Your Guide to Protein Powders
Protein is an important component of practically all structures and functions of our body. Protein is needed for energy production, to build and retain muscle, to support liver detoxification and regulate our moods and thinking.
We need approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight – assuming a normal weight. However, many of us don’t get sufficient protein, due to busy lives and meals not being well balanced day in and day out. Also factors such as ageing and stress can impact our ability to digest protein, placing an additional burden on our already overloaded systems. Likewise, too much protein is also detrimental on our body and in particular burdens the liver and kidneys, so it is important to aim to get the right amount each day.
While consuming a variety of whole food based proteins from animal products or by combining vegetarian sources is the best way to get protein, the use of protein powders has become a popular way of boosting our daily protein intake. The protein powder market is becoming more and more saturated by the day, so choosing the right protein for your individual needs can be tricky. Shortly we will look at the different types of protein powder and uncover the pros and cons of each one. But firstly it is a good idea to have some background info on amino acids to be able to understand and compare different types of protein powders.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While some amino acids are needed from the foods we eat, our body is capable of making other amino acids. This is why amino acids are divided into two groups: The essential amino acids; those that we can’t create, and the non-essential amino acids; those that we can.
Most good quality protein powders contain all of the essential amino acids and additional non-essential amino acids alanine, arginine, asparagine (or aspartic acid), cysteine, glutamine (or glutamic acid), glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine. If a vegetarian based protein works best for you I would recommend combining rice and pea proteins to ensure you are getting all essential and most non essential amino acids.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) are concentrated in muscle tissue and used to fuel working muscles. The content of BCAA’s in protein powder is therefore an important factor to consider when choosing one that is right for you. The BCAA’s isoleucine, leucine and valine are highest in whey-based protein powders (24%) followed by soy (22%) and then brown rice (18%).
Ratio of Amino Acids – Lysine to Arginine
Lysine and arginine are competing amino acids within the body. Oftentimes our diets are replete in arginine and lacking in lysine. Lysine is needed for the formation of immune molecules known as immunoglobulins. If the arginine to lysine balance is thrown out the formation of immunoglobulins is reduced. Arginine is also needed by viruses to be able to reproduce so having adequate lysine stores helps to prevent this from occurring. When the ratio of lysine to arginine is thrown out our body becomes more susceptible to opportunistic and dormant infections. Reoccurring cold sores (herpes virus) are an example of this. When choosing a protein powder it is important to look for a ratio of 3:2 of arginine to lysine. Some people can find that a protein powder that is too high in arginine may result in an outbreak of cold sores or other infections.
Contains 70%-80% protein and up to 5% lactose. Whey protein is rapidly digested making it a preferred source of protein for athletes however the lactose content may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in those with lactose intolerance. It is important to note that the 5% lactose content found in whey protein is slightly higher than what is normally found in other dairy products. If gastrointestinal symptoms occur after whey protein it is probably best to change powders or consider swapping cows milk to a dairy free alternative as having a whey based protein with cows milk compounds the lactose. Whey protein contains more isoleucine, leucine (branched chain amino acids), lysine and threonine than other non-animal sources of protein. I stock a great grass fed whey powder that is affordable and effective.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein powders contain approximately 78% protein. Despite its lower protein content, a recent study found there to be no difference in post workout recovery or soreness between brown rice protein and whey protein. Brown rice protein has more phenylalanine (a precursor of our feel good hormone dopamine) compared to whey based protein powders, and more valine and methionine compared to soy based proteins.
Pea based powders contain about 73% protein. As peas are considered a fructooligosaccharide and are highly fermentable by our gut bacteria, pea protein should be avoided in cases of irritable bowel or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Pea protein contains more lysine than brown rice protein. As we learned above, the amino acid lysine improves immune system function but is also stimulates intestinal absorption of calcium, and is required for collagen synthesis. Lysine is particularly important in vegetarians and vegans, as it is commonly deficient.
Soy protein concentrate is made from soy flour with the water-soluble carbohydrates and fat removed and typically contains about 70% protein. Soy protein isolate is made from the same process only taken a step further resulting in almost 90% pure protein. Soy protein powders are generally low in sulfur-containing amino acids (methionine and cysteine) but high in branched chain amino acids. Soy protein also contains phyto-oestrogens that are essentially plant compounds that mimic the effect oestrogen has on the body. It is best to consult your practitioner as to whether consuming foods containing phyto-oestrogens on a regular basis would be appropriate for you as certain hormonal conditions can benefit from the use of phytoestrogens – but not in all cases. A component in soy is also considered to be goitrogenic and therefore is best avoided in people with hypothyroidism. An additional factor to consider when choosing a soy-based protein is the origin of the soy plant. The majority of soy in most western societies is now genetically modified (GM). I believe it is best to avoid non-organic soy foods as there are some serious concerns being raised in new studies on GM foods.
Collagen is the main structural protein found in our skin, ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen can be divided into three subcategories, all with varying roles.
Type I collagen comprises 90% of all the collagen in our body and is needed for healthy skin, hair, nails, organs, bones and ligaments.
Type II collagen is primarily found in the articular and hyaline cartilage and is needed for joint health. Type II collagen is often supplemented in either its hydrolyzed or un-denatured forms. Un-denatured type II collagen is not generally found in protein powders and instead is usually found in supplements targeting joint support. About 40 milligrams or more of collagen has been shown to be beneficial in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Type III collagen is found in skin, lung and heart tissue. Supplementation of this type of collagen usually occurs in combination with type I in the form of hydrolyzed collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen is used for generalised skin and joint health, while un-denatured collagen is more specific for arthritic conditions. About 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen is usually put in protein powders and is listed under collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed gelatin or collagen peptides.
Standalone collagen powders are also available usually in type I or a combination of type I and III. Collagen, being a protein itself, is often used to boost protein intake, and aid tissue recovery and repair. Five grams (1 teaspoon) of collagen hydrolysate is a decent dose of collagen as a standalone powder.
In addition to supplemental forms, collagen intake can also be increased through foods. Bone broth is a wonderfully nutritive and restorative way of using food as medicine to improve collagen stores. For more on the benefits of bone broth and a link to my recipe click here.
Sources of Collagen
- Piscine (fish)
- PROS: Collagen proteins from fish are considered superior in raising overall body collagen (Type 1) and improving skin, hair, nail, and bone quality (Shiratsuchi et al. 2010)
- CONS: Fish collagen peptides generally cost more than other sources of collagen
- Bovine (cow)*
- PROS: Bovine collagen peptides are usually lower cost, and comprise a wide array of collagen supplements on the market due to the high accessibility of bovine materials
- CONS: Not considered as effective as fish collagen peptides in raising overall body collagen levels
- Porcine (pig)*
- PROS: Like bovine products, pig collagen peptides are usually lower cost, and comprise a wide array of collagen supplements on the market due to the high accessibility of porcine materials
- CONS: Not considered as effective as fish collagen peptides in raising overall body collagen levels
- Fowl (chicken)*
- PROS: Chicken collagen peptides are known to be most effective for supporting cartilage in the body. For this reason, type II collagen supplements are usually derived from chicken
- CONS: Not considered effective at raising overall body collagen levels
*Collagen from grazing animals such as bovine and pig should be sourced from grass-fed only animals. Collagen from chicken is typically not as common as the other sources, if you are wanting to supplement using a chicken based collagen make sure the chickens were free range and raised on hormone-free feed.
I have been using a grass fed beef bone based collagen and find it to be very good, so have now started stocking it in my Buderim clinic.
Sugars, Sweeteners and Carbohydrates
Protein powders usually rely on low calorie sweeteners to improve palatability. While reducing sugar and carbohydrates is important in weight loss and muscle building, certain sweeteners can also cause unwanted effects. It is best (and often more affordable) to use plain protein powders and then sweeten them yourself to your own taste with berries, banana, cacao powder and natural sweetener such as honey or maple syrup or you can use the low calorie herbal based ones. The popular natural plant based ones include stevia sourced from the Stevia rebaudiana plant or thaumatin which is a protein that comes from West African Katemfe fruit.
Sweeteners to avoid include:
- Aspartame: Linked to increase oxidative stress in the brain and shown to impair memory.
- Sucralose: Shown to alter how our bodies metabolise sugar and was found to be linked to leukaemia in a mice study.
- Acesulfame K: Linked to thyroid dysfunction and metabolism disorders in animal studies
- Saccharin: Potentially carcinogenic
- Xylitol / Sorbitol: Often used in gum and oral hygiene products to reduce oral bacteria however use of this sweetener is also associated with gut symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramping and diarrhoea.
When it comes to sweeteners, the natural low calorie type is the better option – examples of these include thaumatin and stevia. A problem with artificial and low-calorie sweeteners in general is that our body is too intelligent to be tricked. It is in our DNA to seek out high calorie foods for survival, and although our taste buds associate sweetness with higher calories, studies have shown that the consumption of artificial sweeteners does little to quell our overall sugar intake.
Quick Reference Checklist For Choosing Good Protein Powder
- Aim for 6 grams of branched chain amino acids per serve
- All essential amino acids with the additional amino acids alanine, arginine, asparagine (or aspartic acid), cysteine, glutamine (or glutamic acid), glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine
- Protein from a preferably organic grass-fed (for bovine and porcine) and pasture raised/hormone free (for chicken) source
- A lysine to arginine ratio of 2:3
- 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen (listed under collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed gelatin or collagen peptides)
- No artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame K, saccharin or xylitol / sorbitol)
If you would like to source a good protein powder, I can supply grass fed whey or collagen based protein and can order in a pea or rice based one for vegetarian/vegan diets. Please be in touch for more information or to purchase some protein powder.
Also, if you are after a more detailed comparison between protein sources and their amino acid profiles, check out this great study.