some add so much sugar that a “healthy” protein shake becomes a milkshake.
Different protein powder brands may use different processing methods, and some may use multiple protein sources. Additionally, some manufacturers may also use additional steps like nano-filtration or microfiltration to further purify protein powder.
In summary, the making of protein powder involves isolating the protein from a source like whey, soy, pea, or hemp, further processing it to remove excess moisture, and packaging it for consumption. The specific methods and techniques used can vary depending on the type of protein source and the desired final product.
Protein Powder Is Ultra-Processed
How about the health aspects of protein powder? With the number of steps protein powder undergoes to create the final product, you can see how processed a product is. Then there are additives, the big one being sugar or artificial sweeteners. According to Harvard Health, some protein powder brands contain up to 23 grams of sugar in a single scoop.
Even more concerning are the contaminants in some brands of protein powder. The Clean Label Project, a nonprofit organization, independently tested 134 protein powders for 130 types of toxins. They found that many contained heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants linked to cancer and other health conditions. The levels of some toxins were alarmingly high, with one protein powder containing 25 times the legal limit of BPA. Don’t be caught unaware. Check the label before you scoop.
Why Not Get Protein from Whole Food Sources Instead?
While protein powder may be convenient, getting protein this way has downsides. One is the risk of contaminants and additional additives, including excessive amounts of sugar. Why not get protein from less processed sources?
Unprocessed Protein Sources
One of the best protein sources is lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, and fish. These meats are low in fat and high in protein, making them an ideal choice for those looking to increase their protein intake. For vegetarians and vegans, beans and lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They are also a good source of fiber and other important nutrients.
Eggs contain high-quality protein in a form your body can easily use. Not only are they high in protein, but they have all the essential amino acids that your body needs to synthesize proteins. You can prepare eggs in various ways, such as scrambled, fried, or boiled, making them a versatile option for adding to meals and snacks.
Nuts and seeds are an underappreciated source of protein and contain other nutrients. Almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all high in protein and easy to add to meals and snacks. For example, you can add a handful of almonds to your morning oatmeal or top your salad with pumpkin seeds for an extra protein boost.
Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are some of the most readily available and delicious options. Not only do they provide a healthy dose of protein, but they’re also packed with other nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.
One dairy product that has recently skyrocketed in popularity for its protein content is Greek yogurt. Compared to regular yogurt, Greek yogurt is strained to remove the whey, resulting in a thicker, creamier product that’s higher in protein and lower in lactose.
In fact, just one serving of Greek yogurt can contain up to 18 grams of protein, making it an excellent snack option for anyone looking to increase their protein intake. It’s also a versatile ingredient you can use in a variety of sweet and savory dishes.
For example, try adding a dollop of Greek yogurt to a bowl of fresh fruit for a protein-rich and flavorful breakfast. Or, use it as a delicios and creamy topping for a salad or baked potato.
Plants Have Protein, Too
Plant-based sources of protein are growing in popularity. These include tofu, tempeh, and edamame, as well as protein-enriched plant-based milk, yogurts, and meat alternatives. However, meat alternatives may be highly processed.
It’s not necessary to consume enormous amounts of protein all at once. Eating various protein-rich foods throughout the day will help ensure you get enough protein without having to rely on protein powder. It’s also helpful to consume at least 30 grams of protein after a workout to help your body repair damaged muscle fibers.
Getting enough protein in your diet doesn’t have to mean scooping protein powder. There are many other options, including lean meats, beans and lentils, eggs, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and plant-based options such as soy and pea protein. By incorporating a variety of these foods into your meals and snacks, you can easily meet your protein needs without using powder, and you’ll avoid the downsides of these overly processed powders.
- The hidden dangers of protein powders – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. Published September 2018. Accessed January 27, 2023..health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders
- Woodland R. How protein powder is made. livescience.com. Published May 2022. Accessed January 27, 2023. livescience.com/how-protein-powder-is-made