Protein powders have become increasingly popular over the last several decades and while they once were more often associated with bodybuilders, that is not the case anymore. In fact, protein powers are now so mainstream they can even be found in your local grocery store and are added to a multitude of foods like milk, granola bars, cookies and more.  As you walk past a plethora of protein powders in the store, you may be wondering if they would make a good choice in your daily diet.  Learning what protein powders are, the different varieties available, their benefits and potential risks and how you can introduce them into your daily routine can help you better understand if they are a good choice for you.  


What are Protein Powders 


Protein powders are powdered forms of protein made from animal or plant foods and come in a few different forms such as whole protein powders, concentrates isolates and hydrolysates. 


  • Whole protein powders- are powdered versions of protein in its original form.  
  • Protein concentrates- are made by extracting protein using heat or enzymes, but  some carbohydrates, fats and micronutrients are retained, resulting in a lower percentage of protein. 
  • Protein isolates- are the “purest” forms of protein powder and contain high concentrations of protein (90 percent or greater). They are made by “isolating’ the protein which involves removing other nutritional components like carbohydrates, fats, vitamins/minerals.    
  • Protein hydrolysates-are “pre-digested” protein powders that have used heat, acids or enzymes to break down the chains of amino acid (protein building blocks)  into smaller chains or individual amino acids, which makes them more easily absorbed. 


Protein powders are considered “dietary supplements” so they are not regulated in the same way as food or medicine, and this leaves the quality and safety up to the manufacturer. 


What kinds of protein powders are available? 


There are a wide variety of protein powders available to choose from, depending on preference of the source, protein quality and quantity, dietary restrictions (vegetarian, lactose/dairy free) and many other specifics, including flavor. The main types of protein powers include: 


  • Whey protein- is one of the most popular protein powders on the market and comes from one of the two main protein forms in milk. When cheese is made the two proteins are separated and the liquid portion that is removed is whey. This type of protein powder is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids and provides a high content of protein per weight, with a typical one-ounce scoop containing at least 20 grams of protein, depending on if it is whey protein concentrate or isolate.  Even though whey comes from milk, there are lactose free forms available such as whey protein isolate, and whey protein tends to have a very mild taste and mixes easily. 


  • Casein protein-is another milk-based protein, being the solid milk protein substance when the liquid whey is removed. Like whey protein, casein also has a high protein content per weight, is complete with all essential amino acids and is digested a bit slower than whey which helps with feeling full. Casein may clump a bit more than whey protein when mixed into liquid or other foods. 


  • Collagen protein- like whey, collagen protein is also an animal-based protein and is made from the ground connective tissue of cows, chicken and fish. The most popular form of collagen protein powder is “collagen peptides” which involves breaking them down (aka hydrolyzing) to make them more digestible.  Collagen has a similar protein content to whey (about 20 grams per ¾ of an ounce) but it is not complete because it is missing the essential amino acid tryptophan.  It does have a mild taste and it mixes very well. 


  • Egg white protein- gives you the option of getting the benefits of high protein egg whites without having to crack and cook them!  Egg whites are dehydrated and pasteurized to create this food safe, easily digestible, complete protein that mixes fairly well and also has a mild taste. 


  • Plant-based protein- comes from a wide variety of proteins derived from plant sources.  Examples include soy, pea, brown rice, hemp and almond.  Soy protein tends to be one of the most popular plant proteins, has a high protein content, which is similar to whey and egg white by weight and is also a complete protein.  Other plant-based proteins like pea, rice, hemp and almond do not contain as much protein by weight and are not complete proteins. Plant-based proteins are suitable for those eating a vegan or vegetarian diet but do tend to be stronger in flavor and do not mix/dissolve as well as animal-based proteins. 


Are protein powders healthy and needed in the daily diet? 


We all need to eat protein regularly to support muscle mass and the body’s cells, like enzymes and hormones, as well as help with our bone mass.  Protein powders can be a way get more protein into the daily diet, especially if there are other sources that one cannot tolerate due to digestive issues (like milk),  certain dietary restrictions (like vegetarian/vegan) or if certain protein sources just are not appealing taste-wise.  Since protein powders pack a decent amount of protein in a small portion, they can be helpful to add more in daily for those that have higher protein needs, such as athletes, or those recovering from an illness with low appetite or needed for body and wound healing after a surgery. For example, a one-ounce scoop of many protein powders has an average of 20-25 grams of protein, which is equivalent of a three-ounce chicken breast or 3 eggs.  However, for those who do not have any problem regularly eating servings of high protein foods like chicken, fish, beef, eggs, milk/cheese/yogurt, beans and nuts, protein powders may not be necessary.  


How about protein powder safety? 


As with all dietary supplements, it can be helpful to consult with your health care team and a registered dietitian to determine if a protein powder is needed and to determine the best choice.  Buying protein powders from reputable manufacturers is important and reading labels is key.  While there are plain, unflavored protein powder from all the categories listed above, many protein powders contain added sugar, salt, added flavorings, as well as vitamins/minerals and even herbs. It can also be easy to overdo it with protein powders, so those needing to be careful with protein portions, such as having a history of kidney issues, should definitely be cautious and consult with a healthcare professional before consuming. 


What are some ways to incorporate protein powder into one’s daily diet? 


If it is determined that a protein powder is a good choice to add to your daily diet, some easy ways to incorporate them include: 


  • Blending them into a smoothie or juice 
  • Stirring them into soups 
  • Mixing them into yogurt or pudding 
  • Using them to make homemade protein bites and bars 
  • Adding them to baked goods like quick bread and muffins