Beliefs about nutrition and supplements are as polarized as American politics. That being said, we can all agree on these two things:
- Adequate protein intake is vital to supporting performance and recovery when training and that natural
- Whole foods are better than processed foods
Enter the protein powder industry. An industry built on processed products that offer the convenience of a scoop, splash and shake way of increasing protein intake.
But how processed are protein shakes really? What are the detriments and even benefits to processing for athletic performance, and if you are trying to minimize processed foods in your diet, what are your best options?
To answer these questions, we must consider the following:
- How are protein powders made
- The potential effects of processing
- The bi-products of processed foods
1. How proteins are made and processed
Plant protein: No surprise, plant protein comes from plants (usually a mixture of pea, rice, quinoa, flax, hemp and many others), and is dried and ground into a powder form. They can be processed in different ways, but all are chemically intensive. Usually the process involves using solvents, chemicals or enzymes to dissolve the protein and then a series of processes to extract it. After this, it is spray dried into a powder and then flavouring is added to it.
Whey protein: Whey protein comes from milk, which goes through a heating (pasteurization process). Then, cheese making microorganisms are added and it gets cooked and separated into cheese curds and whey. The whey is then filtered, spray dried, and finally flavoured so it tastes a little better in your smoothies. Note that Casein, a slower absorbing protein, is made in a similar fashion from milk.
Egg protein: Egg protein comes from, you guessed it, eggs, which are filtered and dried into a powder. Egg whites can also be separated from the yolks and then filtered and dried. This has the added benefit of retaining most of the high quality protein, but losing the cholesterol. Egg proteins tend to be the least processed of the three main types.
Protein powders can be further processed to increase their protein content and rate of absorption.
This is the name given to protein extracted from a source. Whey protein concentrate is what is created by filtering whey from cheese making.
This is the name given to powders that have undergone a further filtering process to take out impurities, leaving a purer protein. They tend to absorb a little quicker and contain a higher purity of protein
This is when enzymes are used to break up proteins into much smaller chunks which can then be absorbed at a very fast rate by the body.
To date mainly whey proteins are found in isolate and hydrolysate form. There is now one egg white protein isolate on the market, and initial tests on an egg white protein hydrolysate show it to be as fast absorbing as whey hydrolysates.
2. The Potential Effects of Processing
There are a number of effects processing foods has both on your food and ultimately your body in terms of health, recovery and performance
Processing usually makes food easier for the body to absorb. Where processed sugar products are an unwanted example of this it may be a good thing when it comes to protein. In fact research shows that consuming protein during or after training (and it seems to be any source of protein) will increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Whey protein hydrolysate, the most processed form, has shown the highest rate of MPS for example.
Where it’s then easy to conclude that the more processed means you’ll develop as an athlete quicker, this is where the research gets muddy. To date there’s far more research showing that it doesn’t seem to matter.
Another thing to note is that ultra-fast absorbing protein products will cause insulin level to rise. This is a GOOD thing if you’re recovering from an exercise bout, but if you aren’t… well you know the rest.
Another anecdotal consideration here is stomach sensitivity. Many protein shakes are associated with stomach issues, and this may be due to their processing and absorption rate.
- More processed proteins means faster absorption - but the benefit of this on performance is currently uncertain.
- You may want to stick to less processed products if you’re consuming protein shakes at any time other than during or after training - or if your stomach lining can be a bit sensitive.
Plant based and whey protein powders become more bitter as they are processed. This means that sweetening agents and other flavor masking additives are usually used to make them palatable.
This has been the biggest challenge in the protein supplement market over the last 20 years.
Where sweeteners have potential, they come with their own issues. For active individuals, organic cane sugar is an option in terms of taste - especially as carbohydrates are also vital for muscle recovery post-exercise - but this isn’t desirable to those wanting to lose weight or worried about their overall sugar intake.
One potential candidate here though is egg protein. Where egg proteins are far less processed in general, they come with the issue of tasting like egg, which doesn’t go down well in a shake. They also froth up like meringue.
This could be changing however, with new egg white protein isolate technology providing a raw powder that doesn’t have a bitter taste. Egg whites are absorbed at a real food rate which is slower than processed whey.
We have been working with this technology recently and have a first iteration of the product here.
- Processing makes protein bitter, so more additives are needed
- New technology is starting to yield potential alternatives that need less additives.
3. The Bi-Products of Processing protein products
There are additional downsides to protein processing, including various chemical toxins as bi-products.
Three bi-products that can result from processing include:
- Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines (HAAs): These are cancer causing chemicals caused by the damage of proteins under high heat and processing.
- Chloropopanols: These bad boys are also carcinogens and come from protein getting broken down during manufacturing or processing.
- Nitrosamines: These are carcinogens that come from processing things like processed cheese, meat products, cured or smoked meats. They’re found in foods that were dried, cured or preserved.
The list goes on, and the true risk of ingesting these bi-products is likely minimal, but the bottom line is the more whole foods you can eat, and the fewer processed foods you consume, the better.
- Processing protein may leave unwanted bi-products in your shake
How this information should influence your buying decisions:
1. The downside to less processed protein products is that they are less pure and slower to absorb. This could impact the potential performance benefit, but not all research backs this up.
2. More processing means more additives to mask taste
3. There are potential bi-products of protein processing that you may want to avoid
4. Emerging technology is promising less processed protein products that are high quality and simple.