Thinking Of Taking Protein Powder? You Need To Read This!

Medically reviewed by Aaron Wiegmann, MD, MS, Plastic Surgeon February 12, 2024| Written by Zenda Nel

Thinking Of Taking Protein Powder? You Need To Read This!

Walking down the supplement aisles in any Walmart; you're bound to come across rows upon rows of huge protein powder containers from different manufacturers. What you see is physical real-life proof of the popularity of protein supplements and theirmassive market share

Athletes love protein powder for its ability to build muscle and repair damaged tissue after strenuous exercise. Meanwhile, the rest of the population uses these supplements as an easy way to make sure they get enough protein or to help them lose weight. 

What is Protein Powder? 

Protein powder is a supplement that provides protein in powder form. Protein is a macro-nutrient essential for the proper functioning of the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids - which play an integral role in the growth and repair of bones and muscles. 

Protein helps in weight loss or its management, adds to muscular leanness, and minimizes muscle loss. Additionally, proteins regulate metabolism, the immune system, and brain activity.

Animal and plant-based proteins consist of about20 common amino acids. But nine of these cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through what we eat. These are called essential amino acids.

Natural sources of protein are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. These substances also form the basic ingredients of protein powders. 

So, protein powders are essentially concentrated protein processed and sold in powder form. The supplement is sold in pharmacies, stores, gyms, and online. They are mostly taken in the form of shakes, but you can also buy protein tablets and energy bars. 

Sources of Protein Powder

1. Whey Protein

Whey protein is made from the watery part of milk that separates from it during curdling - when you add vinegar or acid to milk. Since milk is a complete protein, so is the whey that originates from it. It’s also easily digested and quickly absorbed by the body.

Though people take whey protein to improve athletic performance and increase muscle strength. But there’s only limited research available on this subject. 

2. Casein Protein 

Casein protein also comes from milk. It is the substance in milk that gives it its white color. Casein is also present in yogurt and cheese, and it's also added to baby formula. It is a complete protein, but it is not as easily digested as whey protein.

Because it takes a long to digest, it helps one to feel full for a long time, which makes it popular with those who use protein powders to lose weight.

Research results on the effectiveness of casein for the improvement of athletic performance are mixed.

3. Soy Protein Isolate

Soy protein isolate is made from soybeans. Soybeans are a complete protein, and soy protein is popular with vegans and vegetarians who want to supplement their protein intake. 

Soybeans are a rich source of protein as they are 90% protein.

4. Egg Protein

Egg white powder is made with egg whites. The egg whites are separated from the yolks and then dried into a powder. Afterward, the powder is pasteurized at high temperatures, which makes it safe to take and easy to digest.

Egg white powder is highly digestible and an excellent source of protein, containing all essential amino acids.

5. Pea Protein

Pea protein is made from dried yellow peas. Yellow peas contain high-quality protein but are not 100% complete protein as they have limited amounts of the amino acid methionine.

Pea protein is a vegan-friendly protein powder used to supplement protein intake and help with building muscles and weight loss.

6. Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is made from the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp seeds are a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids. In addition, hemp protein powder contains a range of micronutrients, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Hemp protein is popular with vegans and people who can't tolerate dairy or soy products. However, protein derived from the cannabis sativa plant may be problematic.

Are Protein Powders Safe to Consume? 

There is one crucial point to remember about supplements. Unlike medicine, dietary supplements like protein powders are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has stringent requirements for the safety and risks of medicines to ensure that they have minimal side effects and are safe to take.

There is no such body that regulates the manufacture of supplements; it is left to manufacturers to ensure and guarantee that their products are safe.  In other words, when we buy supplements, including protein powder, we are at the mercy of manufacturers' integrity. It's best to do your due diligence and do research to confirm that what a manufacturer claims is true. 

Heavy Metals Found in Some Supplements

Back in 2010, a Consumer Reports study analyzed 15 protein powders and found they all had at least one sample that contained one or more of thesecontaminants: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

More recently, a 2018 study from the Clean Label Project found that many of the top-selling protein powderscontain heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. Some also contained bisphenol (BPA) - an industrial chemical used in the production of certain plastics. 

The investigators tested 134 products and established that nearly all contained at least one heavy metal and half contained BPA.

Interestingly, plant-based protein powders showed higher levels of contamination.

The investigators found that the protein powders made from plant sources like soy or hemp had about twice as much lead and much higher levels of other contaminants than products made from whey or egg whites.

Heavy metals are extremely dangerous for humans. The ingestion of heavy metals leads to serious health consequences, including cancer. 

How Do Heavy Metals Get Into Plant-based Supplements?

Some plants are bioaccumulators i.e. they are good at absorbing compounds from the soil. But this ability is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these plants can absorb useful minerals from the soil, and on the other hand, they can also absorb toxins like heavy metals.

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)is a bio-accumulator. That means that apart from the nutrients it absorbs from the soil, it also absorbs harmful compounds like heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. In fact, hemp is so good at absorbing industrial toxins that it’s currently being explored as a metal bio-remediator i.e.metal-accumulating plant to clean up soil.  

Several processes exist to remove metals from the leaves and stems of plants that carry high concentrations of cadmium, lead, or nickel. However, how do you know that the manufacturer of hemp protein powder used the best method to remove all contaminants? 

Toxins can also find their way into the roots, stems, leaves, and flowers of plants via contaminated water. 

Factors to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Protein Powder 

The first consideration is obviously to choose a protein supplement that aligns with your diet. If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, protein powders made from plant-based protein sources like soy, pea, and hemp will be suitable. Vegetarians who include dairy and eggs in their diet could also consider egg protein, whey, or casein powders.  

Beyond this basic consideration, there are several other important factors to consider: 

  1. Remember protein powder is classified as a supplement, and as such, is not regulated by the FDA. When you choose a protein supplement, confirm that the manufacturer has its products tested by a certified and independent third party, such as NSF International, Informed Choice, or the United States Pharmacopeia USP. 

A supplement should also state that the brand follows Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), which ensures that the product is what the manufacturer claims it is.

  1. Study the product label carefully to find out exactly what ingredients the product contains. A good idea is to give preference to short ingredient lists. After all, this indicates that the product doesn't contain unnecessary ingredients. 
  2. Look out for added sugar. To make the powder drinks more palatable, sugar or artificial sweeteners are often added to the protein powder. You don't need the added calories or the spike in blood sugar levels. 
  3. Consider your current health condition. If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or struggle with lactose intolerance, don't choose a protein supplement that contains lactose sugars, artificial sweeteners, dextrin, or maltodextrins. 

Similarly, if you are intolerant to gluten; make sure you don't choose a supplement that contains gluten. 

People who have kidney disease must limit their intake of protein. They can choose a powder that doesn't contain high concentrations of protein. 

What Are the Risks?

Generally, protein powders help you to build muscle, improve your sports performance, and lose or gain weight depending on your circumstances. However, there are some risks associated with either inappropriate supplements or dosage.

1. Kidney Damage

High-protein diets have been shown to damage the kidneys, leading to kidney stones, dehydration, andimpaired kidney function. The supplement itself may not be a problem, but if you take more than the recommended dose, you may be endangering your kidneys.

2. Liver Damage

As discussed earlier, some plant-based protein powders may contain contaminants that are very damaging to the liver, such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead. These substances are highly toxic and repeated ingestion of them may compromise the liver over time. 

The levels in most productsdon't pose a health threat to users. However, those who have pre-existing liver issues should consult a doctor before taking protein supplements.

Keep in mind that plant-based protein powder supplements tend to have higher levels of heavy metals in them than those derived from animal products.

3. Digestive Issues

Whey protein powders can cause digestive distress like nausea, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, heartburn, or constipation for people who have lactose intolerance. If you are lactose intolerant, consider using non-dairy protein powders, such as soy, pea, egg, or hemp protein.

4. Allergic reactions

The most likely allergy when it comes to protein powders is an allergy to cow's milk in whey and casein protein powders. 

Allergic reactions may also occur due to ingredients like soy, eggs, nuts, or gluten. It's important to check the product labels for ingredients that you may be allergic to. Also, read the labels carefully for foreign ingredients that you don't know and might have a reaction to.

5. Hormonal Effect

Many protein powders contain additives such as emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives. Research shows that these substances candisrupt the endocrine system which is responsible for making hormones. And so, prolonged use of food additives can result in hormonal imbalance.

Aside from that, food additives can also disrupt the gut microbiome.

So, a good idea is to look for protein powder products with a short ingredient list.

How Should I Approach Protein Powder Supplements?

When looking for a protein powder, the first point to consider is how much protein you need. 

The Food and Drug Administration suggests50 grams of protein per day for an adult. However, this may vary depending on age, gender, health status, and activity levels. So, most experts recommend roughly 0.8 grams per kilogram of body mass. 

That comes to about 55 grams a day for a person weighing 150 pounds. 

Many people in America consume much more than that – some 65-90 grams. 

Harvard Medical School recommends people stick to the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein intake, which is around 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men. Examples of food and their protein content are:

  • A chicken egg (6 grams)
  • A small 6-ounce tub of yogurt (18 grams)
  • A handful of nuts (4–7 grams)
  • A cup of milk (8 grams)
  • 2 ounces of cooked chicken (14 grams)

Though most people consume enough protein content on daily basis. Young females often need more proteins for their body’s maintenance. Meanwhile, people older than 70 often don’t get enough protein, often because of their diminished appetite.

But then, do you even need a protein powder supplement?

I suggest that you research these supplements, particularly if you’re either sick or underweight, an older adult with a poor appetite, or a professional athlete.

You can also fulfill your daily intake of proteins if you consume a diet rich in whole foods that include meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. After all, a balanced diet can not only keep you fit but also help you avoid food preservatives. 

But for those who seek protein powders and wondering which one to choose; I present to you: 

The Top 5 Best Protein Powders 

If you have decided to try protein powders, you might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices you face. So, we have come up with a list of five protein powders that we recommend.

The following products have all been tested by third parties for heavy metals, banned substances, and harmful ingredients, in addition to purity, potency, and labeling accuracy.

1.Organic Protein Powder Vanilla

This is a plant-based high-fiber protein powder made from pea protein. This certified organic product contains all 9 essential amino acids.

It’s a vegan-friendly product that provides 20 grams of high-quality protein per serving plus 6 grams of organic agave inulin dietary fiber. In addition, the probiotic Bacillus coagulans are added to support gut health. The powder is sweetened with organic monk fruit.

The product contains no GMO ingredients and is soy-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free.

This plant-based protein powder distinguishes itself from similar products through the addition of fiber derived from inulin and chia. After all, fiber is essential for digestive health.

2.Naked Nutrition Chocolate Whey Protein Powder

Certified by Informed Choice, Naked Whey powder comes from whey made from the milk of cows. It is a good protein supplement because it has just three ingredients. So, you can be sure that you won't ingest additives. 

The ingredients are whey protein, organic chocolate, and organic coconut sugar. 

The whey is collected from small farms in Idaho and Northern California. The high-quality whey protein concentrate that is cold-pressed to preserve the nutrients in the milk and ensure the whey contains no contaminants.

Whey protein is a superior protein source, containing all the amino acids necessary for muscle growth and repair. The nutrients in whey protein powders are easy to digest and have high bioavailability. 

Per serving of Naked Whey gives you 25 grams of protein, 5 grams of sugar, and 6 grams of amino acids.

3.Klean Athlete Klean Isolate

This high-quality whey protein is NSF-certified for athletes. And so, this doesn’t contain any heavy metals or substances banned by sport.

As for being unflavored with no extra ingredients, KLEAN Athlete’s KLEAN Isolate is the top protein powder. It only contains two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin. It has no artificial sweeteners or additives.

Compared to whey protein isolates, this product is considered superior in terms of nutrition. It’s because whey protein isolates are about 90% protein with negligible levels of carbohydrates and fats. Besides, Klean Isolate also has low lactose content, which makes it easy to digest, even for those sensitive to lactose.

Every scoop full provides 20 grams of high-quality whey protein isolate, complete with all the essential amino acids. Specifically, it contains branched-chain amino acids that help to build muscle.

Being unflavored, Klean Isolate whey protein powder doesn't have the greatest taste, but you can add it to shakes, smoothies, and baked goods that you flavor yourself. 

Another benefit of this supplement is its naturally occurring electrolyte content, which helps athletes with rehydration after practice sessions.

4.KOS Vegan Superfood Protein Powder

This protein powder is ideal for those who don't use animal products and therefore can't take whey-based protein powder. 

The protein sources of this plant-based protein supplement are peas, flax seeds, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds. Each serving provides 20 grams of protein, including all essential amino acids. 

The nutrient profile of this protein supplement is further enhanced with the addition of fruit and vegetable matter; fat from coconut milk and seeds; as well as fiber. Other supplements include minerals such as iron and zinc as well as vitamins such as B12. 

The product is made with USDA and CCOF-certified organic ingredients. Also, the product is free of gluten, dairy, soy, artificial sweeteners, colors, and GMOs. 

The product includes DigeSEB for digestive support, which may or may not be necessary. 

5.Naked Double Chocolate Pea Protein Powder

Naked Pea protein powders are made from raw yellow peas grown in the USA and Canada. 

The product is third-party tested and is certified gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and GMO-free. 

Naked Pea protein powder has a superior amino acid profile due to a special process that involves mechanical water extraction – no chemicals are used for nutrient extraction. 

This superior amino acid profile supports muscle growth and post-workout recovery. 

Pea protein is easy to digest and it is very satisfying, so taking it keeps you from getting hungry. This aspect makes the product ideal for vegans who need to resist cravings while building muscles. 

The product is subjected to independent testing to ensure it adheres to the safety standards set by the FDA.

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons for taking protein powders – maybe you want to enhance your workout performance, build muscle, or just struggle to meet your daily protein needs because of illness or a restrictive diet.

Whatever the reason, there is a protein powder that will suit your needs, whether you have any diet restrictions or not. 

We just urge you to be discerning when you take this step. Read product labels carefully to ensure that the product you are interested in has been tested by an independent third party and is certified to be free of contaminants and other harmful substances.

Also, keep in mind that if you are healthy and follow a balanced diet, it's unlikely that you’d need to take any supplements.