Protein Powder: What Is It?

I remember the first time that I went into my local health food supplement store. I was like a deer caught in the headlights, frozen by wall after wall of powders, pills, gels, creams, and bottles. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience.

You’ll be happy to hear that I didn’t turn my tail and run out of the front door. I was determined to see what all the fuss was about and boy was I ever happy I stuck with it.

Choosing the right protein powder can be a daunting task. The market is full of unfamiliar brands and varying types, all of which claim to be the best in the industry. While choosing the right protein powder can give your fitness goals that extra edge, it really isn’t all that complicated.

Why Protein is Important?

Before we get into the types, uses, and food sources of protein powder, it’s probably best to chat a little bit about why protein is such an integral part of the human diet.

Protein is a core macronutrient that plays a substantial role in the composition of every cell in your body. Your body needs it to make enzymes, hormones, and other important natural chemicals. Its consumption greatly contributes to the overall health of your bones, muscles, skin, blood, and cartilage.

Protein also helps you build and repair muscle tissue. In short, if you’re looking to lose weight, build lean muscle, and maintain your current muscle tissue, managing your protein intake is essential.

What is Protein Powder?

Protein powder is a dietary supplement that provides its users with a quick and healthy dose of protein in a convenient and efficient way. Keyword being efficient. A smoothie with a scoop of protein powder can be used as a substitute for other dietary protein options like meat, dairy, and legumes.

Protein powders come in a variety of types and rely on a wide range of protein sources, but they all attempt to accomplish the same goal. Vegetarians rely on them to supplement their meat-free diet. Fitness junkies use them to repair muscle tissue and save time.

Protein Powder Food Sources

Over time, the supplement industry has managed to extract protein powders from a wide variety of different food sources.

For instance, whey protein — the most popular protein powder food source by a country mile — is extracted from milk. But that’s certainly not your only option. There’s casein protein, egg protein, pea protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein, mixed plant proteins, and more. Barring dietary restrictions, whey protein is typically the simplest and most cost-effective protein powder option.

Protein Concentrates vs. Protein Isolates

If you’re green to the health and wellness scene, it’s easy to get confused. All you’re really looking for is an alternative protein source, right? But, as with most things these days, you’re left with a paralyzing number of options.

For example, it’s not uncommon to see the words “protein concentrate” and “protein isolate” on the jumbo protein powder bottles. So, what does that mean? It all comes down to processing.

Protein concentrates take a protein source like whey and processes it to down to a composition of roughly 80 percent protein alongside a 20 percent mix of carbs and fats.

Protein isolates rely on a different processing method designed to “isolate” even more protein from the food source. They typically consist of 90 percent pure protein, with the remaining 10 percent split between fats and carbs.

What does this mean to you? If you’re trying to restrict your carb intake, the more expensive isolate option may be the way to go. However, if you aren’t concerned about carbs and are just looking to up your protein macros, protein concentrate is your best bet.

Protein Hydrolysates

But wait, there’s more. Protein hydrolysates add another step to the processing of whey protein as a means to maximize your gains.

To the lay-person, protein hydrolysates are a superior protein source when compared to the less-processed concentrates and isolates. To create a protein hydrolysate, manufacturers “pre-digest” a concentrate or isolate to make protein absorption easier on the body.

Hydrolysates are typically for the more advanced body-building types though. For a beginner, the cost and bitter flavor profile of hydrolysate protein are large drawbacks.

Ion-Exchange Protein

Ion-exchange protein is yet another alternative processing method available for your consuming pleasure. Most powders on the market rely on membrane processing to extract protein from their food source, but there are certainly other options out there.

Ion-exchange uses pH to yield a much more concentrated protein powder (90 percent to 96 percent). This is great for someone looking to reduce their intake of fat or carbohydrates. Aside from the price tag, ion-exchange proteins tend to lose antioxidants and essential amino acids. They also have a noticeable taste difference.

I get that many prefer this processing method, but the difference is mostly trivial. Don’t let the supplement sales member upsell you, ion-exchange proteins are far from essential to your success.

How to Use Protein Powder?

So, you bought a batch of protein powder, what now? Time to get stirring.

Protein powder is a versatile dietary protein supplement that can be consumed in a myriad ways. If you need a protein boost and you’re tight for time, simply mix it with your liquid of choice. Milk, almond milk, and soy milk work well. And, if you’re hoping to limit your daily calorie intake, just use water.

Of course, you can get creative. Mixing a scoop of protein powder in with a vegetable or fruit smoothie can add variety, flavor, and a serving or two of vegetables all in one shot. The possibilities are endless.

When to Use Protein Powder?

The health and wellness gurus of the Internet offer alternative opinions on the great protein shake debate. Some believe that protein powder is best consumed before a workout, while many others believe that a post-workout smoothie is the only way to ensure optimum muscle recovery. What do we say? Well, that depends entirely on you.

When you plan on consuming your delicious protein shake depends entirely on your personal routine and your exercise goals. If, for example, packing a protein shake on your way out of the house in the morning is easier for you, go for it! Protein shakes are a great way to keep you energized throughout the morning.

If muscle recovery and gain is your goal, then you’ll want to consume your protein shake around the time of your workout. Before or after, it doesn’t really matter. Just drink that shake!

How Much is Too Much?

There are a lot of negative stories online detailing the harm of protein over-indulgence. But, apart from those who suffer from severe kidney disease, you’re generally safe to drink as much protein as your calorie tracker allows.

Remember, protein shakes, as with anything, count towards your overall calorie limit. So, if you’re looking to lose weight, too many protein shakes can push you over your own personal threshold.

We recommend that you calculate your calorie window, along with your macros, in order to customize a diet plan that will work the best for you.

Always Read the Label

It’s easy to get lost in inspiration-induced dreamland of health food supplement stores, but don’t assume that everything on the shelves is healthy for you.

Some protein powders are loaded with sugar and excess carbohydrates. Be sure to read the label of everything that you’re putting in your body. It’s really the only way to ensure your desired results.

Arisha Ray Singh / Shutterstock

Sep 26, 2019