One of the most common questions from newcomers to Paleo is some version of “is protein powder allowed?” or “which protein powder is the best?” This is always an interesting question to get from people who are otherwise extremely dedicated to unprocessed whole foods, because protein powder is one of the most refined, processed foods out there! What sugar is to fruit, whey protein is to dairy: it’s a purified extract of a single macronutrient, not a whole food. So what’s so special or different about protein powder that it gets a pass from the processed-foods rule?
The cynic’s answer would be marketing. The people who make this stuff have very successfully associated it in our minds with everything from weight loss to muscle gain to ordinary good health. But all of these associations just exist to sell products. There’s nothing special about the protein in protein powder; it’s the same protein that you’d get from anywhere else, just marked up and sold with a cool-sounding brand name. Humans were doing just fine before protein powder appeared in the 1950s, and we can continue to do just fine without it.
The cynic has a couple of very good points. Protein powder really is very heavily advertised – probably because carbs and fat are still both in the doghouse of nutrition, so protein is the only “good” macronutrient left. Protein sells. But the advertising deceptively implies that you need a very high amount of protein in your diet, and that you’re unlikely to get enough from real foods. The reality is that, you really don’t need mass quantities of protein to lose fat or gain muscle. Most Americans – even the ones eating a carb-heavy, grain-based diet – get plenty of protein for their needs. Except for athletes competing in the most demanding sports, a healthy adult can get plenty of protein from whole foods alone, without needing any kind of supplemental shake.
But even granted that you theoretically don’t need protein powder, you might argue that it’s justified just on the grounds of convenience. Sure, there’s nothing special about the powder, but it’s just a lot easier to drink a shake after your workout than it is to go home and grill up a chicken breast. In other words, maybe it’s not necessary, but is there anything really wrong or unhealthy about it? Couldn’t protein powder be a reasonable compromise between a Paleo diet and a modern lifestyle?
There’s no denying that a high-quality protein powder is better than a candy bar. But “better than a candy bar” is not the Paleo standard for “healthy”! Unfortunately, there really are some problems with protein powder that make it more than just an expensive but harmless substitute for an actual meal.
Meet the Protein Powders
Here’s a quick introduction for anyone who isn’t on the protein powder train, or who just picks up the cheapest bottle without really looking at the ingredients (if you’re a protein powder pro, you can skip right down to the next section).
Protein powder can be refined from just about any food that contains some protein – even a very small amount. The most common choices are:
- Soy protein
- Pea protein
- Brown rice protein
- Hemp protein
- Other vegan protein powders (quinoa, amaranth, fruit…you can extract at least some protein from pretty much anything.)
- Milk proteins
- Whey protein concentrate: reasonably cheap, but the least pure (for example, it usually has some lactose still in it), and thus the most likely to cause bloating or other stomach discomfort. 30-90% protein by weight.
- Whey protein isolate: a step up from whey concentrate (and correspondingly more expensive). 90+% protein by weight.
- Whey protein hydrolysate: the highest-quality whey; it’s basically “pre-digested” before it ever hits your mouth, so it’s very hypoallergenic and least likely to cause digestive side-effects.
- Casein protein: much more likely to be allergenic, since casein is the main protein in milk that people react to.
- Complete milk protein (casein and whey): a blend of both.
- Egg white protein
Whey is by far the most common choice among non-vegan athletes, since it’s cheap and effective. For Paleo purposes, whey is a gray area food, since it’s derived from dairy – but on the other hand, if you get a high-quality whey protein, most of the potential irritants and allergens in the dairy are filtered out. So there’s at least room to debate whether whey protein has a place in a Paleo diet.
Protein supplements are most commonly used post-workout, to get an immediate boost of protein without needing to go home and cook. It’s not that the powder itself is superior to real food; it’s just more convenient. Or they’re used as meal replacements throughout the day, especially for bodybuilders who are deliberately trying to get a calorie surplus, but struggling to afford enough calories from whole foods.
So assuming that you’re thinking about a Paleo-friendly protein powder, what might be the downsides of this convenience factor? What’s the price you pay for getting your protein in processed form, instead of as part of a meal?
The Problems with Protein Powder: Junk Ingredients
One of the biggest problems with protein powders isn’t the protein itself; it’s all the junk ingredients that get thrown in alongside the protein. Just because the bottle says “protein from egg whites” doesn’t mean the egg whites are the only thing in there!
Just for example, take a look at what you’re getting in a jar of chocolate Muscle Milk (32 grams of protein per 2-scoop serving):
Protein blend (calcium sodium caseinate, milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate, whey protein concentrate, lactoferrin, l-glutamine, taurine), maltodextrin, alkalized cocoa powder, sunflower oil, soluble corn fiber, canola oil, crystalline fructose, medium chain triglycerides, natural and artificial flavors, dicalcium phosphate, less than 1% of: potassium chloride, inulin, magnesium oxide, potassium bicarbonate, acesulfame potassium, soy lecithin, DL-alpha tocopheryl acetate, ascorbic acid, sucralose, ferrous fumarate, Vitamin A palmitate, niacinamide, zinc oxide, copper gluconate, D-Calcium pantothenate, L-Carnitine, cholecalciferol, pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, chromium chloride, folic acid, biotin, potassium iodide, cyanocobalamin.
Maltodextrin is an artificial sweetener. So is sucralose. Sunflower and canola oil are PUFA-rich seed oils. “Natural and artificial flavors” could be pretty much anything. And then there’s the soy and the corn, neither of which are anything you should be eating. You could probably find candy bars with less junk in them than this!
Of course, it’s possible to get a better quality protein than Muscle Milk. But you actually have to do quite a bit of searching to make it happen – and a high-quality protein powder is likely to be much more expensive than the cheap stuff, to the point where chicken breast is a significant savings.
The Problems with Protein Powder: Unregulated Supplements
The junk ingredients that are on the label are bad enough, but in fact they might be the least of your worries: the junk ingredients that aren’t on the label are potentially even worse.
In the United States, we’re used to the idea that food package labels are an accurate description of what’s actually in the box. Sure, in the past there were horror stories about chalk + water getting sold as “milk,” or colored margarine marketed as “butter,” but these days we have a whole regulatory apparatus set up specifically to prevent that!
That’s true for foods, but protein powders are technically not foods, but supplements. And the ingredients in supplements are not regulated at all. Unless you have a chemistry lab in your basement, you have no guarantee that the label accurately describes the real contents of that bottle.
Consumer Reports found that a little troubling, so they tested 15 protein drinks to see what was actually in them. And their findings indicated that three of the products contained dangerously high levels of arsenic, cadmium, and/or lead. These contaminants are all heavy metals that can accumulate and damage organs, and brain tissue. If sold in California, eight of the 15 would be required by law to have specific warning labels (those warnings that say “this product is known to the state of California to cause cancer” – that’s not because people in California are magically more prone to getting cancer; it’s because California has stricter labeling laws).
This article details some more issues with protein supplement quality. In one test, 31% of the products tested did not actually match their label claims; most notably, two contained potentially dangerous amounts of lead, and one actually contained only a small fraction of the protein on the label. Other tests as recently as 2007 found that 25% of protein powders contained “low levels of steroid contaminants” and 11% contained other stimulants not listed on the label. Some powders were so heavily contaminated that athletes taking them failed doping tests. So in other words, if you feel like your protein powder enhances your performance you might be right – but it’s not necessarily because of the protein!
It’s not only the unregulated ingredients that might be a safety hazard, either. Supplement companies still do have to conform to some manufacturing standards, but check out this 2011 FDA investigation report, describing what inspectors found inside the facilities of a protein powder factory. It’s so cringe-inducing it deserves to be quoted directly:
…during an FDA inspection of the defendant’s facility in December 2008 and January 2009, FDA investigators observed a dead rodent - cut in half- on a blender motor platform; a dead rodent, surrounded by rodent excreta pellets in an area used to store near-finished product; and, on two occasions, a live rodent running through the blending room. Additionally, the complaint alleged that investigators observed bags of raw ingredients that were gnawed through by rodents and covered in rodent urine and excreta pellets.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of protein powder manufacturers are trying to make a highly processed non-food product as cheaply as possible: corners are going to be cut, and it’s very difficult to tell the good stuff from the bad. That's not to say they're all like this; there certainly are some companies that make the effort to produce a high-quality product, but if you’re going to entrust your precious health to a protein powder manufacturer, make sure to do a lot of research before you choose. Try to get something that’s been independently tested, at the very least.
The Problems with Protein Powder: Meal Replacements?
Another problem with protein powders isn’t really the powder itself: it’s how people use them. Protein supplements are supplements. They’re supposed to be an addition to your diet, not a replacement for other foods. A bodybuilder who’s using protein powder to get more calories in addition to 3-4 daily meals is doing this right. But dieters trying to lose weight often use protein powders as meal replacements instead of supplements (most commonly, protein powder for breakfast, with real food at lunch and dinner).
This is very unhealthy, because if you’re eating a calorie-restricted diet, you’re already at risk for nutrient deficiency just because you aren’t eating a lot of food. So everything you eat should be as nutrient-dense as possible. Protein powders, unfortunately, don’t fit the bill.
The high-quality ones without a lot of additives have barely any micronutrients at all. They’re just protein. So every calorie you get from your protein powder is a calorie that could have been accompanied by some important nutrients, but wasn’t.
The low-quality powders do often have a kind of vitamin supplement included, but like all low-quality supplements, it’s not as effective as you’ll think. For example, take another look at the nutrition facts from the Muscle Milk linked above. You’ll notice that it displays a lot of vitamins and minerals as well. This might make you think that it’s a reasonably good replacement for a meal – after all, there’s some protein, some fat, some carbs, and some vitamins, right? What else does a meal need?
Not so fast. These vitamins aren’t what you’d be getting from a proper meal, because whey protein is not real food. Just to take a look at two of the ingredients:
- Magnesium oxide: this is presumably where the “magnesium” is from, but magnesium oxide is the least absorbable form of magnesium around (it’s also the cheapest, which is probably why they picked it). That magnesium won’t do you any good if your body isn’t absorbing it, and with magnesium oxide, it probably isn’t.
- Folic Acid: folic acid is an artificial supplemental form of Vitamin B9 (folate). And while folate is very good for you, folic acid just isn’t the same. So scratch the B9 off the list of “benefits” as well.
In other words, this is protein + a bargain-basement multivitamin, and a cheap, one-size-fits-all multivitamin is not the way you want to be getting your nutrients. Just because the label lists a certain amount of nutrients doesn’t mean it’s a reasonable substitute for actual food.
The bottom line: protein powder should never be a meal replacement. It’s a calorie supplement at best. If you don’t need a calorie supplement, you shouldn’t even be considering it.
The Problems with Protein Powder: Insulin Response
Most of us think of “insulin” as being related specifically to carbs, but did you know that protein also sets off high as high an insulin response as carbohydrates? Whey in particular is bad news here: it seems to be the most insulin-producing protein in milk. In this study, the insulin response to whey protein was 90% higher than the insulin response to white bread (which is already an insulin disaster). That study was for whey protein eaten alongside carbohydrates (the way you’ll find it in many workout supplements and shakes); this experiment found similar results for eating the protein by itself. In other words, you can’t get around this by picking a super-clean whey protein without any carbohydrates: the insulin response still happens.
If you eat milk or a dairy product as a whole food, this response isn’t so noticeable, because you’re not getting as much whey and because the fat in the milk helps blunt the insulin response. But if you carefully extract just the whey and take a huge dose of that all at once, the insulin response is pretty extreme.
Just to be clear, this isn’t necessarily a damning criticism. Insulin by itself isn’t actually a bad thing; you need it for all kinds of jobs like fueling your muscles and allowing them to grow bigger and stronger (which, after all, is exactly what you want from a protein powder). But the extreme insulin secretion in response to whey protein is a sign that this is a highly refined – artificially refined – food product, not a whole food. It’s a sign that you should be very careful about whether or not your body can really handle it.
One Problem Not to Worry About: Denatured Proteins
One very common objection to protein powders is that the proteins get denatured from the heat. This is true – but the problem with this as an objection is that everything denatures proteins, including ordinary cooking. Even if you eat your meat raw, your own body will denature the proteins – because that’s how you digest them. So of all the reasons to avoid protein powders, this one is really the least compelling.
The Convenience Factor
Even if denatured proteins don’t factor into your conclusions, it’s pretty clear that protein powder is less than a health food. From the contamination issues to the insulin response to the nutrient poverty when you compare it to whole food, protein powder just isn’t that great.
Protein powder enthusiasts don’t like this conclusion very much. OK, they say, maybe it isn’t the healthiest thing in the whole wide world, but what am I supposed to do after my workout? Even if protein from real food is just as effective and a lot better for me, I can’t exactly fire up a grill in the middle of the gym and throw on some chicken breasts!
True, but that doesn’t mean your options are protein powder or starvation. It’s perfectly possible to bring real food to the gym with you and simply eat it right after your workout. Some options:
- Can of tuna, sardines, or other fish.
- Hard-boiled eggs (they’ll keep just fine for a few hours in your gym bag).
- Salami or another cured meat.
- Pre-cooked chicken breast or other meat (this will also keep for a few hours with no risk).
Alternatively, you could get even more radical and start to question the wisdom of guzzling down a huge whack of protein right after your workout in the first place. This article reviews the evidence to date on post-workout protein and carb consumption, and concludes that there’s actually a lot of flexibility in optimal refeeding times, especially if you had an adequate pre-workout meal. Maybe it’s time to end protein’s reign as the unchallenged king of fitness nutrition, and relax a little about how much protein we’re getting and when.
Even if you still choose to use protein powder as a concession to convenience, it’s always better to know exactly what you’re getting into, and what the potential drawbacks might be. And the hard truth really is that protein powder is a way of prioritizing convenience over your health. There’s nothing special about the protein in powder form that makes it more effective than protein from foods, and it’s probably not even that important to get it in right after your workout. And protein powder has a lot of substantial drawbacks in return for its portability, especially the fact that you don’t actually have any reliable way to know what’s in it!
So if you decide that sports performance is so important that you’re willing to take a minor health drawback in exchange, that’s your choice. But if you’re taking powder because you think it’s healthy, or because you just need protein, eat some real food: it’s just as effective, safer, and probably cheaper.