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Protein Powders: How Do They Measure Up?

Posted Feb 11 2010 9:42am

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 todayand I’ll include information on alternative protein powders at the end. As alwayslet 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 factalong with Ancel Keys’ fudging of the saturated fat intake datait 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 parttoo) in the rabbit.

Depending on how whey protein concentrate is processedsome of its cholesterol is oxidized. The higher the temperature usedthe greater the oxidation. Sounds horribleright? 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 terribleright? Maybe not. Consider the average eggwhich contains 220 mg of cholesterol. If you scramble that eggbreaking the yolk and exposing it to oxygen and heata significant portion of the cholesterol may be oxidized. I don’t know about youbut I’ve been known to put away half a dozen eggs in a single sitting. GrantedI usually fry mine in butter and try to preserve the structure of the yolk (partly because it tastes betterand 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 cholesteroltoo. Even if just a tiny fraction of that 220 mg/egg cholesterol is oxidizedit’s comparable to the amount you’re getting from a whey protein shake every now and then.

I’m not too concerned with itpersonally. We already know that regular egg consumption has a net positive effect on blood lipidsincluding levels of highly oxidative smalldense LDL. We also know that whey protein supplementation decreases VLDLat least in ratsand that lactoferrina whey protein concentrate componentappears to reduce LDL oxidation. Even if you’re consuming a modicum of oxidized dietary cholesterol from the occasional scoop of whey protein powerthe benefits – including increased lean massbetter recovery from strength trainingas well as a reduction in atherogenic lipids – seem to outweigh any potential negatives. Additionallywhen 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 dairyit might make sense to shell out the extra dough for grass-fed whey powderbut if you’re drawn to it for the health benefitsdon’t bother. There really aren’t any. Think about why we prefer pastured animal products in the first place – favorable fatty acid profilesmore fat-soluble vitaminscleanerbetter-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 flavorvast amounts of vitaminsor healthy fats; we just want some fast-acting protein. Feel free to use grass-fed whey proteinbut 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 proteinif I’m looking for increased protein synthesis and muscle recovery?

I generally don’t worry about meal timing too muchbut if you dotake your whey protein within a half hour post-workout. Your muscles will be insulin sensitive and primed for nutrients and glycogenso the insulinogenic release from the whey will be a boon.

Other Proteins

Of coursewhey isn’t the only protein powder around. It’s my personal favorite for a few reasons (the anti-atherogenic qualitiesthe fast absorptionthe positive effects on lean mass development)but a number of you asked about other sourcesso here’s some info on a few of the more popular varietiesincluding their respective biological values (BV).

The BV is one way to measure a protein’s “usability.” The higher the BVthe 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 concentratefor examplehas a biological value of 104while isolate has a BV of 100. Milk itself? 91. Beef? 80. You want a high biological value in your powders especiallysince their only reason for existing is to provide a quickeasy influx of dietary protein. InterestinglyBV 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 foodsit might dissuade one from getting all their protein from powder.

Notethoughthat 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% proteinand the biological value would tell you exactly how much of that 60% is usable by the body. Different powders have different protein contents. Hemp proteinfor exampleis often about 50% proteinbut 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 modeland it’s based on the amino acid requirements of humansspecifically children. Most protein powders (and their consumers) stick with the BVbut the PDCAAS is gaining in popularity. Whey protein (both isolate and concentrate) has an optimum PDCAAS of 1.

BV – 77


Derived from that other variety of milk proteincasein 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 glutaminewhich transports nitrogen to tissue)just like wheybut 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 outcomesso I wouldn’t replace whey with casein just yet. There may be some benefit to taking boththoughseeing as how both casein and whey are a package deal in nature. Milk is certainly a popular post-workout recovery drinkand it contains both casein and whey.

BV – 100


Egg white protein powder is another highly bioavailable protein choice. In factit’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 cholesterolstay away from whole egg protein powder. You may be able to get a hold of a minimally processed whole egg powder with very little oxidationbut 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 diseasebut it’s worth noting that egg whites themselves can be rather potent allergensso use caution.

BV – 65

PDCAAS – 0.69

I’m generally down on vegetarian protein powders. In my experiencethey just don’t work as well as the animal-based ones. We’re not meant to get all our protein from vegetable sourcesand our absorption of vegetable-based protein isn’t as efficientso 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 Primalbut pea protein powder is even less so. If egg and milk protein powders are off limits for whatever reasonthoughgive pea protein a shot.

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 thereso 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 proteinbut that’s fine. A reader mentioned that any form of dairy protein powder resulted in great discomfort; if that’s truerice protein powder may be a good choice.

I was unable to get a reliable scorebut 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 powdershemp 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 powdersbut fiber-free versions do exist. Againnot my first choiceand it’s fairly expensivebut 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 effectiveand it’s ubiquitous and inexpensive. Protein powder in general can help athletes recover from trainingand it doesn’t have to be dairy-basedif you’re sensitive. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling (or even throwing yourself into) in alternative protein powdersand in the case of casein and egg whitesyou 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 myselfbut that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a big whey shake after an intense workout session from time to timejust for the anabolic effects if not for the convenience and taste. If you’re not getting enough proteinor you can’t find the time to cook every single mealtry some protein powder. Otherwiseeat a steak.

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