The global protein supplement market has a current value of $14 billion, and it is expected to reach $21.5 billion by 2025.
Clearly, many people feel they can’t get enough protein from whole foods. But how do protein powders compare with whole foods? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Those are the first questions we need to answer.
How do protein powders compare with whole foods?
Relevant research is scarce but suggests that the same protein will have essentially the same effect whether it comes from whole food or a protein powder. Pragmatically, you can swap half of your daily whole-food protein for whey protein with no effect on your physical fitness or body composition. One study pitted casein alone against casein dissolved in milk serum. Another study pitted casein alone against casein taken with milk fat. Neither study found a significant difference in muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
And yet, with regard to MPS, studies found whole milk superior to skim milk and whole eggs superior to egg whites. Nutrients other than protein may influence MPS, of course. For instance, depending on how it is processed, whole milk may contain a compound called milk fat globule membrane (MFGM). Several studies have reported that supplementation with an isolated MFGM supplement improves physical function in various ways.
MPS shouldn’t be your only concern, of course. Protein’s amino acids, separately or combined as biologically active peptides, play vital roles throughout your body; and of course, whole foods contain vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds. There is certainly nothing wrong with incorporating protein powder in your diet, but it should not be your whole diet!
What are the advantages of protein powders?
Getting all your protein from whole foods may be ideal, but it isn’t always practical, for at least five reasons: cost, convenience, calories, bioavailability, and appetite.
Cost. Protein for protein, a good protein powder is usually cheaper than whole foods.
Convenience. Cooking takes time. Eating whole foods takes time. And you probably can’t do either in your office or at the gym. A protein powder is a quick, non-messy, portable solution.
Calories. In whole foods, protein comes with carbs and fat, so that you may reach your optimal caloric intake before you reach your optimal protein intake.
Caloric content of whole-milk powder and whey protein concentrate
Bioavailability. Protein powders bypass several issues of whole-food digestion and absorption that affect protein bioavailability.
This is seldom an issue with animal-based foods, whose proteins consistently demonstrate a digestibility rate greater than 90%, but legumes and grains, the best whole-food plant- based sources of protein, have protein digestibility rates of only 60–80%.In short, your body is better able to use the protein from powders, including plant-based powders, than Protein digestibility of various plant- and animal-based proteins from plant-based whole foods.
Protein digestibility of various plant- and animal-based proteins
In addition, plants contain antinutrients (such as tannins, phytates, and trypsin inhibitors) that inhibit protein digestion and absorption. Cooking only reduces anti nutrient concentrations. Plant-based protein powders, however, are mostly free of antinutrients.
Finally, there is one factor that affects the bioavailability of both plant-based and animal-based whole foods: chewing. As a rule, the more we process food by cooking or chewing it, the more digestible it becomes and the more nutrients we can extract.
Whole nuts are a great example of this. Their fat is contained within fibrous cell walls, and the more you chew, the more you can break up those walls, freeing the fat for digestion.
Beef is another example. Because elderly adults wearing dentures have a harder time chewing, they absorb more protein and experience greater whole-body protein synthesis from mince beef than from steak (though the difference is small and MPS rates are similar). Overall, chewing is important to extract calories and nutrients from whole foods. Using protein powders can bypass this requirement entirely. Whether that’s a benefit or not depends on your circumstances.
Appetite. Protein is more filling than carbs or fat; some people have trouble hitting their quota because they get too full. These people will find it easier to chug a shake than eat a steak.
Low appetite is a common problem for elderly folks, in whom changes in appetite- regulating hormones and neurotransmitters can cause anorexia of aging. Loss of appetite is a primary risk factor for developing sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle mass. In the US and UK, it affects more than 40% of men and 55% of women over the age of 50. It may be the primary cause of physical frailty, which is associated with a higher risk of fractures, falls, hospitalizations, disabilities that affect daily activities, and having to go to a nursing home.
Older men and women require at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) each day to maintain muscle mass, while those with sarcopenia need upward of 1.5 g/kg to rebuild lost muscle. Doubling protein intake from 0.8 to 1.6 g/kg was shown to increase lean body mass in elderly men. Similarly, whey protein supplementation was shown to increase lean body mass in elderly women.
What are the disadvantages of protein powders?
The two biggest issues with protein powders are circumstantial and relate to product quality: tricks and contamination.
Sad to say, but even well-known companies will often try to trick you, usually with a proprietary blend. When a company uses a proprietary blend, it doesn’t have to disclose the individual amount of each ingredient in the blend. Let’s consider two examples:
Protein blend (Whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, whey peptides).
When you see such a blend, you might picture the ratio as something like 60:30:10. But it can just as easily be 97:2:1, in which case what you get is just expensive whey protein concentrate.
Protein blend (Whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate).
Now that looks better, doesn’t it? Since ingredients must be listed in order of weight, you know your protein is more than 50% whey protein isolate. The problem is, the manufacturer may cut costs by using a low-quality whey protein concentrate. Isolates must be at least 90% protein, but concentrates can be anywhere between 29% and 89% protein. So if the proprietary blend is 60% isolate (90% protein) and 40% concentrate (30% protein), the resulting powder is only 66% protein — less than the 80% protein of a decent concentrate.
Of course, even a “pure whey protein concentrate!” product can be a low-quality concentrate.
To avoid falling into either the “proprietary protein blend” trap or the “low-quality whey protein concentrate” trap, look at the food label. Your isolate should be close to 90% protein and your concentrate close to 80% protein. A little lower is all right if the powder is flavored (any flavoring will use a percentage of the powder), but any big discrepancy should stir you away.
Don’t forget to check again. It is not uncommon for a protein powder to launch as a quality product only to be replaced by an inferior version, with no warning or obvious change in packaging, after people have stopped paying attention. One month you may buy a powder with 80% protein, the next you may go buy the “same” powder and discover it has only 69% protein; the company will have changed either the ratios of their proprietary protein blend or the quality of the whey protein concentrate.
Okay, that is a lot of potential traps. But then, when it comes down to it, if you just look closely at protein content and serving size on the food label and do the math, you won’t be tricked, right?
Right ... unless the manufacturer resorts to protein spiking. This trick takes advantage of the way the FDA determines the protein content of powders, which is through a test that measures the powders’ nitrogen content. This test works well in theory, because protein should be the only ingredient supplying nitrogen.
Unfortunately, some manufacturers fill their powders with cheap nitrogen-containing fillers to game the test. These fillers can be any compound that contains nitrogen, such as individual amino acids (glycine, glutamine, etc.) or creatine. In fact, with this testing method, creatine will register as having nearly twice the protein content of whey protein, despite containing no actual protein.
This trick can be either legal or illegal. Legally, companies can include in the list of ingredients a proprietary blend of amino acids. Because the formula is proprietary, they don’t have to disclose the individual amount of each amino acid. Illegally, companies can simply replace protein with amino acids and not disclose it on the label.
Protein spiking: what it looks like on your label
Aside from purchasing from a reputable supplier, a good rule of thumb is to avoid protein powders that use proprietary blends, especially proprietary blends of amino acids. Additionally, make sure to check the label for the full amino acid profile of the protein powder, if available. In the case of whey protein, the amino acid concentrations should be similar to those in the table below. Small variations are to be expected due to differences in processing methods, but if your whey protein has values that differ greatly from those in this table, something is amiss.
Typical essential amino acid (EAA) profile of whey protein isolate
Contamination is another issue that can affect protein supplements, even those sold by well-intentioned companies. For example, third-party testing by the Clean Label Project found that, among 134 tested protein powders, 70% had detectable levels of lead, 74% had detectable levels of cadmium, and 55% had detectable levels of bisphenol A (BPA).
Contaminants, such as heavy metals and plastic derivatives, can make their way into protein powders by way of ingredient sourcing and manufacturing practices. Since supplement companies are not required to test their products for contaminants, they are left to voluntarily do so in order to boost transparency, consumer trust, and perception of quality. But testing is expensive, and the return on investment may be poor.
Several third-party companies test dietary supplements for quality, purity, potency, and composition, so doing a quick search to see if a company’s products have been tested may be worthwhile. Doing a little background research before purchasing a product is generally a good idea.
TIP: Safe supplements
First, if a protein powder has caught your interest, visit the manufacturer’s website. Does the manufacturer use specific manufacturing protocols? What are its in-house quality-control practices? Is it transparent with its practices and findings? Does it test for contaminants? Second, check if the manufacturer has received warning letters from the FDA. Finally, check if the product you’re interested in, or other products from the same manufacturer, has been tested by third parties such as ConsumerLab (products that pass its tests may display the CL Seal), or the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (which checks for compliance to Good Manufacturing Practice, or GMP).
And of course, don’t forget to check the product’s label for known potential allergens.
Protein powders have three main potential disadvantages: proprietary blends designed to trick you, protein spiking, and contaminants (such as heavy metals). Avoid proprietary blends and research the quality-control practices of a company before purchasing its products.
Hope the above helps you.