What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient and is very important for our health. Proteins exist in many variations which gives them the ability to perform the following functions: wound healing and tissue regeneration, fluid and acid-base balance, protection transport, and the ability to take the role of enzymes and hormones, as well as provide energy for the body. When there is not enough quality protein intake (complete proteins), protein functions are impaired (4, 13).
What is protein powder?
Protein powders come in many forms and flavors. They can be produced from either plant or animal products. The most popular variants are whey, casein and soy powders, but you can also find powders from eggs, peas, hemp brown rice and mixed plant proteins (13).
Protein powders are very popular if not the most popular supplement. They are commonly utilized by people who regularly engage in physical activity and resistance training, such as amateur athletes, professional athletes and military personnel (1).
Whey has three variations (6).
Whey concentrate: contains low levels of fat and protein content, with a range of 30% to 90% protein content (5).
Whey isolate: highly processed in order for fat and lactose to be removed. Protein percent is 90% and higher (5).
Whey hydrolyzed: the “predigested” form of whey. The protein is deconstructed to peptides which speeds up the digestion process. It is usually used in infant formulas and medical supplements because of its digestibility and reduced allergens (5, 6).
Casein: Glutamine is the main amino acid here, which may speed up muscle recovery after exercise. It is dairy derived hence making it unsuitable for vegans and people with dairy allergies (13), the same applies to whey protein. This protein is slowly digested, so it may be preferable to be consumed before bed or fasting (13).
Plant based protein is excellent for those who are following a vegan diet, are against dairy or are lactose intolerant.
With the exception of complete proteins like soy and tofu, most plant proteins are incomplete proteins (7). That means that not all 9 essential amino acids are present. That can be fixed though by blending plant protein sources together or simply fortifying them with the necessary amino acids. Some benefits of using plant based proteins are that they contain a good amount of fiber and micro-nutrients (9).
Are there any risks or benefits for health?
Protein supplements can be a great way to gain weight and prevent muscle mass loss, especially due to age or chronic disease (9). Whey protein has also been shown to improve body weight, total fat mass and some CVD factors in overweight and obese patients (11). A systematic review on the effects of protein supplements showed that supplements didn’t result in measurable reductions in muscle damage and enhanced recovery of muscle function (1).
It should be noted that healthy adults using these supplements should be careful not to over consume them as high intake of protein can lead to disorders of many functions and increased risks, such as (10):
- Disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis
- Disorders of liver function
- Disorders of renal function
- Increased cancer risk
- Progression of coronary heart disease
Recommended protein intake is 0.8g per kg/bw per day. That’s the baseline for adults with modest levels of physical activity. Double that amount can still be considered safe but beyond that point it’s unclear (12).
People choosing to use these powders can do so before, during or after training. They can also be added to meals or drinks to make protein snacks. Although they can be pretty convenient to use, not all of them can replace a balanced meal as they lack the nutrients and vitamins that are found in quality foods, which means that potentially they can be a waste of money. A good solution to this can be the selection of high quality, high protein foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and tofu (8).
When buying supplements, remember…
Dietary supplements are not FDA approved (2), and there may always be a risk when using unregulated products. Some of these risks are the absence of an active ingredient, harmful substances, foreign objects, toxins or prescription-only pharmaceuticals. Although, when you use protein powders from big manufactures the risk is low, and you can lower the risk even more when the product has been through a recognized supplement quality assurance program (3). However, it should be noted that the risk is never entirely gone.
In conclusion, protein powder can be extracted from various sources. Protein powders can supplement one’s diet if protein consumption isn’t adequate, and can also help with improving weight and muscle mass. Over and under consumption is something that we should be aware of, as it carries its own risks. It is not a necessity and the choice of a quality meal should be preferred. When purchasing these supplements, remember to choose from credible sources and brands.
1) Pasiakos, S.M., Lieberman, H.R. & McLellan, T.M. Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 44, 655–670 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0137-7
3) Ronald J. Maughan, Quality Assurance Issues in the Use of Dietary Supplements, with Special Reference to Protein Supplements, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 143, Issue 11, November 2013, Pages 1843S–1847S, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.113.176651
4) Protein’s Functions in the Body. (2019, August 16). Retrieved May 4, 2021, from https://med.libretexts.org/@go/page/14694
6) Patel S. (2015). Emerging trends in nutraceutical applications of whey protein and its derivatives. Journal of food science and technology, 52(11), 6847–6858. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-015-1894-0
7) Gorissen, S., Crombag, J., Senden, J., Waterval, W., Bierau, J., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. (2018). Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino acids, 50(12), 1685–1695. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-018-2640-5
9) Berrazaga, I., Micard, V., Gueugneau, M., & Walrand, S. (2019). The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients, 11(8), 1825. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081825
10) Ioannis Delimaris, “Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults”, International Scholarly Research Notices, vol. 2013, Article ID 126929, 6 pages, 2013. https://doi.org/10.5402/2013/126929
11) Kamonkiat Wirunsawanya, Sikarin Upala, Veeravich Jaruvongvanich & Anawin Sanguankeo (2018) Whey Protein Supplementation Improves Body Composition and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 37:1, 60-70, DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2017.1344591
Edited by preRD intern, Lauren Gatto