July 17, 2024
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Here’s the Scoop: The 411 on Protein Powders

Editor’s note: Please check the kashrut of all products; many brands in this space have products containing non-kosher ingredients.

With the advent of social media and the plethora of information it offers, the world is more accessible than ever. People want what they see and strive for the same goals as the influencers they are watching. Flat abs and taut biceps are being flaunted on the daily, pushing viewers to the gym and supermarket for protein shakes, powders and more. The market is bursting with options to boost protein intake and (hopefully) support muscle building. However, with so many options, it’s hard to know which ones are optimal for muscle growth and success. Words like whey and casein are thrown out there like leaves in the wind and it can be confusing to understand the jargon. This article will give a taste of the different protein options on the market, so consumers can make a more educated decision about their protein purchases.

Protein, in general, is the major structural component of all cells in the body. It functions in the form of enzymes, transport carriers and hormones. The body requires ingestion of nine essential amino acids from the diet to synthesize new proteins and balance the rate of protein catabolism (breakdown). Protein increases fat loss and preserves/increases lean muscle mass during weight loss and weight maintenance periods in our lives. Maintaining muscle mass is crucial for long-term metabolic health, preventing weight gain after desired weight loss and avoiding sarcopenia (muscle loss). Protein needs are based on body weight: about 0.8-1.0 gram (gm) protein/kilogram (kg) body weight, but a study done by Phillips et al.(2016) suggests about 1-1.3 gm protein/kg to support muscle loss as we age. For a 150 pound male, this equates to about 68-88 gm of protein/day. To give you some context, a piece of chicken weighing about three ounces contains about 30 gm of protein. However, in order to support muscle protein synthesis, the Nutrition and Athletic Performance joint position statement recommends consuming about 15-25 gm of protein up to two hours post workout, then follow up with about 0.14 gm protein/lb. of body weight every three to five hours over multiple meals in order to maximize recovery and muscle building.

Protein presents itself in many foods, such as animal products, legumes and dairy. Because protein is inherently so filling, it can be challenging to meet increased protein needs. This is where protein supplements, such as protein powder, come into play. They’re an accessible avenue to reach your protein goals without all the preparation. Each scoop of protein powder contains 10-30 gm of protein (depending on the brand). Manufacturers create powders by isolating dairy and plant proteins. For now, we will be discussing dairy proteins, such as milk protein concentrate (MPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), hydrolyzed whey protein (HWP) and whey permeate. Manufacturers incorporate these isolates into energy drinks, powders and bars to boost protein intake. Generally, milk protein is made up of 80% casein and 20% whey. Whey protein has the highest biological value of any protein, which means you get the most bang for your buck in terms of protein utilization. It’s digested faster, releasing protein into circulation, whereas casein is digested at a slower rate, providing a more stable release. It’s also one of the richest sources of leucine, an essential amino acid that triggers protein synthesis. Whey protein can be a great way to incorporate more protein into your diet. A meta-analysis conducted by Cermak et al. (2012) showed that a diet high in milk/whey protein supplements can boost muscle mass and strength during resistance training in both younger and older adults.

It’s important to note however that protein powders are still considered supplements, which means that quality testing falls on the manufacturer, not the government. Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created Good Manufacturing Practices, a system to help ensure that products are fashioned in a consistent and safe manner, it doesn’t mean that all companies will reinforce these safe measures. Organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) tests supplements independently to ensure the contents inside the bottle match what’s stated on the label and the product doesn’t contain toxic metals like arsenic or mercury at unsafe levels. You can look for the NSF label on supplements to help make educated purchases. Being an educated consumer is your best tool to being your best self! Be sure to discuss options and ideas with your medical provider in order to help support success in your health and wellness goals!


Melissa Papir Kolb is a registered dietitian working in long-term care nutrition in Washington Heights, New York. She works with middle-aged and elderly residents to provide nutrition that can help boost their quality of life. She loves to write about nutrition in her spare time. Melissa can be reached at [email protected].

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