The reasons why protein powder is not a health food even when organic and manufactured at low temperatures with three safe alternatives to try instead.
If there’s anything that greatly concerns me, it’s pregnant ladies drinking smoothies fortified with protein powder. Or, munching other high protein low carb snacks. These foods are used in a quest to reach the magical number of protein grams per day recommended by their OB or midwife.
When I was pregnant with my third child, I was horrified at one prenatal visit to find a basket of soy protein bars in the waiting room! This was at a birth center staffed by midwives who should have known better.
Even conventional authorities remain skeptical of this so-called health food. Kathy McManus, a registered dietician and Director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had this to say to the Harvard Health Letter:
I don’t recommend using protein powders except in a few instances, and only with supervision. (1)
This warning is especially important because it includes all brands of protein powder. It does not matter what the source of the protein is (whey, rice, soy, pea, etc.) or whether it is organic.
Dirty Secrets of Protein Powder Processing
The production of protein powder involves a shockingly high level of processing.
Think about it… making this stuff requires complete separation of the protein portion of whatever whole food is the primary source! In other words, you can’t make it in your kitchen very easily. It requires a factory to produce.
Consider this information from Sally Fallon Morell, President of the Weston A. Price Foundation sent out to all Chapter Leaders about why protein powders are not food and should be avoided:
- High-protein, low-fat results in the depletion of fat-soluble vitamins, particularly [true] Vitamin A. Ask Randy Roach, a bodybuilder who became blind using protein drinks. Filed as top secret in U.S. government files: People in Guatemala became blind when given skim milk powder as food aid.
- High protein processed foods cause autoimmune problems, fatigue, thyroid problems, cancer, etc. The most fundamental lesson of traditional cultures: they never ate lean meat.
- Proteins are very fragile– high temperature [and even low temperature] processing denatures the proteins, the body must mount an immune response.
- Lots of additives, carcinogens formed during processing (nitrates, etc.) Others added to these powdered mixtures. Tend to be high in MSG (also formed during processing).
- Where does the whey protein powder come from?? It is the waste product of conventional cheese making, confinement cows, etc. This is a similar story for other protein powders. They are a waste product from manufacturing something else. Soy protein is a waste product from making soy oil, etc.
Protein Powders During Pregnancy
While adequate protein intake is indeed important during pregnancy, getting this macronutrient via highly processed protein powders and high protein foods is a disastrous choice. This is because these same ladies that are drinking high protein smoothies and protein bars are very likely avoiding saturated fat at the same time.
A diet high in protein and low in fat rapidly depletes Vitamin A stores. Natural vitamin A from food (not beta carotene or synthetic palmitate) is necessary for optimal fetal development.
Whole foods containing large amounts of protein naturally include protective amounts of fat such as eggs and grass-fed beef. On the other hand, high protein processed foods are devoid of any fat in most cases. This makes them particularly dangerous for regular consumption.
Depletion of Vitamin A stores during pregnancy is a dangerous problem. This nutrient is critical to preventing birth defects such as cleft palate, cleft lip, major heart malformations, and hydrocephalus. Vitamin A is also the “beauty vitamin” responsible for symmetry in physical and facial features.
Vitamin A deficiency from consumption of high protein foods is not assisted by prenatal vitamins either as these worthless pills do not contain true vitamin A but instead the synthetic version, Vitamin A Palmitate or the plant-based version beta carotene. Little of this is converted to true Vitamin A.
Vitamin A depletion when consuming high protein processed foods is also risky for the average individual as well. Symptoms of Vitamin A depletion include:
- Heart arrhythmias
- Kidney problems
- Autoimmune disease
- Thyroid disorders
Negative calcium balance is also a risk with high protein, low-fat diets which means that more calcium is lost than what is taken in. The consequences of negative calcium balance include bone loss and nervous system disorders.
Know anyone who drinks a high protein smoothie every day for lunch who develops a bizarre neurological disorder out of the blue? I personally know several.
I’ve wondered about the stories in the news of young, healthy, vibrant male athletes, some only in high school, who inexplicably drop dead during competition. Or, seem prone to dangerous, full body cramping dehydration despite drinking plenty of water. Could these young men be eating lots of protein, much of it processed, while on a low-fat diet in order to build muscle and strength as recommended by bodybuilding magazines? Such misguided advice would rapidly deplete Vitamin A stores which could potentially lead to heart arrhythmia and sudden death.
Other Problems with High Protein Foods
Besides the depletion of Vitamin A stores, high protein processed foods contain potentially large amounts of MSG in the form of protein isolates. Separating protein from its food source during manufacturing results in the creation of MSG. It is essentially the amino acid glutamic acid gone bad. Therefore, MSG is present in high protein processed foods but it is not on the label because it is not technically added to the final product. It is created during manufacturing and therefore is conveniently unlisted on the label.
Don’t buy into the “low temperature dried” protein powder fallacy as well. Low-temperature processing and drying of protein powders is a less damaging manufacturing method. The powdering process still denatures the protein, however. Whey protein, in particular, is very fragile and should not be dried or powdered.
A good rule of thumb is that no protein powder is a safe protein powder!
Protein Powders May Increase Risk of Death
One of the most worrisome studies published in 2019 involves whey protein. Shakes made with this type of protein are typically used to quickly build muscle mass.
Whey protein contains high levels of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, valine, and isoleucine.
Researchers from the University of Sydney found that mice whose diet is high in BCCA-containing protein but relatively low in other essential nutrients can have many negative effects on long-term health and lifespan. (6)
Researchers identified that the competition between BCAAs and another amino acid – tryptophan – in the blood led to lower-than-normal serotonin levels in the brain, resulting in negative consequences to health.
3 Healthy Alternatives
Getting a healthy protein boost in smoothie recipes, safe green beverages, and other drinks (not green smoothies) without using protein powder is easier than you think!
Try powdered gelatin or collagen hydrolysate also referred to as hydrolyzed collagen peptides.
The natural gelatin from bone broth is an option too although it is not ideal for adding to smoothies in this form.
Gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen have 11 grams of protein per tablespoon. They are colloidal substances which means they attract digestive juices similar to raw foods full of enzymes. Both gelatin and peptides are helpful to the digestive process and contain a protein kick to boot!
This collagen brand and this gelatin brand are excellent. They are third-party tested to be free of toxins including glyphosate residue which shows up frequently in these types of products at unsafe levels.
Another option would be to use nutritional brewers yeast. There are several good brands with no additives or synthetics that are low temperature dried. This whole food has 8 grams of protein per serving. Be sure to avoid brands that have dangerous, synthetic folic acid listed on the label.
Be aware that even natural gelatin contains small amounts of glutamate, so if you are particularly sensitive, you may wish to choose nutritional yeast as the more suitable alternative.
(1) Harvard Health Letter: The Hidden Dangers of Protein Powder
(2) Muscle-building Protein Shakes May Threaten Health
(3) Adventures in Macro-Nutrient Land
(4) Vitamin A: The Forgotten Bodybuilding Nutrient
(5) Vitamin A Saga
(6) University of Sydney: Put down the protein shake: Variety of protein better for health
Natural gelatin contains MSG or yeast contains MSG?
Hi Sarah, what are your thoughts on Collagen peptides? Are they similar to gelatin? I’ve been using the collagen peptides to make smoothies in the a.m.
Here’s my take on peptides: https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/hydrolyzed-collagen-uses-and-benefits/
I am dairy free and vegetarian and pregnant. So this is all a bit over whelming. Can someone shed let on hemp protein?
Hi Sara, I’m in exactly the same boat here. Vegan, pregnant and need more protein (I’m eating so healthy but still can’t reach the correct protein levels!). I’ve been browsing the web for answers, this is the only one I have found which is negative about protein powder. I’m not actually sure if Hemp powder would be included in the actual ‘protein powder’ category though, as hemp is all natural whereas other proteins are synthetic. I think as long as you’re being super healthy with a balanced diet, Hemp Powder should be fine. I’m going to go for it! Other mummas I’ve seen in forums did it and were fine. If you’re not up to it though, just keep eating that peanut butter, edamame beans and lentils! Please let me know if you’ve found any other evidence! Congrats on your pregnancy xxxx
With all due respect, Martha, the answer to needing more quality protein is to not be a vegan especially when you are pregnant. Eat some grassfed meat! You are endangering your child’s lifetime health as well as your own. Be smart and don’t latch onto politically correct eating trends that you will greatly regret in the coming years. Pregnant women NEVER ate vegan anywhere throughout history … why? Because it produced unhealthy children.
I know this is anecdotal, but a friend of mine are while food vegan while pregnant with twins this year and her midwife had nothing but great news for her vitamin and protein levels. She had a perfectly healthy pregnancy while plant based. She ate beans, tofu (though I’d suggest tempeh), lentils and nut butters throughout pregnancy.
How old is the baby now?
Could you please list some sources which show vetted studies to back your claims?
As much as you are trying to be “helpful,”making bold and absolute claims without some sort of foundational research to back those claims is just as misleading as what you point out. Education is not a series of warnings; education is an exposure to ideas.
Could you please, as I requested, post some links or resources (scientific studies, books, research papers, etc.) that you most definitely had to research in order to draw your simplified claims?
Check out the detailed information on how protein powder is processed in the industry manuals. There are no “vetted” studies of protein powder consumption that I know of. It is common sense not to eat processed and denatured junk that is loaded with MSG residue. I, for one, don’t need a study to tell me to avoid it. Protein powder is not food .. it is pseudo food that requires the complex machinery of a factory to make.
While your post certainly contains things people should consider, you base all of your recommendation of added protein powder with the assumption that an individual is on a lowfat diet. It would be nice if you had answered the question of if these same protein powders are still dangerous if a person consumes fat with it, like say, a few Tbsp of avacado or coconut oil. I’m pregnant and while I would love to say forget about it, I find I need lots of protein in the morning, and being allergic to eggs, and trying to stay away from nitrates in sausage and ham, all traditional high protein breakfasts are non existant for me, except for nuts, which you can only eat so much of. I plan on buying non dairy protein shke to help curb the morning nasea, but plan to add some coconut oil or other fat as well. It would be great to see another update with you answering the question about jut adding fat to the meal. In addition, one can fight the vitamin A depletion by eating sweet potatoes a few times a week, considering sweet potatoes have such a high vitamin A content. Thoughts?
Hannah, I don’t know if this will help you, but I eat a primal/paleo diet with plenty of grass-fed butter, raw dairy, grass-fed beef, as well as coconut oil and avocados. I rarely use organic protein powder, but I’ve noticed that every time I do, I get a terrible headache, my heart pounds and I feel very tired. So even if its “safe” to use protein powders on a high-fat diet, I know there is something in it that my body reacts to and that’s enough reason for me to avoid it!
One of the biggest issues with protein powders, to my understanding, is the creation of free form glutamate (MSG), which is an excitotoxin. It really is terrible for growing babies, or really for anyone of any age. While you may be getting enough Vitamin A by adding oils and fats to your shakes, you really can’t avoid the MSG, and, in my opinion, that is the scariest part. Aspartame is broken down into aspartate, which has similar effects to MSG, so steer clear of that as well. I just read a few articles on homemade protein powders. Maybe you could try googling that to see if there are any that might seem appealing to you. I am a vegetarian, so I have a hard time getting enough protein as well. Good luck and congratulations on your pregnancy.
What about using organic whey products that are not denatured and cold-processed microfiltration and small batch drying?
Thanks for the tips
Even if low temp processed, the powderization process denatures the whey so steer clear.
Sites like this are exactly what is wrong. Too much conflicting information. It all comes down to everyone is trying to sell their own product. Even Dr. Oz has sold out to the commercialization of the health conscience. So what is the truth? Who can you trust? Are their actually any NEUTRAL and genuinely health conscience educational resources among us?
Avoid the nutritional yeast, including Frontier brand, it is fortified with synthetic vitamins
This may be too late for a response considering the dates on the posted comments, however, I’ll give it a shot. I am trying to gain weight. I’ve always been thin and eating is something I frequently forget to do if I get busy. I’m 64 now and have extreme menopausal symptoms (hot flushes, night sweats). I read that skinny women are more likely to have problems with menopause, so, in addition to other things, I am trying to gain weight. I am an lacto-ovo vegetarian (have been for 40+years). I bought Webber Naturals® 100% Natural Vegan Protein Powder because it did not have soy or whey or any of the other things I had previously read that I should avoid. I make a morning smoothie with it and almond milk, yogurt, nutritional yeast, chia seed, fruit (et. banana, blueberries, etc) Are you familiar with this brand and if so, what is your opinion of it? Thank you. Donna
Hi Sarah, I couldn’t agree more with you on how frustrating it is to have people push protein down your throat when you are pregnant! During my youngest sons pregnancy I had been at a family barbeque and had to say no to the ridiculous amounts of meat my mother-in-law kept trying to put on my plate ”to keep the baby happy’!
I have a pretty good doctor and she recommended whey protein to me as an economical way of getting good protein without buying huge amounts of meat or having to eat bowls and bowls of beans or mushrooms. After some research I found this native whey protein which has tasted a lot better than previous brands ive bought. There is also no sugar, so no carbs!
They say that it is a lot less processed than other proteins because it isn’t a byproduct of cheese making. I’d have it with coconut oil every day, sometimes a banana and some spinach as well. I had a much faster recovery than my first pregnancy so I don’t really feel it is right to just ‘ditch that protein powder’!
Hi Sarah, I have someone asking about using whey protein and I’m referring him to this post (which i somehow remembered!) Is there any update to this that I should know? Whey protein is not on my radar at all! Thank you!!!
Hi Sally, I have on my list to write an update to this as there are some low temp whey protein powders on the market since this post was written that people are snapping up thinking they are fine and they are not. Thanks for the reminder!!
Most trainers say that immediately after a workout, having a meal high in protein and carbohydrates is the most ideal for muscle repair. A lot of the recipes for smoothies that don’t use protein powders are also high in fat. You don’t want that high fat for muscle repair. Are you aware of any smoothie that is high in protein and carbs, low in fat and doesn’t use protein powder. Otherwise, I would have to eat a protein(eg, egg whites) with a fruit smoothie.