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.

My diet is super healthy. Why isn’t my Nutrition GPA higher?

I received the following email from a frustrated user of the Nutrition GPA app.  I’m posting it here, along with my response, in case other app users might find it useful as well.

“I have been somewhat frustrated with the scores I’ve been getting on the Nutrition GPA app.  I know I definitely do not eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables some days. But I think my diet is very good otherwise–just not in ways the app measures!

“For instance, I don’t eat any meat, I eat no dairy on an average day, I rarely eat eggs, I obsess over sodium, I rarely eat baked goods–and when I do, they’re homemade, low sugar, low sodium, dairy-free, etc., and the only white flour I eat is in baguettes, Portuguese rolls, or occasional pasta. Nevertheless, I’m getting Cs and  even a D!”

How does the Nutrition GPA assess your diet?

The questions in the Nutrition GPA quiz represent the foods most strongly associated with overall diet quality, risk factors, and health outcomes.  If your grade is not as high as you think it should be, perhaps aspects of your diet that you think are “not so bad” or “occasional” are having more of an impact than you realize.
Conversely, aspects of your diet that you think of as  “very good” may not have as much impact (or be as consistent) as you think.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the details you mentioned:
  • If you don’t eat any meat, then you are always getting points on Q9.  So that’s certainly not responsible for your low grade!
  • Avoiding diary and eggs is not associated with improved diet quality or reduced health risks.  So they don’t impact your grade one way or the other.
  • If you have high blood pressure and are sensitive to the effects of sodium, then that might be an important thing for you to watch. But for the majority of the population, avoiding sodium does not improve their health or their risks. So it’s not monitored in the Nutrition GPA.
  • Baked goods that contain white flour will impact your grade–even when they are homemade, low sugar, low sodium, and dairy-free! If you’re only eating them occasionally, it shouldn’t affect your GPA too much.  But research shows that replacing white flour with whole grain flour (or avoiding it altogether) improves health and nutrition.  And that’s why you get a higher grade on days when you don’t eat things made with white flour.

There are also a few things that you DIDN’T mention. But if you are frequently having more than one alcoholic drink, more than 25 grams of added sugar, eating fried foods and/or you rarely eat fish, legumes, and nuts, this will drag down your Nutrition GPA.

All of which is to say that the whole point of the Nutrition GPA is to shine a light on those areas of our diet that could stand improving. And sometimes it reveals things that we may have over or under-estimated.  In which case, it’s working exactly as designed–and presents a great opportunity to improve your nutrition!

 

Protein Content of Common Foods

This table shows the amount of protein per serving of several common foods.

Note that the standard serving size for meat is 3 ounces, which is considerably smaller than the portions you may be used to seeing.   A 3-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

Click here to see a table of protein density (how much protein various foods provide per calorie).

FoodServing SizeProtein (g)
Chicken breast3 ounces25
Pork tenderloin3 ounces22
Hamburger, lean (broiled)3 ounces22
Ground turkey (broiled)3 ounces22
Salmon3 ounces19
Shrimp3 ounces19
TunaSmall can17
Cottage cheese, lowfat1/2 cup14
Plain yogurt1 cup12
Greek yogurt1/2 cup11
Tofu, firm1/2 cup10
Lentils, cooked1/2 cup9
Peanut butter2 tablespoons8
Black beans1/2 cup8
Chickpeas1/2 cup8
Spaghetti, cooked1 cup8
Edamame (soybeans)1 cup8
Oat bran, uncooked1/3 cup7
Egg1 large6
Hummus1/2 cup6
Egg white1 large4
Quinoa, cooked1/2 cup4
Brown rice, cooked1/2 cup3
Whole wheat bread1 slice3

See also:
Quick Guide to Complementary Protein Sources

New Ways to Use Whey Protein Powder

 

Is collagen protein safe and effective?

Naomi writes:

When opening a new container of Vital Proteins Collagen I saw a warning about possible lead content. Should I change my choice of collagen or stop using it altogether?  I am 65 and thought it would be beneficial for my hair and skin.

It’s hard to know for sure without a chemical analysis, but this warning may just be a corporate cover-your-hiney thing. I don’t think you necessarily need to throw away your new (and probably fairly pricey) container of collagen protein. But I’m also skeptical about its benefits for joints, skin, hair, or nails. Continue reading “Is collagen protein safe and effective?” >

Six Ways to Make Your Diet Healthier (for the Planet)

Earth DayHappy Earth Day!

These days, we’re more conscious of how our dietary choices affect the health of our planet. But it gets complicated.  Sure, buying organic products helps reduce the amount of pesticides and artificial fertilizers that are applied to the ground.  But what about the environmental impact of transporting organic produce thousands of miles from its source to your table? How about all the energy it takes to process, package, and transport the organic convenience foods and all-natural junk food that fill the freezers and shelves of high-end whole-foods grocers? And to bring the conversation back to nutrition for a moment, how nutritious do you think those organic sugar-frosted corn flakes really are?

In honor of Earth Day, here are six ways to make your diet healthier for your body and the planet. Continue reading “Six Ways to Make Your Diet Healthier (for the Planet)” >