Is protein powder too processed to be healthy?

Catherine writes:

“Virtually everyone says to cut down on processed foods.  It’s  one of the few things everyone from different camps generally agrees on.  Yet a large number of nutrition “influencers” recommend smoothies that include protein pea powder, or “beef powder”.  How the heck are those not processed food?”

You’re right: Pea protein and beef powder (yuck) would both be considered processed foods. As would soy or almond milk, yogurt, or frozen strawberries.

Virtually everything we eat is processed to some degree. Perhaps it’s helpful more to think of processing on a spectrum.  A grape still on the vine would be at one end and a grape-flavored jelly bean on the other. Somewhere in between those extremes would be raisins, grape juice, and grape jelly.

The goal is not to completely eliminate processed foods (which wouldn’t even be possible).  It’s more realistic to think about choosing foods that are closer to the less processed end of the spectrum as often as we can.

What’s the purpose of the processing?

Rather than painting all processed foods with the same brush, it’s also worth considering what the purpose of the processing is.  Is it to concentrate the sugar, increase the intensity of the flavor, or otherwise create a product that hyper-stimulates the reward centers of the brain?  Is it to increase the profit margin of a cheap ingredient?

Or does it serve to extend shelf life, increase the nutritional value of a food, improve its digestibility, or make a nutritious food safer or more convenient to prepare?

Obviously, the processing required to turn peas or whey into protein powder serves a different purpose than the processing required to turn an ear of corn into a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

If you enjoy smoothies, you can consider whether the benefit of the additional protein justifies the use of a somewhat processed ingredient like protein powder.  Your answer might depend on how easy it is for you to meet your protein needs from other foods in your diet.

Either way, though, even though it is somewhat processed, a smoothie would be closer to the less processed end of the spectrum than a strawberry-flavored McFrosty.

8 thoughts on “Is protein powder too processed to be healthy?

  1. As useful as protein powder is for nutritional purposes, given its processed nature, it’s something to use in moderation. Then again, it’s still a relatively healther option compared to other beverages.

  2. HOW the protein is processed is also important. Methods that use heat can denature the protein. I personally used cold-processed organic whey protein that contains absolutely nothing else; no flavoring, no stabilizer, none of that stuff whose name I can’t remember that is sometimes added to powders to make them less clumpy, etc.

    1. When you cook an egg, you denature those proteins too but we don’t worry about the quality of cooked egg do we?

      All “denatured” means is that the protein is twisted into a different shape. It still contains the same amount of protein, the same Amino acids, and when digested in metabolized will have the same benefits.

      If you like your cold processed protein powder, that’s great! But for those reading who wonder whether they need to spend more to get a cold processed product, I just want to reassure them that this is not the case.

      1. Thank you Monica! I was just about to say this. If everyone concerned about denaturing proteins stopped consuming protein powder for that reason, they might want to say bye to chicken as well. Unfortunately, people don’t often have the tools to grasp what the jargon means and can be swayed by it.

  3. I’m fairly certain the majority of our population gets well more than their needed amount of protein, even those with an athletic lifestyle. And that’s with both “healthy” and “unhealthy” diets. Getting too much protein probably isn’t ideal, and healthy carbs and fats could be substituted. We’re in a bit of a protein craze… and likely seldom nutritionally need added protein from protein powders, IMHO.

    1. The protein leverage hypothesis, based on both evolutionary evidence and modern day, multi-organism experiments (including humans), suggests we instinctually eat the “right amount” of protein and adjust the other 2 macros to get the “right amount” of protein. With the modern diet of junk, unltraprocessed food predominating, this means we need to eat way more food and calories to get the “right amount” of protein. Hence, the obesity epidemic. The research also suggests higher protein = more fertile reproduction but shorter longevity, whereas lower protein = less fertile reproduction and longer longevity. There’s always a trade-off somewhere! That makes sense because we evolved to pass along our genes, raise the babies to independence, and die soon thereafter. “Right amount” of protein is about 15% of total calories needed to maintain healthy weight using Harris-Benedict calculator, but less for babies, and more for seniors.

      1. While I don’t disagree with the rest, the evolution stuff was a bit nonsense. Where there are some situations where we should heed our evolutionary circumstances as much as possible (minimal-to-no processing in foods vs. ultra-processed food), we don’t still die off quickly after reproduction and frankly we never evolved that way because our young are dependent and require raising. Even further, the grandmother hypothesis existing contributes this statement.

        Ultimately a small nitpick though and I still support your over all message.

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