Protein powders – what are they and do you need them?

Written by on Thursday, 12 June 2014.
Tagged: high protein, protein

Protein powders – what are they and do you need them?
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Protein is essential for our bodies. It is needed for growth, reproduction and healing as well as supporting a healthy immune system. Protein also helps to keep us satisfied for longer after a meal which is one of the reasons the high protein, low-carb diet is popular.

Guest post by dietitian Zoe Wilson APD

How much protein do we need a day?

We don’t actually need as much as some would have us believe - and more is not necessarily better. For women,  50 grams per day and for men 65 grams per day is recommended although modest amounts more than this is often suggested. For example, for women, 75 g a day while for menm 100 g a day. For men, this is equivalent to the amount of protein found in a small steak (100 g raw weight) and 2 eggs plus a multigrain bread roll or a 200 g tub of natural yoghurt. Eating too much protein can be a problem as it puts excess pressure on your kidneys and increases the amount of calcium excreted in the urine, risking bone health in the long-term.

Why would you buy a protein powder?

From marathon runners to body builders and those bulked-up football players, many athletes use protein powders to help them build muscle mass. Those who are trying to gain weight or even those who are on a liquid diet for some reason – think mouth surgery or a broken jaw  – may need to take concentrated forms of protein in liquid form too. However, if you just want to feel full and beat the 3pm munchies then there are better, healthier and cheaper alternatives and if you think it’s a weight loss solution think again! (see below).  Protein shakes are not the magic answer to all your weight woes many would have you believe.

Protein shakes are no longer sold only in those body building stores and gyms. In fact they are now so popular in Australia that you can easily buy a tub at your local supermarket or service station! With tempting claims like “Facilitates muscle toning and endurance”, “Contains transformation-making protein” and “Tastes incredible, mixes easily”, why wouldn’t you grab one? Let’s take a look at what you get for your money.

What are protein powders?

There are many different types of protein powders but most consist of powdered forms of protein from soy, pea or dairy (whey or casein) with or without carbohydrates and other performance-enhancing ingredients like creatine, ‘fat metabolisers’, vitamins and minerals. When you mix them with water or milk, they turn into a milkshake or smoothie-type drink. Take a look at the ingredients list and it quickly becomes clear that these shakes are NOT purely powdered protein. There are a whole host of other ingredients including additives such as vegetable gums, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavours and indigestible fibre (inulin), some of which commonly cause symptoms like bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhoea.

What’s really in a protein powder?

Take a look at the ingredients in these two, well-known protein powders routinely found in the health food section of your local supermarket. You’ll be surprised at just how many ‘extras’ they contain.

 BSc Body Swiss Chocolate Flavour 400g tub  Swisse Recover Protein Powder Chocolate Flavour 400g tub
 BSc proprietary dairy protein blend [whey protein concentrate, micellar casein, whey protein isolate] Swisse Proprietary Protein Blend [Whey Protein Concentrate, Skim Milk Powder, Whey Protein Isolate, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin)]
 Soy protein isolate  Inulin
 Inulin [chicory (dietary fibre)]  Cocoa (4%)
 Glycine  L-Glycine
 Flavours  Flavours
 Cocoa powder  Magnesium Citrate
 Vegetable gum (415)  L-Glutamine
 L-Carnitine  L-Carnitine
L-Glutamine  Sweetener (Stevia glycosides)
 BSc vitamins and mineral mix (potassium phosphate, sodium chloride, iron, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B3, vitamin A, vitamin D3, chromium picolinate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin B1, folic acid, iodine) Ubiquinones (CoQ10)
 Chia oil powder (chia oil, modified starch [1450], vegetable gum [414], antioxidant [306])  
 Emulsifier (soy lecithin)  
 Sweetener (sucralose)  
 Green tea extract  

Just in case all those numbers mystify you, here’s the decoded version:

 Number  Name/explanation
 415  - xanthan gum, a common gelling agent which is produced by the fermentation of glucose by a strain of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris hence the name. Like most gums, xanthan is very high in fibre and safe to consume.
 1450  - starch sodium octenyl succinate, a modified starch that is produced from a waxy type of maize and is a beige-coloured powder which is tasteless and odourless. It is easy to use and works as a thickener and emulsifier in low-fat sauces and drinks. Nutritionally it’s like cornflour – pretty minimal in nutrition, just a thickener
 414  - acacia gum (Gum Arabic), is another gum used to thicken and create mouth feel when there’s little or no fat. It is a natural gum made of the hardened sap from two species of the wild Acacia tree which grows in Africa. 
 306  - mixed tocopherols – this is vitamin E and acts to preserve the life of any fats present and prevent them going rancid.

How do protein powders compare with an egg or a glass of milk?

We compared the protein, kilojoules and cost of BSc Body Swiss Chocolate Flavour and Swisse Recover Chocolate Flavour (made using a cup of milk or water) to two eggs or a glass of skim milk.

   2 eggs  250ml skim milk  Swisse Recover per 45g serve made with 250ml skim milk  Swisse Recover per 45g serve made with 250ml water  BSc Body per 25g serve made with 250ml skim milk  BSc Body per 25g serve made with 250ml water
Energy (kJ)   581  368 1040   675  757  389
 Protein  12.7  9.3  34.2  25  28.1  18.8
 Cost per serve $0.55 - $1.00  $0.55  $4.10  $3.60   $2.50  $1.95

At 19 to 34g of protein per serve, the protein powders have one-and-a-half to three times more protein than the two eggs or the milk. This is equivalent to 38 to 68% of the recommended protein intake for women and 29 to 52% of the recommended intake for men – more than you get from most meals.

Sounds good, right? Just wait a second before you buy a tub… The protein powders are also higher in kilojoules than eggs or skim milk. The Swisse Recover made with skim milk has over 1,000 kilojoules which is almost double the 600 kilojoules recommended for a snack and almost three times the kilojoules of a glass of plain old-fashioned skim milk. It’s no between-meal snack.

The protein powders were most expensive, too. Per serve, they cost up to eight times the price of eggs and skim milk. There are better, healthier and more affordable ways to get your protein.

Can protein powder help you lose weight?

Increasing protein modestly can help you lose weight. Studies have shown a higher protein diet that includes low GI carbs is one of the most successful for weight loss as it helps keep hunger at bay and is easy to follow in the long term. The main problem with these powders is the extra kilojoules. If you’re adding protein powders in as extra snacks throughout the day and you don’t adjust and eat less at your next meal, then you’ll be adding extra kilojoules that will be stored as fat. Exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve!


Protein powders are convenient but food can be too - it is very easy to increase the amount of protein in your diet through food alone. For example, make sure you always have some protein at each meal - eggs or yoghurt at brekkie, chicken or tuna in your wrap at lunch and some lean meat in a stir-fry at dinner and choose protein-containing snacks like a handful of nuts or a small tub of yoghurt or a hard-boiled egg.

To shake or not to shake?

For the average person, it's fine to increase your protein intake moderately if you're looking for weight loss, but there's no need to overdo it - it’s really easy to get enough protein through diet alone. Instead of paying top dollar for protein powders, why not look to good old fashioned food like dairy, eggs, fish, meat or nuts, to keep you full and help with muscle-building and weight loss.

By choosing whole food over protein powders you know you’re eating something minimally processed and packed with other great nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. You’ll also cut out any artificial ingredients and all for a fraction of the cost. Don’t be fooled by those claims sprawled across the front of the packet and always remember, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is - no powder beats a healthy diet for health and happiness in the long run.

Guest post by accredited dietitian Zoe Wilson who blogs at