Shakes and smoothies are growing in popularity within the real food community. Protein shakes are all the rage among Crossfitters and other athletes that are concerned with post-workout nutrition, but also among busy professionals and parents, individuals with either weight loss or weight gain as a goal, pregnant and nursing women, those struggling with autoimmune disease, and the average person searching for optimal health. One of the most frequent questions that I receive in my work as a nutritional therapist is, “What kind of protein powder do you recommend?” The appeal of shakes and smoothies lies in their convenience and presumed fit with our modern, hectic lifestyles. It doesn’t take much time or preparation to throw together a shake or smoothie and drink it. The convenience factor aside, most of us have been subjected to the influence of heavy marketing efforts that have convinced us that not only do we need more protein in our diet, but the addition of a protein shake can do amazing things for us: gain muscle, lose fat, improve energy levels, reduce recovery time, become a better athlete, meet all of our daily nutritional requirements, and become healthier overall.
Despite these claims, protein powders are highly processed products and they are not a whole food. Protein powder can be derived from any food that contains protein. The most common types of protein powders include soy, whey, casein, complete milk (whey and casein), egg, rice, hemp, and pea protein. Many of these options obviously do not fit into a real food paradigm, but a few are touted as being more acceptable in the real food community, including whey and egg protein. With whey in particular, there are protein powder companies that advertise that the cows from which the whey comes from are grass-fed. Regardless of how humanely or sustainably-raised the source is, the process of making any type of protein into a powder usually utilizes extremely high temperatures that denature the protein in a way that can be harmful and can contribute to the formation of carcinogens (as opposed to the normal process of denaturing proteins that occurs during cooking or digestion).
In the United States, protein powders are considered to be a supplement by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and they are not subjected to the same labeling requirements or regulation as food. Many protein powders contain artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and a variety of undesirable ingredients and fillers that are listed on the label, but what may not be listed on the label can also be concerning. A Consumer’s Report investigationfound unsafe levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium in several popular protein powders. There have also been numerous reported casesof undisclosed steroids and stimulants found in protein powders.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, in which we will continue the discussion about whether shakes and smoothies fit within a real food paradigm!