Whey, and pea, and soy, OH MY!
Protein powder first became popular amongst bodybuilders in the mid-50s when the connection between muscle mass and protein was made. Prior to that, dry powdered milk was used as an inexpensive source of protein.
Protein powder didn't stay the province of powerlifters forever. In fact, its uses and varieties have only multiplied in the years since it came on the scene, and now you definitely don’t have to be a bodybuilder to be part of the protein powder club.
In addition to drinkable protein supplements, protein powder may be used in bakery items, functional foods, ice cream, and other foods. While the majority of us get plenty of protein in our diets from animal as well as plant-based foods, protein powders offer a convenient ‘whey’ to obtain protein.
And speaking of whey, for the longest time, whey protein dominated the protein powder scene. Most people find it easy to digest and it provides 100% of the essential amino acids people need for good health. Whey is derived from the liquid leftover from the cheese-making process. Most whey supplements provide 20+ grams of protein per serving. And yet whey is not the only powder on the market these days. Far from it.
Why Protein? Protein is fairly well-known for its muscle-building prowess, but it also has other important health benefits. Adequate protein intake helps with would healing and surgery recovery as well as maintaining a healthy immune system.1 In addition, research has demonstrated that protein plays a role in diabetes and weight management. 2
Diabetes Risk and Management: While it’s tempting to use a high-protein diet to prevent or treat diabetes, the type of protein matters. A meta-analysis of studies indicates that red meat and processed meat intake raise the risk for diabetes while soy, dairy and dairy products help lower the risk. 3
One study indicated that higher protein intake (1 gm per kg body weight) was associated with lower rates of diabetes. It’s important to note that plant-based protein has a protective effect while meat-based diets do not. 2
Weight Control: The high-protein diet craze isn’t going away any time soon. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kg, though some research suggests that those over 70 years of age may need more (1.0 gram per kg) to prevent age-related muscle loss when following weight loss programs. 4
A recent meta-analysis of studies also indicates that diets containing more protein are beneficial in weight loss maintenance, particularly in individuals with pre-diabetes and those carrying a certain genetic risk allele (AA genotype). 5
Types of Protein Powders:
Beef protein powder is a good option for individuals with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy. Providing 100% of essential amino acids, this variety speaks to the carnivore crowd. A serving-size scoop provides about 100 calories and 24 grams of protein with little to no fat, depending on the brand.
Bugs. Yep, there’s protein IN insects, too. While several bugs are fair game (houseflies included), cricket protein seems to be the most widely used.
Similar to other protein powders, cricket-based powders offer 100% of the essential amino acids. There are roughly 100 calories and 14 grams of protein per scoop. Crickets are also a source of B vitamins, along with mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as iron. 6
Casein. While casein and whey both come from cows, they are different proteins. Casein is created when enzymes used in cheesemaking are added to heated milk, causing the casein in milk to curdle. The curds are then washed and dried to make protein powder.
Casein is absorbed in your body slower than whey protein and contains bioactive peptides that may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.7 Casein provides more calcium and iron than whey protein.
Pea protein. If you’re looking for vegan protein powder, consider pea protein. As soy is one of the most common food allergens, pea protein may be just the ticket.
Providing 25 grams of protein in a 30-gram scoop, pea protein also provides all 9 essential amino acids but is low in methionine. It’s cholesterol-free and fairly low in total and saturated fat. Read the label for sodium content.
Soy protein isolate is made when soybeans are stripped of their sugars and fibers, then dehydrated leaving a soy powder behind. It has been around for years and is a great choice for individuals following a vegan diet.
Soy protein is a complete protein and offers roughly 23 grams per scoop with minimal fat. Like pea protein, it may contain 200 mg of sodium or more per serving.
Should You Use Protein Powder?
While protein is an important nutrient in our diets, the majority of us are getting enough of it each day. Protein is available in eggs, dairy products, beef, fish, poultry, pork, beans, soy products, beans, and lentils. There’s also a small amount of protein in grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Like any other nutrient, adding more protein will increase the calories in your diet. For individuals looking to lose weight, adding a few scoops of protein powder to food could easily impact their total daily calorie intake.
Protein powder may be beneficial for people following a vegan diets who may not be consuming other sources of protein. It’s also a convenient way for athletes or busy people to boost the protein content of a recovery drink or smoothie.
"Wheys" to Use Protein Powder
If you, your doctor, or your RDN believe that protein powder would be a welcome part of your eating pattern, you might start with some of the ideas below:
- Stir a half scoop of protein powder into your morning oats or another hot cereal.
- Add protein powder to fruit smoothies.
- Mix protein powder into your favorite yogurt or pudding.
- Try protein powder in iced coffee.
- Use protein powder for pre- or post-workout muscle building.
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Printable Handout: Protein Powders
- Michael H, Amimo JO, Rajashekara G, Saif LJ, Vlasova AN. Mechanisms of Kwashiorkor-Associated Immune Suppression: Insights From Human, Mouse, and Pig Studies. Front Immunol. 2022 May 2;13:826268. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2022.826268. PMID: 35585989; PMCID: PMC9108366.
- Sluik D, Brouwer-Brolsma EM, Berendsen AAM, Mikkilä V, Poppitt SD, Silvestre MP, Tremblay A, Pérusse L, Bouchard C, Raben A, Feskens EJM. Protein intake and the incidence of pre-diabetes and diabetes in 4 population-based studies: the PREVIEW project. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019 May 1;109(5):1310-1318. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy388. PMID: 31051510; PMCID: PMC6499506.
- McCarthy D, Berg A. Weight Loss Strategies and the Risk of Skeletal Muscle Mass Loss. Nutrients. 2021 Jul 20;13(7):2473. doi: 10.3390/nu13072473. PMID: 34371981; PMCID: PMC8308821.
- Hansen TT, Astrup A, Sjödin A. Are Dietary Proteins the Key to Successful Body Weight Management? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Assessing Body Weight Outcomes after Interventions with Increased Dietary Protein. Nutrients. 2021 Sep 14;13(9):3193. doi: 10.3390/nu13093193. PMID: 34579069; PMCID: PMC8468854.
- Tian S, Xu Q, Jiang R, Han T, Sun C, Na L. Dietary Protein Consumption and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 6;9(9):982. doi: 10.3390/nu9090982. PMID: 28878172; PMCID: PMC5622742.
- Magara HJO, Niassy S, Ayieko MA, Mukundamago M, Egonyu JP, Tanga CM, Kimathi EK, Ongere JO, Fiaboe KKM, Hugel S, Orinda MA, Roos N, Ekesi S. Edible Crickets (Orthoptera) Around the World: Distribution, Nutritional Value, and Other Benefits-A Review. Front Nutr. 2021 Jan 12;7:537915. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.537915. PMID: 33511150; PMCID: PMC7835793.
- Mohanty DP, Mohapatra S, Misra S, Sahu PS. Milk derived bioactive peptides and their impact on human health - A review. Saudi J Biol Sci. 2016 Sep;23(5):577-83. doi: 10.1016/j.sjbs.2015.06.005. Epub 2015 Jun 17. PMID: 27579006; PMCID: PMC4992109.
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati. She shares her clinical, culinary, and community nutrition knowledge through cooking demos, teaching, and freelance writing. Lisa is a regular contributor to Food and Health Communications and Today’s Dietitian and is the author of the Healing Gout Cookbook, Complete Thyroid Cookbook, and Heart Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook. Her line of food pun merchandise, Lettuce beet hunger, supports those suffering food insecurity in Cincinnati. For more information, visit her website: https://soundbitesnutrition.com/