Plus, the difference between animal- and plant-based powders
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EC: What's Actually in Protein Powder?
Credit: photo by magnez2 via getty images

A common post-workout breakfast is often a protein shake or bar, tasting of chalk and chocolate or berry. That vaguely dusty flavor in these meals comes from protein powder, the substance sold in giant tubs in the supplement area of the grocery store. Often selected by those looking to add a significant amount of protein to their diets (without spending all their money on chicken breasts), protein powder helps repair muscles after an intense workout, or simply provide your body with enough nutrients to start the day. Ultimately, protein powders are shrouded in a cloud of mystery, and selecting one tub of magic dust from a shelf of seemingly identical products can be overwhelming. Plus, each jar of the stuff can run you over $30 if you're not careful, so really, how effective is protein powder? And what’s really in that tub?

Protein powder can be made from a variety of protein-rich ingredients, from whey to hemp to yellow peas. Both animal- and plant-based protein powders offer unique nutritional properties. The most common protein powders are made from whey, boasting high levels of amino acids that are essential to muscle repair. Whey protein is the liquid byproduct of cheese production—though you’re probably more familiar with it as the substance you pour off the surface of your yogurt. Cheap and nutritious, whey protein is often consumed just before or after a hard workout. To become protein powder, the flavorless liquid is dehydrated and mixed with flavorings and sometimes other nutritional supplements.

Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey is one of the most popular brands of whey protein. To create flavored versions of Gold Standard powder like “chocolate dipped banana”, “cookies and cream”,  and “birthday cake”, the powder obvious contains more than just whey protein. The “chocolate malt” flavor’s ingredient list reads: “protein blend (whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, whey peptides)”, which are different forms of whey that are processed differently to contain unique levels of fat and cholesterol in addition to protein. It’s sweetened with acesulfame potassium and sucralose (calorie-free sugar substitutes). Additionally, the powder contains creamer, soy lecithin (an emulsifier), Aminogen® and lactase (both protein-digesting enzymes) as well as cocoa, salt, natural and artificial flavor. It’s important to note that while this popular brand has a great deal of artificial sweeteners and flavors, unflavored whey protein powders do exist. Those are typically just some form of whey protein and soy lecithin.

There are myriad plant-based protein powders (among them hemp, rice, and soy), but the newest—and potentially most environmentally friendly—is pea protein powder. Unlike other plant-based proteins, pea is a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids. It’s nearly identical to whey protein in its nutritional makeup, but often is made with fewer artificial sweeteners and flavorings. For example, NOW Sports Pea Protein Dutch Chocolate Powder contains: pea protein isolate, cocoa powder, natural chocolate flavor, natural vanilla flavor, sea salt, xanthan gum, organic stevia (a sweetener extracted from the plant species Stevia rebaudiana), and xylitol (a sugar alcohol used a sweetener.)

Ultimately, adding a few extra scoops of protein to your diet is probably a positive thing, especially for folks who are trying to eat less meat. However, as with most supplements, it’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor before starting a new dietary routine.