The Protein Powder Primer
“As a dietician, I’m a big proponent of whole foods, so if someone can sit down and have a steak, I think that’s better post-workout,” says R.D. and trainer Albert Matheny, co-owner of Soho Strength Lab. “But if you’re busy and running around and need some protein, you can throw this in some water and go.”
The real trouble is in choosing which to throw in the blender. Whey? Casein? Soy? A vegan blend of pea, hemp, and brown rice? And which brand?
We tapped the expertise of Matheny, who’s also the founder of Source Organic Whey, and Jenna Bell, R.D., Ph.D., a two-time Ironman finisher and the co-author of Energy to Burn, to bring you this guide to protein powders.
Here are five easy steps to choosing the healthiest smoothie-booster to meet your post-workout or everyday nutritional needs…
Protein powders vary, so determining why you want to use one is an important first step Jenna Bell, R.D., Ph.D, says. "Are you looking to gain muscle? Do you want to "get lean"? Is this for recovery from a workout? Do you need to supplement your diet because you are lacking in food sources of protein?"
If it's for muscle gain and recovery, choose a higher calorie powder that includes a carbohydrate source. If you're looking to lose or manage weight, a complete protein with fewer calories is better. "Whey and casein are ideal for muscle gain and getting lean. They're also great for recovery," says Bell. Whey is much more quickly and easily digested than casein, though, so it's better for a morning or post-workout boost. If it's about overall health, you may want to try alternating between a dairy-based and a plant-based option, she suggests.
"The basis for evaluating protein is 'how good is the amino acid score?'" Matheny explains. "Does it have all of them, and are they in significant amounts?" A complete protein contains all essential amino acids, which you can get from a single source or by combining multiple. If you're okay with dairy, whey and casein will both fulfill this.
For vegetarians, soy and hemp are often considered complete, but Matheny recommends choosing a blend, which may include pea, brown rice, and hemp. Even better, choose a brand, like Garden of Life, that includes a blend of sprouted protein sources, "When you sprout it, the amino acid profile improves and it's more digestible," he says.
3. Evaluate the ingredient quality
Like most manufactured foods, protein powders are not created equal. Organic is really the way to go. Since whey and casein come from milk, the same concerns that apply to non-organic dairy apply, like pesticide residue, added hormones, and the cow's GMO-corn diet. (This issue is why Matheny says he created Source Organic Whey, which also sources its whey from grass-fed cows.) Note: Casein has also been shown to promote the growth of cancer cells in some animal studies.
Organic is also especially important with soy, since more than 90 percent of the crops grown in the United States are genetically modified and pesticide-soaked. Non-organic soy also tends to be heavily processed, which your body won't like. "Super-processed soy is not really digestible," Matheny says.
Bell also says to look for brands that ensure quality by performing research on their products, setting standards, and employing a strong team of scientists and dietitians.
You don't want high fructose corn syrup in your bread or parabens in your body lotion, so don't settle for less-than-pure powders, either. Go for protein powder brands that list as few ingredients as possible and don't add a ton of sugar or bad-for-you sugar substitutes like sucralose and aspartame. "'Natural and artificial flavors' is also one to watch out for, since it's impossible to know what it means and is not highly regulated by the FDA," says Matheny.
Companies also tend to add lots of extra "boosters" for body-building types, many of which you probably don't need if your day job doesn't include clean-and-jerks. "For example, if you're hoping to get lean, you may not want creatine, taurine, and added glycine," Bell says.
Avoiding whey and casein if you're a vegetarian or vegan is obvious, but there are a few other things to consider.
If you're lactose intolerant but are partial to whey, choose a powder made with whey protein isolate rather than whey protein concentrate. The isolate version is further refined and usually does not have enough lactose left to affect those with issues.
Soy is highly allergenic and can be hard to digest for some people, so pay attention to your body's reaction.