Protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of every cell in our body. Eating adequate amounts of protein promotes tissue repair, provides digestive enzymes, generates antibodies to boost the immune system, helps regulate hormones (such as insulin), and provides the essentials to build and maintain hair, skin, nails, cartilage, bones and muscles.

Health risks associated with eating too little protein include: anaemia, hypotension, poor circulation, muscle wastage, hair loss, low immunity, poor digestion and an inability to heal. On the other hand, eating too much protein can also be detrimental to one's health and may lead to weight gain, an overworked liver, a build-up of toxins such as ammonia and ketones, and fatigue and nausea.

When we eat protein, it is broken down into small molecules known as amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are "essential amino acids" that cannot be manufactured by the body and therefore must be obtained through food. The nine essential amino acids are Tryptophan, Threonine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine Valine and Histidine. Proteins such as beef, fish and poultry (including eggs) and dairy contain all 20 amino acids and are classed as "complete" proteins. It is important to note that a significant amount of protein is obtained from whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, barley, amaranth, avocados and sprouts and by combining "complete proteins" with these whole grains most people should be able to obtain all the amino acids needed each day.

For vegetarians, vegans, pregnant women and those who undertake frequent vigorous exercise regimes, it may be necessary to supplement the diet with protein powders to boost essential amino acid intake. With a wide variety of protein powders to choose from, it is difficult to know which one to choose and why. The following is a brief run-down of some of the more common protein powders available as well as some which are relatively new to the market. Health benefits, nutritional information as well as risks associated with consuming them will be outlined.

Whey Protein

We all remember the nursery rhyme which has Little Miss Muffet  "eating her curds and whey".  Well the curds and whey are by products of cow's milk after it has coagulated. The curd (or more technically known as casein), is used to make cheese while the whey, which is a 5% solution of lactose in water with minerals, is filtered, purified, dried and then packaged for human consumption.

Whey protein is a great source of all of the amino acids, both the essential and non-essential ones. In fact, it has one of the highest concentrations of branch-chain amino acids found in any natural food protein source. It is also quickly digested which means that all nutrients can be dispersed rapidly to the body. Whey protein powder can contain up to 98% protein content and it is extremely low in carbohydrates (less than 2% RDI) and contains little or no fat. This, of course, will vary somewhat between different powder brands. Other health benefits associated with whey protein in the diet are:

  • Boosting the immune system. Immunoglobulins in whey strengthen the immune system and thereby help prevent various diseases and cancer. And lactoferrins combine with iron in the body. This not only enhances iron absorption, it also helps prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria and promotes the presence of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
  • Reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Whey contains Alpha Lactoglobulin which binds to calcium to ensure calcium is readily available to be utilised in the body (ie. bone formation). Alpha Lactoglobulin also promotes better sleep, reduces stress levels and depression.
  • Promoting glutathione synthesis. Glutathione is one of the most powerful antioxidants. It helps protect cells from damage caused by free-radicals and other harmful toxins. It is therefore helpful in delaying the aging process.
  • Promoting faster recovery times and protein synthesis. Whey protein contains the essential amino acid Leucine. This amino acid is a key player in initiating protein synthesis in recovery, repair and maintenance of the muscles.

Although it is a complete protein, whey protein is not recommended for everyone. As this protein originates from cow's milk, those with dairy or lactose intolerances/allergies should refrain from this protein supplement. It is also for this reason that whey protein is unsuitable for lacto-vegetarians and vegans. For those who follow Kosher traditions, some whey protein powders may be unsuitable as they may contain the animal enzyme, rennet.

Pea Protein

To produce pea protein powder, peas (Pisum sativum) are ground down to form pea flour which is then rehydrated so that the starch and fibre can be removed. This results in pure pea protein which is then purified and dried and packaged for human consumption.

Pea protein powder is a complete protein supplement, providing all the essential and non-essential amino acids needed for good health and well-being. Although the amino acid profile is slightly less than whey protein powder, pea protein powder is free from dairy, lactose, gluten,,soy and other allergens and it is free from rennet, so it is therefore suitable for vegetarians, vegans, sufferers of food allergies/intolerances and those who follow a Kosher or Halal diet.

The protein in pea protein powders is highly digestible with a bio-availability of 98%. This means that the nutrients can be absorbed quickly and efficiently and therefore utilised by working muscles and organs. The protein content in pea protein powder can be as high as 90%. It is also very low in carbohydrates (0.1%) and fat.  Some other health benefits associated with consuming pea protein include:

  •  It is an alkaline protein. This speeds up the detoxification process, which means that for athletes it can help minimise lactic-acid build-up and allow for longer periods of exertion.
  •  Aids sports performance. Specific combinations of some amino acids are responsible for this. Lysine and glutamine help to balance and restore nitrogen levels in the muscles both during and after a workout; Arginine supports a healthy heart as well as muscle metabolism; Leucine, isoleucine and Valine sustains muscle tissue during exercise.
  •  Aiding weight loss. Not only does pea protein have a low glycaemic index, it can also help regulate appetite. Due to the greater number of peptides forming in the stomach after consuming pea protein, gastric emptying is slowed down which in turn reduces Ghrelin, a substance which sends signals to the brain to stimulate hunger.
  •  Improving kidney function for people with kidney disease. Consuming pea protein powder can help with the stimulation of a substance called cyclooxygenase - 1 (COX- 1). This substance is crucial in improving kidney function by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which are common components of kidney disease. Eating fresh garden peas does not produce this same benefit as consuming pea protein powder as it is believed to be linked to the enzymes which are used during the protein extraction process.

Pea protein powder is a high protein, low carbohydrate and fat supplement which provides a range of amino acids required for good health. Being plant-based, it is a good alternative for those with allergies, intolerances and various dietary requirements.

Rice protein powder

Similar to pea protein powder, rice protein powder is a plant-based protein supplement which is free from dairy, lactose, gluten, soy and animal products. The process of extracting the protein from the grain of rice occurs by treating the sprouted grain with plant enzymes. Most brands claim that this process is carried out at low temperatures so that the amino acids are not damaged or destroyed.

Rice protein powder is high in protein (up to 80%), low in fat and carbohydrates and it contains no sugar, cholesterol or sodium. In comparison to some other types of protein powders, it has more vitamin B and vitamin E and fibre. Although rice protein powders contain all the essential and non-essential amino acids, it is lower in some of the essential amino acids, one of those being Lysine. As pea protein powder has high amounts of Lysine, some brands have a powder which combines both pea and rice protein to achieve adequate levels of Lysine. However, as long as rice protein powder is not the only source of protein being consumed during the day, any lacking amino acids are likely to be obtained through the diet.

Benefits associated with rice protein powder are:

  •  Stimulates protein synthesis and reduces protein catabolism during exercise. This is due to having quality amounts of the branched chain amino acids Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.
  •  Assimilation rate can be as high as 98% meaning that the nutrients are absorbed and utilised rapidly.
  •  It may help reduce cholesterol and the formation of lesions caused by atherosclerosis. Although this has not been tested on humans yet, it provides hope for sufferers of these conditions.
  •  It may lower insulin sensitivity. Once again, this is based on animal trials, however it holds promise for diabetes sufferers and those at risk.

Rice protein powder is a good protein supplement for those who are vegetarian, vegan, or those who have allergies to dairy, lactose, soy or animal products. It is also approved for Kosher followers. Due to its deficiency in some of the amino acids in comparison to other types of protein powders, it would be recommended to use it in conjunction with complementary protein sources and/or complete proteins.

Soy Protein Powders

Soy protein powders are produced by soaking defatted (oil-extracted) soy flakes in water. An acid is then added, which much like whey protein powder production, separates into a soy protein curd, and undissolved proteins and fibres. It is the soy curd which is then further processed and dried to form soy protein powder.

Soy protein powders come in either soy protein "concentrates" or soy protein "isolates". The difference is that the concentrates usually contain around 65% protein with the remaining ingredients being fats and carbohydrates whereas the isolate powders are further processed to remove the fats and carbohydrates, resulting in a much higher protein content, ranging from 80�-90% depending on the protein powder. Soy protein powder isolates contain all of the essential and non-essential amino acids. Some other benefits of soy protein powder (isolate) include:

  •  It may aid in reducing LDL cholesterol. Studies have shown that eating 4 servings of soy protein per day can reduce the bad cholesterol, LDL cholesterol. It is the soy protein which attacks the plasma of the LDL cholesterol, while it does no harm to the HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol. This in turn helps reduce the risk of heart disease as a fall in LDL cholesterol by just 1%, lowers the risk of heart disease by 2%.
  •  It may boost the immune system. Soy protein powder contains isoflavones which aid in the production of T-cell activity. T-cells are white blood cells which attack infection. Therefore by including soy protein powder in the diet, one's immune system will most likely be stronger.

Unfortunately, soy protein powders (as well as other soy products) are not recommended for everyone as they can cause serious health complications. Firstly, soy protein powders contain powerful enzyme inhibitors which block the action of protein digestive enzymes (such as trypsin). Undigested protein can cause large amounts of gas as well as pathological conditions of the pancreas. Soy protein powders also contain phytic acid which not only leaches vital nutrients from the body but it also prevents the uptake of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc.

Secondly, anyone suffering thyroid disorders should not consume soy products. Isoflavones, which are part of the bioflavonoid family of chemicals found in soy,are endocrine-disruptors. This means that they can take on the role of an anti-thyroid agent and disturb the natural balance of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are responsible for metabolic processes such as sleep, temperature, and the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates. A high soy diet has been linked with causing goiter and it is also believed to cause thyroid problems in people with no prior thyroid disorders.

Lastly, soy products (including soy protein powders) have been linked with infertility, menstrual disruption, developmental problems of the fetus and hormonal imbalances in women. As soy is a phytoestrogen, it acts in the body as a hormone, in this case estrogen. Studies are on-going into the side-effects of consuming soy and it is therefore important for the consumer to be informed and carry out their own research.

Hemp Protein Powders

The process of obtaining protein from hemp seeds involves cold-pressing raw hemp seeds and then grinding them into a fine powder at low temperatures. The cold-milling and cold-pressing helps protect the valuable vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and enzymes found in raw hemp seeds.

Although hemp protein powder is lower in protein than some of the other types of protein powders, when the hemp protein is separated from the hemp seed, it contains a special mixture of edestin and albumin, two blood building proteins. Edestin is a globular protein and has a higher amino acid profile in comparison to soy. Albumin obtained from hemp helps the liver synthesise human albumin, which is responsible for transporting protein in the blood. Hemp protein powder is one of the most digestible sources of protein and is rapidly assimilated due to its structure being similar to human protein.

Hemp protein powders contain all the essential and non-essential amino acids to be classed as a complete protein. It contains significant amounts of the branched-chain-amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine which are particularly responsible for protein synthesis and muscle repair. It also contains iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin A, some B vitamins and fibre. The absorption of these nutrients is aided by the optimal balance of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids found in hemp protein powders. Although this means that the fat content of hemp protein powder is slightly higher, these are beneficial fats which help decrease inflammation in the body, lower the risk of heart disease, lower the risk of diabetes and may even help prevent dementia.

Hemp protein powders are plant based and are mostly organic, pesticide and chemical free, non-GMO and contain no dairy, lactose, gluten, soy or animal products. They are also Kosher and Halal approved.

Egg-white (albumen) protein powder

Egg-white protein powder is produced by processing dehydrated egg-whites into a fine powder. The egg-whites must also go through an ultra-high heat pasteurisation process to kill microbial organisms such as salmonella. Egg-white protein powder may also be called "albumen" protein powder, which usually indicates the majority of the fat (contained in the yolk) is removed through filtration processes.

Egg-white protein is said to be a "perfect" protein as its structure is such that it would support the growth of a new life (that being the baby chick). As the yolk is removed, egg-white protein powder has virtually no fat, cholesterol or carbohydrates. Some egg-white protein powders can contain 80%+ protein content. It contains the perfect amounts of amino acids, both essential and non-essential and is a complete protein. Egg-white protein powder's digestibility is slightly slower than whey protein powder which means nutrients are released more evenly over a period of time. The assimilation rate of egg-white protein powder is very high meaning that the uptake of nutrients and their usability is excellent. Additional benefits include:

  •  Stimulating protein synthesis and muscle growth. This is due to the large amounts of the branched-chain amino acids Luecin, Isoleucine and Valine.
  •  Dilating blood vessels. Egg-white protein powder is a good source of the amino acid, Arginine. Arginine helps stimulate the production of nitric-oxide which helps dilate blood vessels. This allows for greater blood flow to working muscles which provides them with more oxygen and nutrients during workouts, but also aids recovery and muscle growth after workouts.
  •  Containing considerable amounts of vitamins A, B,  D and E.

There are some aspects of egg-white protein powders that consumers should be aware of. It is extremely important that the egg-white protein powders are pasteurised as this not only kills micro-organisms such as salmonella, it also deactivates a protein in egg whites called avidin. Avidin can be toxic in high amounts as it binds to biotin (an important B vitamin))and transports it from the body. This leads to a biotin deficiency causing hair loss, skin irritations and possible neurological conditions.

It is also recommended that when choosing an egg-white protein powder, try to select one which uses free-range eggs. There may be dangers associated with using powders which have been sourced from factory farms eggs such as containing salmonella despite being pasteurized, as well as containing antibiotics which have been used in the chickens feed.

Egg-white protein powders are usually free from lactose, milk, gluten and soy (it is still advisable to check the ingredients on the pack if you have allergies). However, this protein powder is not recommended for those with egg allergies or for those following a vegan diet.

In conclusion...

As you can see, there are pro's and con's associated with each protein powder type which will vary from person to person depending on dietary requirements and preferences. It is important for one to read the ingredients as protein powders can contain artificial colours, flavours and preservatives as well as artificial sweeteners, sugars and fillers. It is not recommended to rely on protein powders as the only source of dietary protein. Protein powders can boost one's protein intake especially if the diet is lacking however it can be harmful to one's health if over-consumption occurs.

Date posted: 2014-01-26 | posted by: debras

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