Welcome to the Protein Powder Project part two. If you have not read part one, we recommend starting there.
In part one, we went over the general information about what we were looking for in finding some great protein powders. In part two, we will go over the different types of protein powders on the market.
One of the most important things to consider when choosing a protein powder is the PCDAA value (Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score).
The higher the number, the better quality of the protein. A protein with a value of .5 will require twice as much protein to give your body the same usable amount of protein as one with a value of one. For example, hemp protein has a PDCAA value of around .66, while whey has a PDCAA value of one. So you would need ninety-nine grams of hemp protein to get the same amount of usable protein as sixty-six grams of whey protein. Two protein powders may say twenty-five grams of protein per serving, but that does not mean that they are equivalent. The protein quality is what matters most, not the amounts claimed.
There are many protein powders on the market right now, with more coming every day. First up are the plant proteins. Examples include flax, chia, sunflower seed, soy, rice, pumpkin seed, squash seed, pea, quinoa, and amaranth, with new ones coming to market frequently.
Most plant-based protein sources are not complete. Therefore, it is best to look for a product that contains a blend of different protein sources. In addition, they tend to have a lower PDCAA value, so keep that in mind when deciding on how much to take each day.
Another thing to consider is that plant proteins will require larger serving sizes without heavy refining and processing. For example, a whole food plant protein powder may contain forty to fifty percent protein, while whey protein concentrate is usually around eighty percent protein. So in one hundred grams of powder, a plant protein might have fifty grams of protein, while whey protein may have eighty grams of protein.
We highly recommend against the use of soy protein. Soy protein is always heavily processed and is usually extracted with solvents like acetone or hexane. In addition, it contains a large number of nutrient inhibitors and a host of other downsides. Much of the soy protein powder on the market comes from farmland in the Amazon rainforest that is cleared to grow soy that is made into protein powder, added to meat alternatives, or fed to cattle (a terrible idea). Can we please stop cutting down the rainforest to get cheap collagen, beef, and soy, for god's sake? Soy protein powders should be crossed off everyone's list. It is, however, much cheaper for companies to use as it is generally a byproduct of other industrial processes, not made from fresh soybeans.
Grain-based proteins like amaranth and quinoa are becoming more popular, but they require large amounts to get a measurable amount of protein in a protein powder. So these are usually just added in small quantities to make the label look good. In addition, much of the quinoa used comes from areas where the native people are no longer able to afford their staple food because so much of it is being sent to other countries which have dramatically increased the price for them. If you want to get quinoa without the ethical issues, check out our friends at Kandarian Farms.
Rice protein is a common plant protein. However, it is not a great choice. The PDCAA value is low, and it is often grown in places with contaminated soil, leading to very high heavy metal levels. In addition, it is often heavily processed and refined to increase the protein content. There are much better alternatives.
Pea protein is another popular choice. It has a higher protein content than most plant proteins. The downside is that it tends to be heavily refined and is commonly sold as pea protein isolate. The refining process (often using harsh chemicals or acids) involves many steps. The final product has very little in common with the peas you eat, as usually large parts of the pea are removed during the refining process.
When choosing plant proteins, seed-based ones (hemp, pumpkin, flax, chia, etc.) are the right choice. They have a good percentage of protein per gram and a variety of nutrients like magnesium, which most people do not get enough of. The downside to these is that they can be a bit gritty. So look for companies that have figured out a milling process to help them mix smoother, not heavily refining them as most companies do to improve the taste. Good-quality seed proteins do not require heavy refining and processing. They mill the seeds into a powder and package them. The only thing that should be removed is the shells the seeds come in. As with anything else, know the source. Many seeds are grown in very polluted areas, resulting in powders that are very high in heavy metals. Look for those that can be traced back to the farms they came from, grown organically in good soil, with farming practices that help to improve the environment, and the laborers are paid a fair wage. Look for products that blend different seeds, not a single source.
Good food starts with healthy soil and happy farmers!
Next up are the animal-based proteins.
Egg white protein is not as well known as other proteins. It features a good amino acid profile, but we recommend against using it. Egg white protein powder contains large amounts of avidin, which can cause a deficiency in biotin. Eating the whites without the yolk is the opposite of whole food, and who wants to miss out on all the yolk's goodness?
Beef protein powder is becoming more popular. Most people imagine it simply as beef being dried and ground up. That could not be further from the truth. Beef protein is one of the most heavily processed proteins on the market. The heavy processing causes it to be much lower in beneficial amino acids such as leucine and cystine. The sourcing is also very questionable as much of it is made from discarded parts at different processing facilities and then mixed together. It’s the pink slime of protein powders. Its amino acid profile is inferior in nearly every way to whey protein. It bears little resemblance to eating a steak. It also has a very poor taste, requiring lots of flavorings and other additives to try and mask it. We do not recommend using it.
Collagen powders are very popular, but they are not what people think. These heavily refined and processed powders often come with a massive ethical cost. You can read more about it here. Collagen does not contain tryptophan and is low in certain other essential amino acids. It is not considered a complete protein and should not be used as a source of protein in your diet. The most popular collagen powders have massive ethical and environmental issues. Collagen is the most ethically challenged of all (yes, the brand of white powder you got at the health food store, with great packaging and a fantastic story, is part of the problem). We do not recommend the use of heavily refined collagen powders.
Next up is bone broth protein. Bone broth is rich in an array of beneficial compounds and amino acids. However, it contains almost no tryptophan, so it is not a complete protein. When people think of bone broth powders, they often think it is just like the bone broth they made at home, but that is not what is happening for nearly all bone broth powders. Most bone broth powder is heavily refined and processed. It bears almost no resemblance to bone broth made at home. Some companies even advertise that their bone broth powders mix in cold water. The only way to get that to happen is to put the powder through even more processing, to alter it enough to mix in cold water. Real bone broth does not dissolve or mix into cold water, and a powder should be no different. Good bone broth powder is made by cooking grass-fed bones for many hours, just like you would make it at home. Then the liquid would be dried at low temperatures and milled into a powder. No other steps or processing would be necessary.
Last but certainly not least is whey protein. Whey protein is considered the gold standard of protein powders for many good reasons. It has the highest PDCAA value, the best amino acid profile, and is rich in all of the essential amino acids. When compared to other protein powders, nothing comes close to the amino acid profile of whey protein. Good whey is also rich in minerals and compounds that support gut and immune health, such as immunoglobulins. It is also rich in cysteine/cystine, which helps support the body's glutathione production.
The problem with most whey protein is that it is so heavily processed and filled with unnecessary additives. As a result, it can be almost impossible to trace where it came from, who actually made it, and whether it was ethically produced.
Most whey protein is a byproduct of cheese manufacturing, supplied by a few massive corporations (Glanbia, Fronterra, Warrnambool, Agropur, Arla Foods, Milk Specialties, and a few more). They pool milk from various farms, from small to massive, from vast regions. Using whey protein from these suppliers makes traceability almost impossible.
All whey protein comes from milk, which must be pasteurized to sell for whey protein.
Whey protein is usually sold as a concentrate, isolate, or hydrolyzed. The concentrate is the least processed, followed by isolate and hydrolyzed.
Concentrate retains much more of the nutrients found in milk, but isolate tends to have a slightly higher protein content. Hydrolyzed whey is further broken down through a process called hydrolyzation. Many companies claim this makes it easier to digest and absorb. However, this heavy processing can result in a loss of many of the beneficial and fragile compounds found in good whey protein. Therefore, a minimally processed concentrate is closest to the original food.
Another less well-known type is called native whey protein. Native whey is produced from fresh milk rather than the leftover byproduct of cheese manufacturing. As a result, it tends to be less processed and closer to the original food. One thing we had to be careful of, though, is that many companies who produce native whey protein use it as a chance to buy lower grade milk, which the farmers could not sell to cheese manufacturers who generally require higher quality milk. So it was essential to know it was made from the best quality milk, not whatever they could get for the lowest price.
The heavy processing of most whey protein made it too far from being a whole food to be a good protein powder choice, but we wanted the benefits of whey protein.
Good whey protein comes from happy, grass-fed cows!
In our mind, a good whey protein would be:
Native, made from fresh milk, not a byproduct of cheese manufacturing.
Use the minimal amount of gentle processing and drying possible.
Be cold filtered.
It should be made by the company selling it, not just a bulk protein powder made by one of the massive suppliers, with a pretty label slapped on it and a good story.
This was a big one, as almost no companies manufacture their whey protein.
Sourced from small, family farms, so that traceability could be established. We wanted the company to have a good relationship with, actually know their farmers, and pay them a fair price for their milk.
Whey should be made with grass-fed milk from cows treated well, spending their days outside in the sun, grazing on rich pastures, and doing happy cow things.
It would have no sweeteners, thickeners, gums, fillers, artificial and “natural” flavorings, just whole foods for flavoring.
Be as close to milk as possible while retaining much of the beneficial fats and other compounds naturally present.
Taste good and mix well.
That's an extensive list, but it’s what we felt was necessary to make a whey protein that we could be proud of.
Well, that’s it for part two. Head over to part three to find out which protein powders checked all of our boxes.
You made it to the end of part two. You deserve another doggo high five! Head over to part three and get another one.