Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Feb

Protein Powders: How Do They Measure Up?

protein powderLast week’s whey protein post generated a ton of great questions. I’m going to try to get to as many as I can today, and I’ll include information on alternative protein powders at the end. As always, let me know if I miss anything and I’ll try to rectify that in the future.

What about oxidized cholesterol? Aren’t most whey protein concentrates exposed to significant amounts of heating that oxidizes the cholesterol?

Oxidized cholesterol is potentially dangerous. In fact, along with Ancel Keys’ fudging of the saturated fat intake data, it was the oxidized cholesterol-fed rabbit model that jumpstarted the crusade against fat and cholesterol. Undamaged dietary cholesterol wasn’t atherosclerotic; oxidized dietary cholesterol was the stuff that contributed to arterial plaque (feeding pure cholesterol to an obligate herbivore played a part, too) in the rabbit.

Depending on how whey protein concentrate is processed, some of its cholesterol is oxidized. The higher the temperature used, the greater the oxidation. Sounds horrible, right? Not so fast. The average serving of whey protein concentrate contains 30 mg of cholesterol. Let’s assume every last milligram of that is oxidized – sounds pretty terrible, right? Maybe not. Consider the average egg, which contains 220 mg of cholesterol. If you scramble that egg, breaking the yolk and exposing it to oxygen and heat, a significant portion of the cholesterol may be oxidized. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been known to put away half a dozen eggs in a single sitting. Granted, I usually fry mine in butter and try to preserve the structure of the yolk (partly because it tastes better, and partly to dip my bacon), but I’d wager that anyone who eats cooked eggs on a regular basis eats some small amount of oxidized cholesterol, too. Even if just a tiny fraction of that 220 mg/egg cholesterol is oxidized, it’s comparable to the amount you’re getting from a whey protein shake every now and then.

I’m not too concerned with it, personally. We already know that regular egg consumption has a net positive effect on blood lipids, including levels of highly oxidative small, dense LDL. We also know that whey protein supplementation decreases VLDL, at least in rats, and that lactoferrin, a whey protein concentrate component, appears to reduce LDL oxidation. Even if you’re consuming a modicum of oxidized dietary cholesterol from the occasional scoop of whey protein power, the benefits – including increased lean mass, better recovery from strength training, as well as a reduction in atherogenic lipids – seem to outweigh any potential negatives. Additionally, when we consume oxidized cholesterol in the bioreactor that is the stomach (at a very low pH) we may also be mitigating some of the potential harmful effects of oxidized cholesterol.

Is grass-fed whey protein worth the extra cost?

I don’t think so. If ethical concerns are your primary reasons for eating grass-fed beef and dairy, it might make sense to shell out the extra dough for grass-fed whey powder, but if you’re drawn to it for the health benefits, don’t bother. There really aren’t any. Think about why we prefer pastured animal products in the first place – favorable fatty acid profiles, more fat-soluble vitamins, cleaner, better-tasting meat (once you get used to beef tasting like beef). Why do we take protein powder? For the protein. We aren’t expecting incredible flavor, vast amounts of vitamins, or healthy fats; we just want some fast-acting protein. Feel free to use grass-fed whey protein, but don’t think it’s doing anything special. You’re better off buying grass-fed meat (and dairy) instead.

When’s the best time to take whey protein, if I’m looking for increased protein synthesis and muscle recovery?

I generally don’t worry about meal timing too much, but if you do, take your whey protein within a half hour post-workout. Your muscles will be insulin sensitive and primed for nutrients and glycogen, so the insulinogenic release from the whey will be a boon.

Other Proteins

Of course, whey isn’t the only protein powder around. It’s my personal favorite for a few reasons (the anti-atherogenic qualities, the fast absorption, the positive effects on lean mass development), but a number of you asked about other sources, so here’s some info on a few of the more popular varieties, including their respective biological values (BV).

The BV is one way to measure a protein’s “usability.” The higher the BV, the greater the proportion of available protein that can be synthesized by the body’s cells. Higher BVs also indicate a greater amount of essential amino acids – those amino acids that the body cannot synthesize or convert on its own and must instead obtain from the diet. Whey protein concentrate, for example, has a biological value of 104, while isolate has a BV of 100. Milk itself? 91. Beef? 80. You want a high biological value in your powders especially, since their only reason for existing is to provide a quick, easy influx of dietary protein. Interestingly, BV goes down with greater protein intake. Whey’s BV of 104 is at intakes of 0.2g/kg; it drops to around 70 at 0.5g/kg. While this isn’t really an issue for a PBer who uses shakes sparingly as supplements and gets most of his or her protein from whole foods, it might dissuade one from getting all their protein from powder.

Note, though, that biological value does not refer to the amount of protein in the powder; it only refers to the usability of the protein in the powder. A particular powder might be 60% protein, and the biological value would tell you exactly how much of that 60% is usable by the body. Different powders have different protein contents. Hemp protein, for example, is often about 50% protein, but it varies by the manufacturer. A quick glance at the nutrition facts should clue you in.

There’s also the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which is the method by which the World Health Organization evaluates protein value. It’s a newer model, and it’s based on the amino acid requirements of humans, specifically children. Most protein powders (and their consumers) stick with the BV, but the PDCAAS is gaining in popularity. Whey protein (both isolate and concentrate) has an optimum PDCAAS of 1.

Casein Protein

BV – 77

PDCAAS – 1

Derived from that other variety of milk protein, casein protein powder doesn’t absorb as quickly as whey. It’s a complete protein with the full range of amino acids (including ample amounts of glutamine, which transports nitrogen to tissue), just like whey, but it’s potentially far more problematic because of the autoimmune/allergen issue. Those with dairy allergies should probably avoid it. Bodybuilders swear by casein; they dig it for the slow absorption rate and tend to take it before bedtime. One (industry funded) study found that casein was inferior to whey protein in terms of body composition and muscular strength outcomes, so I wouldn’t replace whey with casein just yet. There may be some benefit to taking both, though, seeing as how both casein and whey are a package deal in nature. Milk is certainly a popular post-workout recovery drink, and it contains both casein and whey.

Egg White Protein

BV – 100

PDCAAS – 1

Egg white protein powder is another highly bioavailable protein choice. In fact, it’s so bioavailable that it represents the BV against which all others are compared (that’s why whey can have a BV exceeding 100). All the amino acids are represented. If you’re concerned about oxidized cholesterol, stay away from whole egg protein powder. You may be able to get a hold of a minimally processed whole egg powder with very little oxidation, but you’ll probably end up spending a ton of money. Just eat actual eggs or stick with egg white powder instead. The Paleo Diet blog recommends egg white protein powder for those with autoimmune disease, but it’s worth noting that egg whites themselves can be rather potent allergens, so use caution.

Pea Protein

BV – 65

PDCAAS – 0.69

I’m generally down on vegetarian protein powders. In my experience, they just don’t work as well as the animal-based ones. We’re not meant to get all our protein from vegetable sources, and our absorption of vegetable-based protein isn’t as efficient, so you have to consume far more pea protein powder just to get enough – and this stuff can get pretty pricey. No protein powder is perfectly Primal, but pea protein powder is even less so. If egg and milk protein powders are off limits for whatever reason, though, give pea protein a shot.

Rice Protein

BV – 83

PDCAAS – 0.47

Rice protein powder is created by isolating the protein from the brown rice grain. Rice is already one of the least offensive grains out there, so a smattering of rice-based amino acids will work okay. You’re not going to absorb or digest the rice protein with as much ease as with animal-based protein, but that’s fine. A reader mentioned that any form of dairy protein powder resulted in great discomfort; if that’s true, rice protein powder may be a good choice.

Hemp Protein

I was unable to get a reliable score, but the general consensus was “lower BV” than other powders.

PDCAAS – 0.46

Hemp is another option for vegetarians (or nutrition explorers). Like the other vegetarian protein powders, hemp is quite a bit lower in protein content than the animal protein-based powders (or even other vegetarian powders). It’s generally loaded with tons of fiber and a bit more fat than other powders, but fiber-free versions do exist. Again, not my first choice, and it’s fairly expensive, but hemp powder does taste relatively good.

A good rule is to choose protein powders that have both high BVs and high PDCAASs.

Do You Need Protein Powder?

Whey protein powder is proven to be effective, and it’s ubiquitous and inexpensive. Protein powder in general can help athletes recover from training, and it doesn’t have to be dairy-based, if you’re sensitive. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling (or even throwing yourself into) in alternative protein powders, and in the case of casein and egg whites, you might even see added benefits by incorporating them into your whey regimen.

But that doesn’t mean you need protein powder.

Take your time and evaluate your diet. You may find that you don’t need powder supplements. I certainly don’t need any myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a big whey shake after an intense workout session from time to time, just for the anabolic effects if not for the convenience and taste. If you’re not getting enough protein, or you can’t find the time to cook every single meal, try some protein powder. Otherwise, eat a steak.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. As I understand it, whey powder has a good bit of MSG in it. Back when I was lifting regularly and drinking lots of protein shakes, I never felt ill effects from it (but then again, neither did I feel ill effects from eating pasta and bread like I have in the past few years), but I have had 4 bouts of praying-for-death sickness as a result of eating at Chinese buffets (3 different ones, mind you).

    What’s the skinny on the MSG in whey powder? Are there brands that leave it out?

    ToddBS wrote on April 1st, 2010
    • my son is allergic to msg. he has a neurological condition that, I’m told, would benefit from use of a protein powder. unfortunately, no can do because of the “concentrate” or “isolate” in the powders. My understanding is that it’s not that the powders have “msg,” it’s that the process of concentrating or isolating the protein (isolates) creates free glutamic acids which really are the equivalent of msg.

      sambones wrote on April 2nd, 2010
      • Yes, free glutamic acids. That’s what I was thinking of. For now, I will stick with my diet of whole foods. My body seems to be much happier on it anyway.

        ToddBS wrote on April 3rd, 2010
        • I have an MSG allergy – my throat swells closed, my lips/face gets puffy and I break out in a rash. I am not at all allergic to milk. I bought organic whey protein powder, and was shocked to find that I did have a reaction. I did some research and found exactly that, the free glutamic acids in why protein kill me, even organic. I am using brown rice protein for now, but am still trying to figure out the best alternative.

          bunpoh wrote on February 28th, 2012
  2. I like whey a lot. But given that they have isolated as many as 10 different pesticides from cow’s milk, it’s no surprise that whey powders often contain pesticide residue. Sorry if you have considered this already elsewhere, but I do think it is worth addressing when discussing whey protein’s merits.

    Jo wrote on June 5th, 2010
  3. Hemp protein is more easily digestible.

    Hemp protein, while being a plant source, is actually a surprisingly complete protein. Hemp protein contains all 20 known amino acids including the 10 essential amino acids (8 in adults – 2 more are considered essential in children and seniors) our bodies cannot produce. Proteins are considered complete when they contain all 10 essential amino acids in a sufficient quantity and ratio to meet the body’s needs.

    Hemp also has an extremely good essential fatty acid profile – it contains the fatty acids in perfect balance to each other (Omega 3 and 6 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), in the near perfect ratio of 1:3 respectively).

    One of the other major benefits of hemp protein supplementation is the very high insoluble fiber content of the powder. Fiber helps keep your blood sugar stable (ideal for fat loss), not to mention helping to keep you “regular.” On the ingredient label, you’ll see just how much fiber is in hemp…ALL the carb content is fiber, making it an excellent protein for low-carb diets.

    I’m still doing my own tests on it now vs whey.

    Chase wrote on June 9th, 2010
    • Hemp protein is a delicious and nutritious supplement/addition to the diet, however it’s not the best for PWO if trying to build muscle. I’ve recently switched from using hemp in PWO shakes, it’s lacking in the AA profile to help build, specifically Leucine.

      As far as a substitute, whey yields better results, however a mix of pea and rice protein can provide a comparable AA profile for anyone who’s looking to stay away from the whey.

      theScojo wrote on January 11th, 2013
      • Haha! Interesting! I thought I was the only person in the world to blend pea and brown rice protein! (I also throw in a spoonful of hemp protein, for good measure.)

        I’ve had good luck with that blend. No gas or bloating or other side effects.

        Also, I’ll take a couple BCAA capsules before I drink my protein shake.

        Lately though, I’ve been using whey again. Life Extension has a nice offering, derived from grass-fed, happy cows from New Zealand (how can they not be happy living in New Zealand?!)

        Flatlander

        FlatlanderByTheLake wrote on February 9th, 2014
  4. Been experimenting with different protein powders since whey protein (to me) has a vomit-like taste.

    Does anybody have any more details on pumpkin seed protein powder? Ran across it at Whole Foods and am curious to know how it stacks up.

    Thanks!

    kareem wrote on January 23rd, 2011
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    vuitton wrote on September 9th, 2011
  6. What do others think of / know of / summarize of this product:

    MET-RX 38G PROTEIN BLEND EXTREME CHOCOLATE IN PACKETS (VS THEIR REGULAR CANISTER OF CHOCOLATE)

    and I am trying to figure out what it means when it says that this has over 6g of BCCAs.

    Seems nutritionally packed, though I wonder if on days I use that, should i back off on certain sups.

    I do Veggie Juicing as well (fresh) daily.

    Use organics (yeah I know this wont fall into that category)

    But after a workout it sits well on my stomach as so many of the whey goat protein hasn’t. I used half liquid/half Ice and half a packet and it yields what is like a (tastes like those evil bad for you wendy frosty from many lives ago, except not as fatty or sweet) milkshake.. quite decadent… lol.

    Sure calms what remains for that craving for ice cream.. but i have minimized my white sugar intake so much and the protein intake helps calm what remains of the dessert cravings I use to have

    Let’s see.. Its called MET-RX EXTREME CHOCOLATE IN THE PACKET FORM

    ROSE wrote on September 12th, 2011
  7. Thank you for another magnificent post. Where else could anybody get that kind of info in such an ideal way of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such info.

    Tworzenie stron www uk wrote on September 22nd, 2011
  8. To the two who were asking about making pancakes in a skillet. I am sure if you cook it too much of course some of the protein will be lost. No idea how much but it is probably negligible.

    Steve wrote on October 20th, 2011
  9. Metabolism plays an important part when striving to lose weight. A diet may be good for someone but not good for you. Luckily we are all different, and the best approach is to go to a nutritionist before starting a diet.

    Ind Serial wrote on November 1st, 2011
  10. you do your readers a great disservice in your misleading glance at hemp protein and your blase attitude toward its nutritional reality ,

    you might have mentioned that hemp protein is the only vegetable protein on earth that has a complete compliment of amino acids and that has them in beneficial ratios ,no other plant source on earth can claim That.

    it is also an seed that has some of the healthiest oils as well , outperforming seeds like linseed by meaningful amounts in bio- active oils … it is sad to see the horrible crusade against hemp , , advanced in your small way at nutrition sites like this , hemp food and oils seed and fibers and medicines and yes even its psychoactive products are one of natures , why not have the courage and intellectual honesty to say so ?

    cosinaphile wrote on November 26th, 2011
  11. I saw recently on the Weston Price foundation website, that a strong man trainer uses Kefir as his post workout protein supplement. Makes sense to me- fermented and already broken down, therefore easily digested. Also since you make it yourself you can control whether there are contaminants or not. Any thoughts? I’ve begun making my own out of the raw milk I just started sourcing for the fam. I’m trying to lose fat though and my husband says he thinks the Kefir will sabotage my goals because of a great deal of fat coming along with the useable protein for the ride? I’d love to hear thoughts on this. I’m conjuring up thoughts now of fruit, coconut milk and kefir smoothies! Sounds too good to be true!

    Holly wrote on February 7th, 2012
  12. I am currently using Jarrow Organic Brown Rice protein powder. It claims to be specially processed to have a complete amino acid profile. Can this be true?

    bunpoh wrote on February 28th, 2012
  13. What do you think of beef isolate protein powder? I am intolerant to all dairy- lactose and casein.. and egg white protein powder causes considerable stomach upset

    Paula wrote on April 4th, 2012
  14. Try almond milk with hemp and rice protein… a tasty shake it is.

    Bubbq wrote on May 19th, 2012
  15. I recently bought some hemp protein on a sort of quizzical whim since I can hardly stand the taste of Whey protein, then I was scared that I’d messed up. Good to hear its okay… however I think I’ll buy Whey again next time around since its animal based I was attracted to the aspect of fat and fiber involved as well

    Liz wrote on July 17th, 2012
  16. Anything protein that has glutamine in it is extremely bad for you. I get a newsletter every month from Dr. Blaylock, MD., a neurosurgeon who looks into certain vitamins and the affects they have on you. He says that glutamine is bad, because it inflames the brain which in turn can bring about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. He has a website and is also on Youtube if you are interested in what he has to say. He also has written in the Medical Association pamphlets. So I would definitely believe what he has to say. Hemp has the glutamine in it. I don’t know if the others do, if so, I would stop taking it.

    Linda wrote on July 30th, 2012
    • Never heard of this, could you provide a link. Thanks 😉

      theScojo wrote on January 11th, 2013
    • Neurosurgeons are just the neck line of assault in the medical quackery that is Western medicine. The guy doesn’t appear to be very healthy. He doesn’t have that vibrant glow that true healers have. You’ve been misled and are avoiding healthy things out fear and dogma that doesn’t really relate to practical reality.

      I’d rather lean towards what MMA fighters, extreme athlethes use to look the way they do, or people who aren’t selling things or being paid for their opinions on things like this neurosurgeon is.

      I’m going to do the opposite of what he says not to do, men like these are weak cowards who try to find knowledge to hide it and gain power, not to better mankind. Kansas city shuffle, tell everyone to go right when they should be going left…

      Also the fear-mongering that this guy is up to is far worse for immunity and overall health to be hating Government or whoever else is “poisoning the skies” and everything else.

      Stress kills, and hating people because of shit some idiot said on the internet is a great way to have permanent stress.

      ReadBetweenTheLines wrote on June 14th, 2015
  17. Do you think that one guy was gonna marry his weed? He seemed down right offended about he neglect his poor hemp got from Mark. Wow. Calm down buddy, all the proteins listed had a complete amino acid profile, that’s what they give you in protein powders. Thanks.

    Marshal Garner wrote on July 30th, 2012
    • I bet he could find the middle of a circle. You sir, probably can not

      ReadBetweenTheLines wrote on June 14th, 2015
  18. I don’t think you got it right regarding hemp:

    Please take a look at this scientific article:
    http://www.finola.com/Hempseed%20Nutrition.pdf

    Look at table at page 67.

    Another research shows that animal based proteins are significantly raising cholesterol level.
    There is good sci article about that too:
    http://jn.nutrition.org/content/110/8/1676.full.pdf

    David Abishay wrote on September 2nd, 2012

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