How Healthy Is Protein Powder? Here's What You Need To Know
Unlike many areas of my life, protein is something I take very seriously. So naturally, when someone asks me if protein powder is good or bad for you, my brain basically salivates.
Protein powders have been around for more years than you or I have been alive, combined. Some claim that whey was discovered over 8,000 years ago by cheesemakers (is there anything they can't do?). Admittedly, I was not there, so I don't know anything about that, but in my lifetime, I've seen us discover and rediscover every type of protein out there and bounce between them like a steel sphere in a pinball machine.
Are protein powders bad for you?
Before anyone throws up their arms in protest, let's be clear: Protein powder is a processed food. Even raw protein powders are processed. It is impossible to extract pure protein from a food without some element of processing and machine involvement (if you've figured it out, let us know). That said, depending on the type and brand, there are protein powders out there that are minimally processed and contain recognizable, healthful ingredients. We'll unpack those later.
Let's assume that you choose, for lack of a better term, a healthy protein powder. Is that bad for you? Experts say no, with a caveat: Protein powder should not replace all the real, whole foods in our diet.
"I do not believe that protein powder should replace food for every meal," says Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D. "Instead, it should augment our diet where needed."
In other words, if you're having trouble hitting your recommended amount of protein—an unsurprising, yet likely fate given the high fat and carbohydrate makeup of the standard American diet—protein powder can be a valuable resource. Especially, Schehr notes, for people who follow plant-based diets or those that have higher protein needs (i.e., fitness professionals, endurance athletes, those on specialized diets, or those who need quick recovery). Protein repairs muscle, after all, and without enough of it, our muscles can't repair and grow after strenuous workouts (even worse, they can get inflamed and become more prone to injury).
Protein powder is also great if you're on the go or without food. "In general, I think you should use protein powder when you're in a bind," says Amy Shah, M.D. "Or if it's an emergency situation."
So, is a clean ingredient, high-quality protein powder bad for you? No—but they're harder to find than you'd think.
What is the healthiest kind of protein powder?
Pea? Collagen? Whey? The options are endless. Some sources will tell you that one type is healthier than the other, but more important than the type is the ingredient list. In the same way that packaged foods often contain extraterrestrial ingredients, some protein powders use artificial sweeteners, gums, and dyes to attain an ideal texture, dissolvability, and flavor. For that reason, experts say the healthiest protein powders tend to be the unembellished ones.
"The healthiest protein powder is the one that has the cleanest or fewest ingredients," Schehr says. "It should be simple and clean—meaning you should avoid any powders that have colors, dyes, or unwanted components."
Once you've narrowed down the offerings by ingredient list, it's time to take a look at the types. Here's what you're bound to come across in your search:
- Egg or egg white
- Beef protein
Whey, casein, collagen, beef protein, and egg-based proteins are animal-based proteins, whereas pea, hemp, rice, and soy are plant-based. Which type should you get? The answer depends on your dietary restrictions, as well as whether or not your body handles dairy well.
"The best type of protein is individualized to the person and depends on what they feel good eating," Schehr says. "For people who want more protein and are OK with dairy, I recommend whey. If lactose intolerant or dairy-sensitive, pea or hemp are best."
Shah, on the other hand, recommends plant-based proteins above all but notes that many people like whey because of the taste. "If you're going to have whey, make sure it's organic," she says. "Watch out for fillers and additives, too."
Fortunately, most brands sell one-serving samples of their protein powders—so if you're not sure what your body prefers, you don't have to buy a whole tub to find out. Quality protein powder can range anywhere from $30 to $60 per tub depending on the size (sometimes less if you snag it on sale), so do yourself a favor and spend the $3 or $5 to try a smaller dose before you buy in full.
Ingredients to look out for.
In general, you'll want to avoid all chemicals and ingredients you don't recognize when buying protein powder—or at least, as many as you can. It's also wise to steer clear of ingredients that could trigger intolerances (and even inflammation) in your body.
Casein (or caseinate) and whey protein isolate (or whey concentrate), for example, contain high levels of lactose. If your body doesn't fare well on dairy, chances are these proteins will make you feel bloated and gassy or unsettle your digestive system. Still, it's worth giving them a go before writing them off.
Another allergen sometimes found in protein powder is gluten. Surprising, indeed. Even though gluten exists in most processed foods, it still surprises me when a protein powder doesn't list gluten-free among its other medals of certification. Unless you know what the gluten-filled ingredient is (like if the label says bread, which it won't), you're better off avoiding the powder altogether. Similarly, if you're sensitive to or trying to dodge soy products, make sure soy lecithin is left off the label of your protein powder.
Guar gum, xanthan gum, and inulin
Next up: a short list of ingredients that may or may not make your stomach hurt. The most common culprit is guar gum, which, in large quantities or high concentrations, has been known to cause serious digestive issues. Xanthan gum and inulin are other names you may see around. While xanthan gum is reportedly safe in small quantities, there's no knowing if your body will think otherwise until you try it. Inulin, a prebiotic fiber, has more research around it claiming its safety and potential benefits, but it could also lead to bloating.
Artificial sweeteners (and real sugar)
Artificial sweeteners—aspartame, sucralose, anything trying to impersonate sugar that isn't natural—have a long list of undesirable side effects. Avoid at all costs.
On the flip side, protein powders can also be filled with plenty of real sugar, usually in the form of organic cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses. While several of these have a marginally lower glycemic index than table sugar, our bodies convert them to glucose and our blood sugar goes up regardless.
Though, if we're realistic for a second—no one wants to eat flavorless protein powder. Even the healthiest among us have taste. And unless you're blending it into a smoothie or adding it to a batch of baked goods, it's not exactly a delicacy. To avoid a flavorless, joyless protein experience, broaden your search to include protein powders that contain five or fewer grams of sugar per serving. Stevia, as far as current research is concerned, is a decent alternative in small doses as well, though people tend to love or hate it.
Vegetable oils & hydrogenated fats
Did we mention that vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats can be found in some protein powders? If you didn't know, now you do.
Little to no actual protein
This isn't an ingredient, but it's worth noting that if you're going to invest in a protein powder, you want it to be one that has a significant amount of protein. Opt for powders that have more than 10 grams of protein per serving—bonus points for 15 to 20!
How much protein powder should I take?
Remember when we said protein powder shouldn't replace all your food? We meant it. Protein powder can play a positive, and even critical, role in your diet, but it should not (read: should not) make up the majority of your caloric consumption. In fact, one serving per day should be the max for more folks.
"I recommend limiting your protein powder intake to one meal or serving per day," Schehr says. "There are certain circumstances where this may be increased—such as in detox—but generally limit protein powder to one serving per day."
Are there risks associated with taking protein powder?
It's possible to have too much of a good thing, and protein powder is no exception. If you're already meeting your protein needs, consuming more could spell trouble.
"Consistently getting too much protein can affect kidney function over time," Schehr notes. "And if protein is consumed when it's not needed, it's just adding excess calories to the diet."
"People with kidney problems should avoid protein powder unless cleared by their doctor," she adds. "It's also important to remember that anytime you increase your protein intake, you must also increase your water intake."
The bottom line: Should you take protein powder?
The question of whether or not you should take protein powder depends on who you are—your needs, lifestyle, and limitations. If you're a plant-based person looking to get more protein into your diet, yes, you should consider protein powder. If you're a very active individual looking for speedy recovery and decreased muscle soreness, yes, protein powder could help.
Those with kidney issues and those already satisfying their protein needs should not take protein powder, as it's both unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
Otherwise, heed this advice and keep your decision simple: Look for familiar ingredients, as few as possible, but make sure it's something that you're going to actually eat and enjoy. None of us need more protein sitting in our closets, right? (No? Just me? Wonderful.)