Protein powder or real food – what’s really best?

Have you noticed the displays of gargantuan containers of protein powder for sale at all kinds of stores? When you see them advertised in Costco flyers, you know they’ve gone from the domain of body builders to the everyday consumer. The same goes for protein bars. Then there’s the choice of whey, soy, hemp or rice or whatever is the protein du jour.

But whatever happened to real food? That’s not to say there’s no place for these products. Yes, certain athletes, body builders, those who are malnourished or ill, elderly or those in need of extra protein for conditions such as wound healing may benefit from these products.

For a small segment of the population, there may be risks to including these supplements. For those with kidney disease (some of which may be undiagnosed), the excess protein could exacerbate the kidney problems.

But when did the average person start to require a protein supplement for good health?

Ask any nutrition savvy individual and they will talk about the importance of eating whole foods and avoiding processed ones. Yet these same people will add a scoop of protein powder to their breakfast smoothie or munch on a protein bar at snack time. These are processed foods as well.

Forget about the fact that they can be crazy expensive.

But just look at what these products really are.

Protein concentrates

Proteins are partially separated from the other components of a food but the products are not pure protein and usually contain a small amount of the other nutrients such as carbohydrates or fat.

Protein isolates

Isolates have the other nutritional components removed even further so that they significantly more protein with very little fat or carb alongside.

Protein hydrolysates
When you take an isolate and break it down into amino acids (the building block of proteins) using heat or enzymes, the result yields quicker absorption of the protein for use by your muscle.

So the question is: do you really need these? Are you short on protein? What about the nutrients that are found alongside the protein in the whole food? Chances are pretty good that you might actually benefit from them as well.

Take hemp protein powder (or maybe don’t!). Whole hemp seeds  are packed with protein but they also offer vital nutrients such as fibre and omega-3 fats. Sure, hemp protein powder is lower in calories than its whole food counterpart but what is it that you need for good health? Yes, protein is important but our shortfalls when it comes to fibre and omega-3s may take more of a toll on the health of the average person than the benefit of a protein supplement.

Whey protein has been shown to offer a host of benefits, especially for athletes. But if you’re just whipping up a smoothie, why not add Greek yogurt which will also supply key nutrients such as calcium and potassium? Or if you’re going for a soy protein isolate, you’ll miss out on soy’s flavones and their anti-cancer effects.

Consider if you’re looking for a bar to bridge the gap between meals, would you not be better off with one that simply combines real food ingredients such as dried fruit and nuts rather than a whey or soy protein isolate?

Then there’s the question of purity. Who is testing these products to determine exactly what’s in the container?

According to, a U.S.-based company that conducts independent tests on health and nutritional products, 28 % of the products they tested flunked the quality testing.

But how often do you hear about this type of testing? Not much, I’d say.

As we hear more and more about the nutrition recommendations and the health benefits of eating whole foods, keep in mind, the same also holds when it comes to protein-rich options as well.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Food Trends, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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