Protein Powder: Helpful or Harmful?

January 28th, 2014 at 6:06 am
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Protein Powder: Helpful or Harmful?

Navigating the seas of protein powder options should be an Olympic sport.

Rarely a week goes by where I don’t encounter recipes, advertisements, and samples relating to powdered proteins. They are without a doubt one of the most widely available “health food products,” and consequently the most confusing.

So I thought I’d clear the air, at least around here, and give you my perspective on whether protein powders are helpful or harmful and if they should be a regular part of our diet.

I’m going to start by weighing the pros and cons, and then I’ll give you my “bottom line” on protein powder.

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Pros

Weight Gain/Muscle Building
If you’re struggling to gain weight and want to put on a few pounds or build lean muscle, protein powders are a convenient way to add extra calories and “substance” to your diet. They’re especially helpful for busy people on the go (including athletes or super active teenagers) who need fast nutrition without much prep time.

Blood Sugar Balancing
For individuals with sensitive blood sugar that tends to drop/spike rapidly, shakes made with protein powder can help between meals to offer a boost of blood sugar-balancing protein in a convenient form.

Easily Portable
If you’re on the go, travel frequently, or work odd hours, protein shakes and bars can stand in for meals.

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But what about the cons? Well get ready. Because to me the cons far outweigh the pros.

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Cons

Heavy Metals
“In 2010, Consumer Reports magazine sampled 15 protein powders and drinks and found that most of them had low to moderate ranges of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. When accumulated in the body, these heavy metals are toxic to major organs. The report found that with especially three of the popular brands, consumers who have three servings daily could be exposed to levels that exceed the maximum limits for heavy metal contaminants.” (Source)

A side of heavy metals with my protein shake? I’ll pass, thank you.
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MSG
Heavy metals aren’t the only impurities to be worried about. During the processing of high protein foods like protein isolates, MSG is created. “Since it’s not an additional ingredient, but a consequence of the manufacturing process, MSG doesn’t need to be labeled on protein powders. Low temperature drying is an attempt to minimize the creation of monosodium glutamate, yet the end result is still a denatured protein and should be regarded with a wary eye.” (Source)
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Common Allergens & Additives
It’s no secret that whey protein is one of most common varieties available. Whey can cause extreme digestive stress in many people (myself included), not to mention it’s usually coming from factory farmed cow’s milk…which is in no way close to nature! Even whey protein from grass-fed animals can be brutally hard on the digestive system. (I’ve personally tried this brand after hearing good things, but it gave me a steady chronic stomach ache for over 24 hours.)
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Soy protein is a far cry from a healthful alternative. Most soy protein powders come from genetically modified crops. Along with whey, isolated soy protein is one of the most difficult ingredients to digest and also creates a very acidic response in the body. Some studies have even found traces of hexane—a byproduct of making gasoline—in soy-based products such as bars, powders, and burgers.
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Other common offenders in protein powders include corn derivatives, sweeteners (including artificial ones which are a HUGE red flag!), synthetic vitamins and minerals (made in a lab as cheaply as possible), and gums like xanthan, guar, and locust bean. All of these additives might make protein powder a little easier on the palate, but they do a number on the digestive system. And what benefits do we get for our health? Zilch.
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Over Processing
Simply put, powdered protein is denatured protein. I don’t care if it’s from a cow, a soybean, a hemp seed, or a grain of rice. Protein powder is a processed food and does not occur naturally in the plant world. Hexane, MSG, heavy metals, and artificial sweeteners aside, I think this fact alone should give us pause before throwing back the protein shakes.
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So what about plant-based protein powders that contain a blend of different protein sources like brown rice, hemp seed, cranberry, or pea protein? Please don’t hate me when I say this, but I think we’re better off without them. Even the “healthy” and/or organic vegan protein powders on the market (Sunwarrior, Nutribiotic, Vega, Perfect Fit, etc.) can be a source of digestion disrupters, heavy metals, over-processed ingredients, lab-generated nutrients, and hazardous byproducts that can be seriously damaging when consumed regularly.
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Be Careful

If you choose to consume protein powder, then please please please please choose the purest form possible. Do your research! Know exactly what you are getting in the product. If you’re unsure about the quality and don’t receive clear, scientifically backed up information from the company, send  your business elsewhere.
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If you choose to consume protein powder, please be careful. Here are my tips:
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  • Do not rely on it. In other words, don’t eat it every day or even every other day. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve read by people in the fitness industry that eat several scoops of protein powder per day. That’s way too much, in my opinion. You’re just asking for a heavy metal overload.
  • Enjoy other sources of whole food protein. Yes, this means you’ll probably have to take a few extra steps to prepare your own food. Grabbing a protein bar or shake on the go is much easier, but the health trade-offs are far from worth it.
  • Eat REAL food. If you picture it growing or living in nature, eat it. If not, don’t.

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Bottom Line

In our dash-and-dine society, the convenience of protein powder has been welcomed with open arms.

But our cultural obsession with and reliance on protein powders, bars, and pre-made shakes is risky business. There are serious downsides to protein powder that, in my opinion, far outweigh the few pros.

When it comes to our food and our health, eating as close to the earth is the most important thing we can do. If we want to live long and live well, we must place more emphasis on purity, quality, and nutrient-density than grab-and-go convenience.

Our health and vitality matter. We need to start acting like it.

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What are your thoughts on protein powder? Share with me in the comments. I’d love to get your perspective.

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Comments

  1. Hallie

    Thanks for posting. I see too many clients that want the easy and think this is it and buy into the marketing of it. My thought – if people would just eat real food they would be more than surprised that they wont need extras because half the time it is over the amount of what they need and their liver/kidneys are taxed out.

  2. Brianna Tittel said on January 28, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Insightful post Hallie! Thank you for sharing. I have a request for a follow-up post to this, as protein powder is something I’ve debated over and over again. What are some alternatives to put in a smoothie to up the protein content that isn’t a protein powder? I know one could make an egg or sausage to go with a breakfast smoothie on the side. But we get bored of eggs, sausage, and other breakfast proteins if we eat them every day, which is why we do smoothies some days. Without protein powder, everyone in our family is hungry again by 9am. Is there anything you could easily add to a smoothie specifically that would add more protein?

  3. Carolyn F. said on January 28, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! I have Celiac and also severe allergies to soy, dairy and bony fish. Because of that, I am always looking for good, clean sources of protein. I mostly stick with organic eggs and chicken, but do rely on protein powder to boost the protein in smoothies (I use Metagenics Ultrameal Rice Vanilla, which is the best I’ve found). I love your recipes and advice and am so grateful for your blog!

    • Carolyn: I’ve heard good things about Metagenics protein powder. I take some other supplements from them and am pleased with the low toxicity levels in their products. It still might be worth a phone call one of these days to get more details on how they test for heavy metals. :)

  4. Hi Hallie, I have to admit that I have fallen in with the protein powder crowd. I am vegan(by choice) but GF, soy, oat, corn, peanut and mushroom free by necessity. My main sources of protein are nuts(soaked and dehydrated) and dried beans. I am worried about not getting enough protein, so usually have a green smoothie in the a.m. with a scoop of either Sun Warrior or Vega. Do you have any other protein suggestions for me? I really enjoy your posts…you make me THINK!

    • Lisa: According to the tox reports that I’ve seen coming out lately, Vega is fairly clean. Also, hemp proteins appear to be among the cleanest. So you might try adding ground hemp seeds or hemp protein powder into your smoothies instead. I’d also suggest trying to change up your diet a bit so that you don’t have to eat the protein powder every day. Variety is the spice of life! :)

  5. Gluten Free on a Shoestring’s new bread book relies on whey protein isolate in every recipe! What’s a baker to do? I wouldn’t be baking it every day. Would it be safe to use that way? I got the book for Christmas but haven’t bought the whey isolate yet as I think I’m going to have to order it on line and it’s a big jug.

    • Barb: Ultimately you will have to make this decision for yourself, but I’ll chime in with my two cents. :) If it were me, I wouldn’t make those recipes…or if I did it would be very rarely. Whey protein powder is just so inflammatory in the body and allergenic. I’m also wary of heating protein powder, as that could potentially denature it even more and break down whatever protein integrity might be left. Just my thoughts.

      • Thanks Hallie. I’m going with your assessment! I’m glad you did this post before I got into those recipes. I would have had to buy some equipment as well so I am so glad that this was timely for me.

        • Hi Barb,

          If you eat dairy on a regular basis anyway and don’t have trouble with it, the issues of inflammation and being an allergen would not apply. (Because you can handle your dairy, so to speak, and already choose to ingest it.) The bread book does have information about two dairy-free options for protein powder, pea and rice (bottom of page 10 and top of page 11). You might research those specifically for heavy metal information.

          If you are still uncomfortable with any sort of protein powder, there are still quite a few other types of recipes in the book that do not call for the protein powder. The “Wheat-Thin Style Crackers” are dynamite, and don’t use protein powder. Neither do many of the quickbreads. And her first two cookbooks do not use that flour mix with protein powder.

          I read both Hallie’s and Nicole’s blog, like them both, and appreciate the information I get from each of them.

  6. Quite possibly my favorite Daily Bites post ever. Tell it like it is Hallie, I commend you! I’ve never liked protein powder. From what I’ve read, there’s not much about it that is “whole foods” which goes against what I’ve learned in school. I do see the need for it in some cases, but soooo many people are overdoing it. That scares me. I’ll be sending people to this post so they can educate themselves and draw their own conclusions, the best way! I was particularly surprised about the heavy metals. Thankfully Pete uses Vega which seems to be on the better list. Thanks for this post Hallie.

    • Maggie: Why thank you! :) I totally agree that protein powder has been waaaaay overdone with people being misled that it’s a “health food.” There is a time and place for a very clean and high quality powder, but I think the majority of us can find other options.

  7. Wow thanks so much for this post Hallie! I have been having a whey protein smoothie for breakfast for the last 4 or 5 months and lately not feeling too great after having it – bloated and unsettled stomach. I was beginning to rethink the protein powder and your post has totally come at the right time. I am vegetarian and concerned about my protein intake hence the protein powder. Looking forward to your part 2 post on this. Appreciate your thoughts and expertise!

  8. I almost never use protein powders, however, I really like Mt. Capra’s goat’s whey protein powder. I am intolerant to dairy; in fact this is the only dairy product that I can eat with no symptoms. Goat cheese gives me pains, but this goat’s whey is fine for me. Now I sound like an advertisement- I didn’t mean to- it is just nice to have the option of protein on the go.

  9. I wish you would add so-called super foods to this warning. I was using a high quality Moringa in my smoothies for a couple months. I found that I was very allergic, causing severe vomiting and diarrhea. Once I stopped using the Moringa the vomiting and diarrhea stopped t0o. Prove a correlation – well, I am not willing to try eating it again to be certain. I know that it was the only thing that was at all different about what I had been eating or what I am eating now.

  10. Elizabeth said on January 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks for this post Hallie. I used to take protein powder in my smoothie but only for a short time. I find it very expensive & would rather get my protein from meat, Almond or peanut butter, fish and so on. I enjoy your posts & recipes very much.

  11. Thanks for all your hard work of researching . You have just confirmed all my thoughts of protein powder use. I’ve never really loved them but have always been told I needed them to help put on weight. I might have one every few weeks but never really enjoyed it. I eat mostly veggies, beans, chicken And eggs. I don’t really care for beef, fish and pork. I’m gluten and soy intolerant. So I struggle with ideas to get protein at every meal. I think breakfast is my hardest meal. I don’t want eat eggs everymorning. I’ll take any suggestions you have. I will pass along this info to a few of my friends!! Thanks again for all your help!!!

  12. Hi, thanks for your column. I was put on whey protein isolate by my holistic health provider. Not for the protein but the amino acids. I have celiacs and chronic Lyme and can’t get enough amino acids from food…

    • Aliceyn: Interesting! Whey protein does have a very broad spectrum of amino acids, so that would make sense. You might want to chat with your practitioner sometime about other potential sources so that you don’t have to rely on the whey alone long term. Thanks for sharing! :)

  13. Thanks so much for this post!
    Have you heard anything on Arbonne and their protein powder? It’s said to be made with pea protein. I have some friends who use this and love it because it’s not whey protein. However, I get my protein from natural food sources. Just curious of anything you may have read or heard.

    • Jane: I haven’t tried Arbonne but like you I know some people who use it. I haven’t seen tox reports for it or read much about it during my research, but that may change as more info becomes available. The fact that it doesn’t use whey is a step in the right direction, but I agree with you. Getting protein from natural food sources is the way to go! :)

  14. Ilizabeth said on January 30, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you for the amazing article! I was wondering if you have any thoughts about J.J. Virgin’s protein powders. I’ve been following her diet for a few months now and feel like a different person. I know she suggests drinking a smoothie every day with a pea/rice protein powder, but a cousin told me that I shouldn’t drink them ever. Thoughts?

    • I applaud JJ for creating a product that’s free of so many allergens and low in sugar. That said, it is still a processed food that is made of dozens of mechanically extracted ingredients. As far as protein powders go, it’s much better than most…but I’m personally still not a fan, as I think it can too easily stand in as a healthy “convenience food” that replaces eating real, whole foods. Nothing against JJ Virgin or what she advocates (I heartily agree with most of it!), I just think we’re better off sticking to natural food sources of protein when possible. :)

  15. How does one go about finding a tox report?

  16. Scarlett Blandon said on February 4, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Dear Hallie,

    Although you do bring up some valuable and factual points, I’d like to remind your readers that there are also many opinions in this post to which there are different points of view. As a Registered Dietitian, I whole-heartedly agree that people should be consuming whole-food first and then protein powders. However, certain conditions (be it mechanical, digestive, immune or physiological) warrant the use of supplemental protein (which is commonly and conveniently found in powder form). Some things you wrote about which I’d like to bring light to, are:

    1) Heavy metal accumulation in the body is dependent on several factors including general health, digestive health, mineral status of the person, food in which it is consumed, typical diet of the person, etc. Just because a food or protein powder contains a certain amount of heavy metals, does not mean that’s the amount that will accumulate in the body. Heavy metals are actually intrinsic and common in plant-based foods, considering they are grown directly in soil, in which many of these elements have been found since Earth formed, (rather than due to pollution, as many assume). Fortunately, the human body has several natural mechanisms which can either reduce the absorption of these metals or increase the excretion of them, thereby reducing their total accumulation.
    2) MSG is the result of protein hydrolysis (and usually acid hydrolysis), such that the protein is “separated” into its constituent amino acids. This is NOT the case for all protein powder manufacturers. For example, many brown rice protein manufacturers use natural carbohydrate-breaking enzymes to break apart (remove) the carbohydrate fraction of brown rice, leaving the INTACT protein fraction behind. This process does NOT produce MSG.
    3) A denatured protein does not a nutritionally obsolete protein make. In other words, when a protein is “denatured,” it means the chemical structure of it has changed—it does NOT mean that the protein content has been removed. For example, when you cook an egg and make it hard-boiled, it is technically “denatured,” but the hard-boiled egg is still a source of protein for the body.
    4) Gums are commonly added to protein powders for their functionality, mainly to improve their palatability (as you do point out). Although people with allergies to these ingredients will certainly experience negative effects, people withOUT allergies to these ingredients can certainly benefited from it as a source of soluble dietary fiber. For example, guar gum has shown effectiveness at lowering cholesterol and reducing blood sugar spikes in people with diabetes.

    I would be happy to answer any additional dietary related questions you or your readers may have.

    • Scarlett: Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I do agree that some out there do need to supplement with protein based on their unique health circumstances, no doubt about that. For the most part, though, I think most of us would do well to back off the powder and switch to more whole foods, like you said.

      In regards to your thoughts on the heavy metals, I appreciate your argument and I do understand that toxicity levels will vary (if accumulate at all) based on the individual. From my own experience, however, I’ve seen heavy metal toxicity wreak tremendous havoc on so many people I know. While we do possess mechanisms for detoxification, for many they are quite compromised due to poor diet, congested organs, and environmental toxins that are often unavoidable.

      When I was 3 months old, I reacted to the mercury in an immunization I received and I believe it changed my life forever. Not only was my childhood filled with hospital visits, stomach problems, and allergies, but my digestive system was also severely compromised. Perhaps this is just a personal issue that’s very close to my heart. :) But I feel that the dangers of heavy metal toxicity are a real threat to us these days.

      I understand that not all protein powders will contain MSG, but I did want to point it out to readers so they were aware. Many of the plant-based protein powders are much more pure, but I still think we must approach them very carefully. (Case in point: Garden of Life Protein products, read more here: http://www.naturalnews.com/043759_Garden_of_Life_RAW_Protein_heavy_metals.html)

      Regarding the denaturing of protein, you’re right. The actual amount of protein is same regardless of the processing method. But to picture these proteins growing in nature is nearly impossible, and that’s where I’m not all that comfortable with them. If it was created in a lab and is not a real, whole food, I would prefer not to eat it.

      You make a good point regarding the gums. They don’t pose a big risk for those who can tolerate them. While they may contain some fiber, I’d still prefer to get mine from whole food sources that I could pick, pluck, or dig up myself. :)

      Thanks again for chiming in! I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with everyone here. Topics like these are ones that definitely need discussing.

      • Scarlett Blandon said on February 4, 2014 at 2:26 pm

        Hallie, anytime, I’m happy to help. I am a big advocate of objective, scientific-based educational information and bringing to light both sides of the story to allow consumers to make their own decisions.
        On that note, please note that Natural News is not a scholarly-based source of information and should not be taken with a grain of salt (in my scientific/ethical opinion).

  17. Great discuss on protein powders! Personally I find protein powders nasty, I’d much rather eat a whole food.

  18. Scarlett Blandon said on February 4, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Apologies. Correction to my last post: “..SHOULD be taken with a grain of salt.”

  19. What great information! I have been on an anti-candida diet and have been taking protein powder since I have had to cut out my typical plant based proteins as they have too many carbs. I am not a big meat eater… so to get enough protein I was advised to take a protein shake one time a day. I have been taking the highest quality, plant based proteins I can find but now have developed tummy aches from it! Thanks for posting!

  20. I use a raw and organic vegan protein powder with no artificial sweetener. It has stevia in it, which my body loves. I use RAW by Garden of Life. I get my body tested for foods and supplements through an applied kinesiologist and my body really liked this one, so I feel fine eating it. I use it in my smoothie and I also bake it in my protein bars. Its all good. Just don’t eat a protein powder with a lot of added ‘stuff’ in it, and try to get an organic one and you’re good to go. My body also liked the Genuine Health Vegan protein powder as well. It’s quite tasty, altho not organic, so I only use it to cycle out the other one so my body doesn’t develop an intolerance to it.

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