In the last decade, we've seen new sections created in grocery stores, natural product expos and magazines as they cover the latest and greatest in protein powders, shakes and bars. So what's the scoop? Let's start by looking at sources, then forms, and finally rationales to determine what's good for us (and for the environment) versus what falls into my "just because we can (make it, eat it), doesn't mean we should (make or eat it)" category.
Quick Review: What Is a Protein?
Proteins are organic compounds comprised of amino acids. As such, one often refers to an amino acid as the 'building block' of proteins. Considered a macronutrient, proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats, are a core part of our daily intake. Ideally, we look to consume the entire array of amino acids (21), but there are some (eight, in fact) that the body doesn't make. These are called "essential" and thus we need to consume them from our dietary choices (note: there are a few that certain populations -- due to their genetic makeup or because of an injury -- may require. These are termed "conditionally essential"). Proteins are found in both animal and vegetable sources. However, each food source contains differing numbers and amounts of amino acids. The terms "complete" or "high quality" protein are used to refer to those that provide all of the essential amino acids in a proportion needed by the human body.
Proteins play critical roles in our body. The most well-known is their role in building lean body mass (muscle), but many proteins are also enzymes which mean they are messengers in cellular communication signaling metabolism and immune response among other core functions. While we are learning that a large number of food allergies and intolerances today are triggered by chemicals and environmental factors, it is the protein that most commonly triggers an allergic or intolerant reaction (i.e. soy protein, dairy proteins, casein and whey, nut proteins etc.).
And finally, the body needs protein daily, but it can also get too much. The body does not store excess protein and the process for removal requires the liver and kidneys to work hard at removing these larger molecules. These organs are adept at doing so, but if it becomes a longstanding pattern or if they are in a weakened state, this can prove challenging to them and they may signal their displeasure by working less effectively or even going on strike.
Are All Protein Sources Created Equal?
What proteins comprise the health bar, shake or protein powder you might choose to consume? Today there are so many sources: whey, egg white, hemp, rice (brown/white), quinoa and pea to name a few. A key distinction will be whether the protein is "isolated" -- which means extracted from the whole food through some processing -- or if it remains in the whole food form. This can make a big difference in nutrient quality and digestibility, and I recommend the whole food form. When it comes to soy protein, and in this case powders, bars and shakes, I actually don't recommend any soy protein isolate, preferring that one only consumes soy in the whole food form. Conversely, I am okay with isolating whey and egg white proteins for consumption, and find that often the elimination of the casein (the other dairy protein) makes the whey protein better tolerated, reducing mucus formation and digestive disturbances for many. From the egg white standpoint, eliminating the yolk allows one to replace it's fat content with a healthy fat such as that found in nuts and seeds (their butters and oils too).
What else effects protein source choice? As a practitioner, I believe that organic makes a difference across the board, especially as we move up the food chain. I recommend looking for organic sources of protein -- especially from animal (whey and egg white) and soybean sources. This means that no chemicals were given to the animals or sprayed on the plants, and that no genetically modified seeds were used (this is extremely important with soybeans, as another HuffPo blogger recently discussed soon-to-be released findings from a Russian study on the dangers of GMO soybeans). The choice between animal and vegetable sources of protein should be one of personal preference, ethics, environmental concerns and taste. I say this because it is a myth that vegetarians and vegans can't get sufficient protein from a plant-based diet. Yes, some plants have components that can block absorption of some proteins but that doesn't mean one cannot achieve adequate protein intake. It merely means that it requires knowledge and planning.
When it comes to vegetarian sources of protein, I'm a huge fan of hemp protein (i.e. powder, seeds) for its nutrition profile and ease of digestibility; and I find several of the pea/quinoa/ rice blends to be satisfying, healthy options. Quinoa and hemp are naturally "complete" proteins whereas the others may need to be blended with other food sources or have amino acids blended in to create a complete profile. A note on hemp: it's made from the seeds of the hemp plant and thus it does not contain THC, the psychoactive component of the marijuana plant. If you feel really good from eating consuming hemp, it's coming from true energy and nutrition and not a drug (this includes the healthy fat source GLA, present only in hemp). Another item to note is that some products will contain sprouted quinoa, grains, nuts or seeds. Sprouting is an excellent way to improve the availability of the protein and I often recommend these products especially for those with digestive issues where absorption may already be challenged.
What form one chooses to get their protein from -- a bar, a powder, a ready-made shake -- will likely be determined by their need state as well as their personal preferences. For example, do you feel satisfied when you drink something or do you need to chew to feel full? Are you looking for a quick, portable option or are you able to practice my IKEA-style of cooking ("some assembly required") and make it at home or at the office? Two general nutrition concerns apply strongly to the category of ready-made bars and shakes: unnecessary processing and unnecessary use of preserving agents. For example, if consuming a bar with nuts and dried fruit, why not just choose an apple with some nuts or nut butter instead? The difference in calories and nutrient balance can be significant, for example two to three times the amount of carbohydrates in the bar versus the fruit option. Now if the bar has a protein base, like rice protein powder, to increase its nutrient profile, I can see the benefit in that. The same goes for a pre-made shake which often has juice, fruit and then a protein source.
However, to keep the fruit fresh or to bind the protein source together these products typically contain added sugar or a sugar alternative. If you were IKEA-cooking it at home you wouldn't need that extra sugar to preserve the fruit's freshness.
And what of convenience? I recall sitting in the new products meeting at Kellogg's in 1996 when the crashing news came in: consumers no longer see cereal as convenient. Wow! I had two thoughts:
(1) I would have liked to been paid what we paid the researchers to "study" this (I couldn't believe how basic the finding were: people are in a rush in the morning, people want to have items they can eat in the car, etc.)
(2) I couldn't believe my ears. Cereal is not convenient?! But sure enough, this finding ushered in the era of mainstream bars, shakes, bagels and drinks, all seeking to meet consumer demands for greater convenience.
"Do we give them the straw with the beverage so they can drink it in the car?"
"Let's create single serve bars versus a box of 10 so that people can grab them anywhere they need nourishment."
Uh-oh. Looking back we see that this era ushered in another era: the obesity epidemic. Am I saying that protein bars and shakes and powders are responsible for obesity? No. Well, not exactly. But I am saying that we can't ignore the link between the strong desire for convenience foods and beverages and its impact on our waistlines, blood sugar levels and liver health.
So, another consideration when looking at bars, shakes and powders is the distinction between a desire for versus the true need for convenience. Can you take a little extra time and assemble something yourself? If not -- and keep in mind I'm a realist who gets how life can demand some quick fixes -- make sure to choose a product that doesn't have you trading convenience for optimal health. For example, look for extra sugar and salt. If the product has dried fruit then that should be sweet enough without adding sugar to coat it. Aim for a balance of nutrients. Appropriate quantities of carbohydrate and protein fall within the one to one-and-a-half servings range, with a serving being about 15 grams plus some healthy fat which can range from five to 10 grams of fat. Occasionally this may be greater but then attention should be paid to overall caloric intake.
And finally, it's important to consider what else is in there. In an effort to make protein bars, shakes and powders as powerful as possible, as well as to differentiate their brand, manufacturers routinely add herbs, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. As such, a final consideration should be a review of these ingredients, an assessment of their quality, an assessment of any possible contraindications with medications, sleep patterns (if you are having a protein drink or bar at night that has stimulating ingredients it could keep you awake) and individual sensitivities.
For example, I recently couldn't figure out why I was having shaky hands and my pulse was racing. Then I realized I had been sampling a "Sport Protein Powder" for work and it was giving me the same issues that I have with caffeine. The culprit? A potent combo of maca root and other stimulant herbs!
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