As a holistic sports nutritionist who first and foremost seeks (both personally and professionally for clients) to get all nutrients required from whole foods, let me be clear in stating I don’t believe most athletes NEED a protein powder. However protein powder can definitely make life a lot easier when it comes to successfully meeting ones daily protein requirement. That said, integrating the right protein powder is incredibly important – as the wrong one could be subtly damaging your health.
I’m going to divide protein powder into 2 categories for the sake of this discussion: dairy based (whey) and plant-based (derived from any number of sources including soy, rice, pea, hemp and pumpkin). It is either personal choice or dietary requirements that dictate whether an athlete chooses a whey versus a plant-based protein powder. One is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other – each have their advantages and disadvantages.
This post covers what to look for when choosing the best whey protein powder. Part 2 will cover how to choose the best plant-based protein powder.
3 Things to Look for in a Whey Protein Powder
1. Made with whey from grass fed cows
Grass fed cows produce dairy that has a superior protein and mineral profile. It also contains more highly anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to promote fat-burning). Of course omega-3s and CLA (fatty acids) are removed from whey isolate, some of these beneficial fats are still present in whey concentrate.
Additionally, grass fed cows are raised organically with no bovine growth hormones (such as the widely used rBGH and rbST in the US) and no antibiotics (unlike factory farmed dairy). Hormones such as these disrupt the endocrine system and can lead to a variety of health conditions caused by hormone imbalance. Antibiotic use leads to poor gut health and reduced immunity.
How can you ensure the protein you buy is grass fed? There are not many brands that are made up exclusively of grass fed whey but the few that are will explicitly state it on their labels – and their website should back up their claims with transparency on where the dairy comes from. Be sure the label states it contains 100% grass fed whey (some companies add only a little grass fed whey to cheaper factory farmed whey and advertise their product as ‘containing’ grass fed whey).
One way to ensure you are getting 100% grass fed whey is to choose New Zealand protein. All the dairy cows in New Zealand are grass fed year round, even in the winter. New Zealand’s natural environment is ideal for growing grass – it has fertile soil, moderate temperatures, excellent rainfall and abundant sunshine (sounds like a nice place to live, doesn’t it?!!). Their cows produce milk on a seasonal schedule, with their reproduction cycle.
2. Processed via cross flow microfiltration
When choosing a whey concentrate or isolate, be sure it uses ONLY Cross Flow Microfiltration (CMF), a low temperature process that filters the protein from fats and sugars (aka fatty acids, cholesterol and lactose) based on molecular size and shape to extract the protein from the milk. Basically, the milk is chilled before it is filtered, which causes the molecules of protein stick together. This makes the protein easier to filter from the whey, and it doesn’t involve any heat to alter the amino acid cellular structures or acids or salts that also remove beneficial components such as immunoglobulins and growth factors. It produces the most natural, bioactive whey protein possible – a pure and undenatured whey.
Conversely, many companies use an ion exchange processing system, a biochemical process that most commonly uses acids or salts, and heat, resulting in denatured whey. This means the structure of the amino acids has been broken down, resulting in a lower quality protein powder that cannot support health the way undenatured whey can.
Why is CMF the way to go? Three reasons!
First, we know from gene expression studies that undenatured whey contains many bioactive compounds including antibodies and enzymes that have multiple beneficial effects in humans. When whey is denatured, these bioactive compounds are destroyed. For example, undenatured whey protein powder still contains high levels cysteine in a form that remains bioactive – so you still get the glutathione-producing cysteines that the body needs to boost immunity.
Second, undenatured whey contains numerous di-peptides (amino acid pairs) and tri-peptides (amino acid triples). These are keys that fit specific genetic locks in the body to turn on protein functions. If the whey is denatured, the keys are broken down into single amino acids and no longer work.
Third, protein fractions in undenatured whey show up in ratios that support health, whereas ion exchange processed whey will have a negative effect on health due to lowering beneficial protein fractions and raising the levels of non-beneficial ones.
For example, ion exchange processing raises the level of beta-lactoglobulin (non-beneficial), which should be below 50% – more than that is not desirable and can cause allergic reactions. For years I thought I was intolerant of whey protein but it turns out I just wasn’t choosing the right type. Another example, ion exchange processing lowers the level of glycomacropeptides (beneficial – they have a positive effect on the digestive system), which should be more than 15-20%.
If a company doesn’t list protein fractions on their label, it may well be because they don’t want you to know what they are.
Ultimately, cheap processing methods lead to a breakdown of the vital amino acids that make whey protein so beneficial. The amino acids are still present, but your body cannot use them as efficiently as it could if they were in their natural state. So you don’t get any of the same immunity-boosting benefits, and even the muscle-building benefits aren’t as good as what you’ll get with undenatured whey. For maximum muscle-building benefits as well as an immune system boost, reach for CFM undenatured whey.
Take a look at the amino acid profile of New Zealand Whey (processed using CFM therefore undenatured) versus a top selling whey isolate one of my clients asked me about (I could find no information on how the whey was processed thus leading me to believe it’s denatured):
The ‘top selling’ protein powder has spiked their powder with cheap amino acids to make it look better, but ultimately its overall amino acid profile falls short. Even though it’s an isolate, in some cases some of the amino acids it contains are present in smaller numbers than the New Zealand whey concentrate!
You’d think with all the benefits that come with cross flow microfiltration, all companies would be using it! But ultimately it costs about 5 times as much – so for companies only concerned with bottom dollar, it’s not a good investment for them.
3. Contains only 100% all-natural ingredients
When searching out a protein powder, you definitely want to check out the ingredient list. It should be short with no fillers and no ‘proprietary blends’. Ideally there is an unflavoured option where the ingredients are simply:
- cross flow microfiltered (CFM) whey protein
- enzymes (protease, amylase, lactase)
And that’s it! Surprisingly, this is sadly very difficult to find (happily, Ergogenics New Zealand whey does fit the bill here).
With flavoured powders, you’re looking for real flavourings such as “cocoa” and “vanilla bean extract” instead of “flavouring”. You will also find some sort of non-caloric sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit extract. Stay away from artificial sweeteners such as sucralose. Any other ingredients you may find on a label are likely fillers or preservatives, which are best avoided.
While you’d think it should be simpler to choose a high-quality protein powder, the truth is there are many on the shelves that are highly processed and full of ingredients you probably don’t want to be ingesting. Looking for these three things – grass fed, cross flow microfiltrated and all-natural ingredients – will ensure you are utilizing the best possible whey protein powder available and reaping the long-term health and muscle-building benefits.
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN