Let’s Talk About Protein Powders



One of the most common questions I get asked is about my thoughts on protein

Image: womenshealthmag.com

Image: womenshealthmag.com

powders. Do I use them? What brands do I recommend? Today we will talk about the following topics:

  • Uses for protein powder
  • What to look for
  • Whey protein vs plant-based protein

As you all know I am an advocate of whole food as much as possible. However, I am also the first one to admit that we all need quick nutritional boosts as much as possible, and in a way that fits in with our budgets and our busy schedules. Protein powders can fit this bill, as there are so many ways to use them to supplement what you are already eating.


Here are a number of ways that protein powders can benefit you:

  • As a quick snack
  • As a pre- or post-workout drink
  • As an addition to breakfast to curb appetite and keep blood sugar stable
  • As an enhancement to baked goods (you can add protein powder to muffins and loaves)
  • As a smoothie booster any time of day

You can get really creative with protein powder.

As with any supplements though, and as a general rule, the general rule is QUALITY, QUALITY, QUALITY! It must be from a whole food source as much as possible and should not have loads of unnecessary ingredients such as sweeteners, chemicals, additives, thickeners etc.

Now let’s talk about whey protein vs plant-based protein powders.

Whey Protein

Whey protein is dairy (cow’s milk)-based and is probably the most popular type of protein powder. When you look at protein powder advertisements, or if you look around health food stores or sports nutrition stores, most protein powders sold are whey-based.

There are a few of common misconceptions about whey protein such as:

  • Only whey protein can help you build muscle and / or lose weight.
  • It is the best kind of protein.

The UNFORTUNATE truth is that most whey protein powders being sold commercially are very poor quality!

  1. They contain artificial sweeteners (often as one of the top ingredients!) as well as lot of other artificial ingredients you do not want to consume.
  2. They have been very heavily processed at high temperatures, making them very difficult to digest. Many whey protein users complain of bloating and poor digestion, and this is the reason why.
  3. They can contain risky amounts of heavy metals (cadmium / lead / arsenic etc.) that can lead to kidney damage due to poor manufacturing practices.

So when we talk about quality, what should you look for in a whey protein? It should be:

  • Sourced from grass-fed cows (because you don’t want to be ingesting protein from grain-fed / feedlot-raised cows who have been quite ill during their lifetime, leading to poor quality meat and dairy)
  • Raw (not overheated)
  • Free of artificial ingredients. An example of a brand with good quality ingredients is Mirrabooka Protein which only has the following ingredients: Whey Protein Concentrate, natural cacao powder and stevia (I am not a huge fan of stevia but this ingredient list is way better than what you would usually see in a normal protein powder). To quote: “Mirrabooka is 100% Australian cold filtered whey protein from grass-fed, free-range cows. There are no pesticides or herbicides used on the grass where the cattle graze and if the grass gets sparse, the cattle are only fed hay – never grains.”

If your whey protein powder has an ingredient list longer than this, ditch it. You seriously don’t need anything more in a protein powder’s ingredient list. Those ingredients are jeopardising your efforts to gain muscle / lose weight / get healthy by creating inflammation in your body.

More than whey protein, I actually recommend high-quality hydrolysed collagen to my clients as it is a a much easier to digest animal protein form. Collagen’s amino acid profile (primarily glycine, proline, glutamic acid (not to be confused with monosodium glutamate), arginine and alanine) is healing to the gut, builds lean muscle, supportive of detoxification pathways, and are highly anti-inflammatory. Wow! Again, it is hard to find good quality stuff but my favourite is Great Lakes (which is made from grassfed cows) and I purchase mine directly from the Paleo Cafe. It is also available on iHerb.com.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

I myself prefer plant-based alternatives as I do not tolerate dairy very well. Naysayers usually say that plant based proteins are less absorbable by the body, and are not “complete” proteins in the sense that not all plant-based sources contain all 9 amino acids essential to the human body. Meat, eggs and dairy are all complete protein sources, while some plant foods are not complete. However, if you regularly eat quality animal products as part of your diet and also use a variety of plant-based proteins, then you don’t need to worry.

Bio-availability wise, whether it’s whey or plant-based, absorption of nutrients depends on so many factors: your gut health, how much enzymes your body produces to digest protein, your age etc. So again, best to go for a quality protein option in the context of a whole-food based diet.

If you choose to go for a plant-based option, again the focus is on quality. Here’s what to look for:

  1. Avoid artificial sweeteners, preservatives, thickeners (such as soy lecithin), and anything that does not sound like a whole food
  2. Organic ingredients – best to stay organic as much as possible to avoid a higher chemical footprint from pesticides
  3. Sprouted / fermented ingredients – I love protein powders which include sprouted grains (such as sprouted brown rice protein or sprouted quinoa) as it aids digestibility and it means that you are neutralising the physic acid in grains which makes it difficult for you to digest minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc.

Quinoa and inca inchi proteins are actually complete proteins with all essential amino acids, however they are more difficult to find. Pea, rice, and hemp protein powders are your best bet, and feel free to use blends of more than a few plant-based proteins. My personal favourite is VitalProtein Chocolate. I’m currently trying Michelle Bridges’ new Chocolate Protein Blend with Ancient Grains, but it’s not gluten free and not for coeliacs. My favourite is Garden of Life’s Raw Meal in Chocolate Cacao Flavour. It’s got a longer ingredients list but each ingredient is great!

It includes raw organic sprouted high protein grains (brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat), organic sprouted lentils / adzuki bean, organic flax seed sprout, high protein chlorella / organic alfalfa grass, probiotics to add gut friendly bacteria, as well as digestive enzymes to help digest the protein, organic fruit, natural chocolate…. you get the drift! :)

Another good option is NutraOrganics. They do add extra calcium which I don’t see the need for but in general it’s a great mix of healthy ingredients: Certified Organic Sprouted Pea Protein Isolate, Certified Organic Cacao Powder, Certified Organic Whole Rice Milk Powder, Certified Organic Sprouted Whole Rice Protein Isolate, Flaxseed Meal, Aquamin (Lithothamnion calcareum) – Natural Calcium Source, Bio-Fermented Sprout Blend (Mung Beans, Brown Rice, Red Lentils, Chick Peas, Linseed, Alfalfa Seed, Millet, Quinoa, Filtered Water), Natural Cacao Extract, Chia Seed Meal, Apple Pectin, Certified Organic Wholefood Herbal Extract Blend (Certified Organic Curry, Guava, Lemon, Amla, Holy Basil & Annatto), Natural Sweetener (Thaumatin), High Vitamin D Mushroom Powder.

Supplementation is definitely an area where you want to keep it as high quality as possible because you do NOT want to be adding a product to your diet that contains ingredients that will make you sick, not healthy. If in doubt, choose whole-food based options as described above. 

I hope that I was able to answer some of your questions today.

Do share… Are you using a protein powder right now? I’d love to hear from you.

In health,

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3 Comments on Let’s Talk About Protein Powders

  1. Theresa brink
    October 14, 2014 at 9:46 am (5 years ago)

    Hi Agnes
    Can you please tell me your thoughts on herbalife formula 1 and the shakeology shakes. Thanks Theresa

  2. Indrani Kapur
    November 4, 2015 at 2:12 am (4 years ago)

    Hello Agnes, thank you for your article on protein powders; I found it very informative. My husband and I have been taking the Vital Protein Powder (Vanilla flavour) in a smoothie, mixed with berries, and rice milk, for about two years. While I experienced a general sense of wellbeing, I did feel that the smoothie was somewhat heavy for my digestive system.
    While we were overseas, my husband and tried a protein powder
    with ingredients that included sprouted grains.
    We noticed the difference almost immediately; gone was the feeling of heaviness. From now on, we will include a protein powder in our smoothie, which has sprouted grains in the list of ingredients, as it is easier on our digestive systems. Cheers, IK

    • applebiteswholisticnutrition
      January 16, 2016 at 10:13 am (4 years ago)

      Hi Indrani – apologies for the super late response! Your comment got lost in all the spam comments that my website was filtering out. I actually plan to update this post as I have found some new brands I can recommend. And yes, definitely, one of them contains sprouted / bio-fermented plant based protein. I am totally loving the Beauty Chef Protein Powders right now for their fermented content, probiotics, green tea powder and other antioxidants. It really is a fabulous product. Check it out and see how you go with it. Agree that sprouting / fermentation make protein powders (and other foods too) infinitely easier to digest. Take care.


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