Let’s Talk Protein Powder

Protein powder is one of the most sold nutritional supplements in the world. In 2020 alone, the industry hit record numbers of $18.91 Billion in sales! With sales figures like that, it’s no wonder that I am asked a protein related question every week in the gym! Let’s break down what it is, the different types of protein used, and if it is right for you!

What is Protein Powder?

Protein powder took its’ start in the medical field in Germany during the late 1800s. It was a protein derived from the protein in milk and was formed into an odorless and tasteless powder known as “Plasmon.” 

It was advertised to have 12g of protein per teaspoon and was used to help malnourished patients recover form their ailments while not having to eat something as substantial as meat to get protein into their bodies.

During the early 1900s, a group of British businessmen attempted to sell it as a workout supplement outside of Germany in hopes of jumping on the new bodybuilding and athletic crazes that were starting to arise in the western world. Then World War 1 hit and all of that work was thrown out of the window until the war was over. 

Skip to the mid-1900s and the same company those British businessmen started is now called “Plasmon” after the original name of the powder. They had sponsored multiple athletes that were gaining popularity in the world of professional sports. Then one day they got the endorsement of Eugene Sandow, think Arnold for your grand parents era, and the sales of protein sky rocketed.

Today there are multiple companies that sell protein powders and they are all marketed as the supplement that will help you grow muscle and see gains faster! The claims further boosted by fitness instructors in nearly all areas of fitness recommending these powders and their various forms to their athletes.

Whey? Soy? Pea?

Protein powder today is much more robust in terms of protein content compared to its’ late 1800s ancestor. The average scoop of protein today will go between 20g and 30g per serving! Meaning in one scoop, you have the protein content of a 6oz piece of chicken. Yay science!!

Science has also allowed protein powders to be made of:

  • Whey (cow milk protein)
    • This is the original version (Plasmon) and still the most popular. It comes in tons of flavors and because it’s made with milk, it tastes good!
    • A specific downside to this protein is, that in an effort to out do the other competition, protein manufacturers add sugar to make their product taste better.
      • This is great for your taste buds, but not as awesome for your diet if you’re trying to get lean quickly.
  • Soy (soybean protein)
    • Soy is an excellent vegan alternative and the most common protein found at Jamba Juice (I think it’s just Jamba now, but you’re all old enough to know what I’m talking about).
    • Made from soybeans and made into a dry powder, this is awesome alternative to whey with one caveat:
      • Soy causes our bodies to produce a little bit more estrogen that normal.
        • This isn’t cause for alarm with most people. But, if you’re a bodybuilder, this may not be the protein of choice for you. 
  • Crickets (Yup. That’s what I said).
    • An up and coming superstar of the sustainable ways to get protein is a bottle of finely ground crickets.
    • While still relatively new, this is becoming a little bit more popular as new companies try to work their way into the sustainable product market.
      • The downside of this one is obvious: If you don’t like bugs, this probably isn’t for you. 
  • Peas
    • Another awesome vegan substitute, this powder doesn’t have the estrogen drawback of soy (once again, that drawback is very minor). 
    • The problem with this protein is that it is absolutely an acquired taste…
      • I took one swig of this style of protein and ran to get it out of my mouth as fast as possible…and I eat everything!
  • Collagen
    • This has to be the most advertised protein to women in the world.
    • Collagen protein is made naturally in all mammals. It makes up 1/3rd of all protein on planet Earth and it is found in our hair, skin, bones, and connective tissues (Oh boy!)
    • It is advertised mostly to women because its’ benefits tend to fall inline with the archetypes advertising companies use with targeting women.
      • Some studies have shown that Collagen protein helps with hair growth, skin elasticity, and joint health. 
      • While these traits help all people on Earth, you’ll usually see these proteins advertised with female athletes and have a pink label.
        • I only bring the sexist advertising thing up because if you have a favorite brand of supplements, this might be found in the women’s section. 
    • While all the benefits sounds awesome. It does not mix with anything very well. While the previous proteins can become part of the mixture if you stir long enough. You will always taste the grittiness of collagen.

Is Supplemental Protein Right For You?

Each of these protein powders will get the job done. They add protein to your diet and there are powders available for most dietary restrictions! 

There are just to problems that you should be aware of with these supplements:

1) What we talked about last time: The FDA isn’t very good at regulating supplements! If you are training for a sport that has regulations about performance enhancing drugs, then you need to make sure you are doing thorough research into the protein you are getting. For the average athlete, this should still be a concern as putting anything in your body you don’t know about, can be risky. Looking for a cGMP label on your protein’s packaging (or company website) is a good way to make sure that at least the manufacturing processes are up to date and inline with FDA regulation!

2) Consuming too much powdered protein in a short amount of time and/or for extended periods of time in excess can lead to the formation of kidney stones! I have seen it multiple times happen to athletes training for the CrossFit games in an attempt to recover as best they can and then they have to go to the hospital. 

As with any supplement, it is a helpful reminder that this should really only be resorted to if you aren’t able to get enough protein in your diet. Since most people that workout don’t, athletes who take these supplements tend to see more results. For instance, it is recommended that I (a 215lbs athlete with 10% body fat) eat 250g+ of protein a day. If I miss a meal, there is no way that I can make up the difference in a single day. If I do that too many days in a given amount of time, my performance in the gym suffers. Will I die? NO. I’m still getting plenty of protein to carry out everything I need to in a day. But, for my goals it makes sense to have a scoop ever now and then in a glass of water if I am running behind in my macros for the day.

So, before you go nuts on the protein train, just remember to use it as a tool and not a crutch for a less than well rounded diet. And if you do, talk to your nutritionist if you have any medical issues or require specific dietary parameters. You can always ask your coach what they use, but they cannot medically recommend anything so view like asking your foodie friend for a restaurant for a recommendation! (They can’t rate the restaurant for health code violations, but they know what tastes good from experience)!

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