I’m not exactly sure when protein powders became so mainstream. It used to be that only body builders bothered with them, but now everyone from suburban moms to high-rise living hipsters is on the protein powder bandwagon. After all, they promise so much: extra protein without extra food.
The first time I sought a midwife for prenatal care, she gave me only one dietary prescription: eat between 65g and 85g of protein per day. (Adequate protein levels during pregnancy have been proven to dramatically decrease swelling, varicose veins, and birth complications.) For the first time in my life, I went home and started thinking about the macro-nutrient levels of my foods. Turns out, my daily protein intake was nowhere near sufficient. We just didn’t eat that much meat, nor could we afford to (especially if we were going to stick to our grass-fed/wild-caught standards). When I expressed my concern to my midwife, she recommended a protein powder.
I hesitated to take it. In general, I don’t like isolating particular nutrients from foods. I’d much rather get my nutrition from whole foods rather than supplements. Plus, protein powders are definitely the product of industrialization. They are a completely modern food, new to the human diet, totally experimental.
Other typical concerns about protein powders have to do with how they’re processed. When created at higher temperatures, for example, the end result contains a large of free glutamic acids which act like MSG in the body. Also the high temperature drying method used to create the powders also tends to create oxidized cholesterol which contributes to heart disease. (Although, according to this, the oxidized cholesterol in protein powder is far less than what you’d get from eating a few scrambled eggs, so perhaps that concern is over-hyped.)
Eventually, though, I tried to find the least offensive brands of protein powder out there. I needed the extra protein, and protein powder seemed like an easy, quick fix for this tired momma.
What I soon learned was that the least offensive brands tend to be the most expensive. I was looking for a few things:
1. No added sugar.
2. No weird chemical or artificial additives.
3. Made from animals not treated with hormones or antibiotics.
4. Processed at lower temperatures to reduce free glutamic acids.
I wanted an animal protein powder rather than a plant based one simply because I wanted a protein powder with a high biological value (the higher the BV, the more protein is available to be absorbed and used by your cells). Animal proteins have a higher BV, and usually have a more well-rounded and usable set of amino acids in their make up.
But even then, even when buying the so-called “best” brands, I still noticed that I turned unusually aggressive and moody after consuming the protein powders. I don’t know if this was because of what little free glutamic acid was in them, or if it had to do with the sugar alcohols like xylitol which were commonly used to sweeten the protein powders in lieu of sugar.
In any case, I decided to only use them in extreme moderation, only on days when my diet was otherwise severely lacking in protein.
In my most recent pregnancy, I came up against the same roadblock. I needed to eat a lot more protein than I was getting; how could I go about it?
That’s when I discovered a protein powder I could get behind 100%: gelatin.
What exactly is gelatin? Gelatin is just a processed version of a structural protein called collagen that is found in many animals, including humans. Collagen actually makes up almost a third of all the protein in the human body. It is a big, fibrous molecule that makes skin, bones, and tendons both strong and somewhat elastic. As you get older, your body makes less collagen, and individual collagen fibers become crosslinked with each other. You might experience this as stiff joints (from less flexible tendons) or wrinkles (from loss of skin elasticity). (source)
Traditional diets are very high in gelatin. Why? Because they eat bones and cartilage regularly in the form of homemade, slow-simmered bone broths.
Since we don’t consume broth with every meal, our diets lack gelatin. Using gelatin as a protein powder is like killing two birds with one stone. Not only do you get the added protein you need, but you also get the benefits of eating more gelatin (fewer wrinkles, reduced joint pain, less cellulite)!
I recommend Vital Proteins Gelatin. It’s minimally-processed, made from truly pasture-raised (grass-fed) cows, and works perfectly in recipes. It contains no added sugars, either.
When the gelatin protein is broken down one step further into its constituent peptides, it’s also flavorless, so you can stir it into hot drinks like coffee or tea without adversely affecting the flavor. It also blends well into smoothies and shakes. For blending into beverages, I recommend Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides over their gelatin because it dissolves better into liquids. (Warning: Collagen Peptides can not be used in recipes that call for gelatin since, unlike gelatin, collagen peptides won’t gel up when cooled.)
Both the grass-fed collagen petpides and grass-fed gelatin make an excellent, healthier protein powder!
EDITED 12/8/2015: This post used to recommend Bernard Jensen and Great Lakes brands gelatin because both used to be entirely from grass-fed cows. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, so I updated the post to reflect my current recommendations.