The Scoop on Protein Powders

By: Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D.  |  September/October 2015
Learn the science behind added proteins like soy, whey and pea protein. Plus, how to try them in your own kitchen.
Stroll through the grocery store and you’ll see a flurry of food products proudly touting their protein content. Foods like cereals and breads that aren’t inherently protein-rich are now enhanced with added protein. We get it—protein is a powerhouse nutrient. Higher-protein diets are linked with lower BMIs and smaller waists. Protein also helps satisfy your appetite long after you’ve eaten, fuels your active lifestyle as it maintains and builds muscle and even slightly revs metabolism (it requires more energy to burn compared to carbs and fat).
While we still prefer getting protein from real food, it’s not surprising that food companies are adding protein at every turn, and at home people are using powders in smoothies, baked goods and more. According to the Institute of Medicine women need about 46 grams daily; men should aim for 56 grams. 1 tablespoon of protein powder adds about 4 grams of protein. Many protein powders contain add-ins like sweeteners, oil, salt, thickeners and artificial colors. Look for one with simple ingredients, such as Bob’s Red Mill protein powders, made with just one or two ingredients. Here’s a closer look at the proteins most commonly added by food manufacturers.
Protein Type Science Says Bonus
Soy (soy protein isolate, soy protein powder, hydrolyzed soy protein)
Origin: Soybeans
This powerful plant protein can hold its own compared with animal protein. Research has shown that soy protein increases muscle mass and improves strength during and after exercise just as well as beef protein. Soy protein is unique in that it contains naturally occurring antioxidants called isoflavones, which can help reduce muscle damage during and after exercise.
• Helps muscles
• Iron boost
Whey (whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, hydrolyzed whey protein)
Origin: Cow’s milk
Whey protein is composed mostly of an amino acid called leucine, which is the most potent for building muscles. Whey may also be good for your waistline. When researchers gave people a whey protein drink, they lost about 4 pounds more and about an inch more from their waists over 6 months and felt less hungry than people given a carbohydrate shake instead.
• Helps muscles
• Calcium boost
• Slims you down
Pea (pea protein powder, pea protein isolate)
Origin: Yellow peas
Unlike soy and whey, pea protein is free of common allergens. This plant protein is particularly high in the amino acid arginine, a precursor to creatine, which delivers energy to muscles. Recent research also revealed that pea protein might build muscle mass as well as whey protein does. Plus, preliminary research suggests it may have more appetite-curbing power than whey protein.
• Helps muscles
• Iron boost
• Keeps you satiated