An increasingly educated and health-conscious public is learning about the health benefits of supplemental protein powders, recognizing that they can be part of a healthy lifestyle for just about anyone, not just bodybuilders. In fact, mainstream consumers have replaced athletes as the primary market for energy supplements, which saw sales increase from $2 billion in 1998 to $5 billion in 2003, according to Mintel International Group Ltd.
Shawn Talbott, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Dietary Supplements and Supplement Watch, says that protein is a vital nutrient for general health and hundreds of body functions. "Because there is no 'storage' form of protein," he says, "all of the protein in our bodies is used for a specific structure or function." He says that the amino acids in protein help repair and regenerate damaged tissue following strenuous exercise or injury, and protein-based enzymes can aid in weight loss by regulating the rise of blood sugar. Additionally, Talbott says that protein promotes immune function and offers a valuable source of energy when stores of carbohydrates in muscle are exhausted.
These are some of the reasons that Molly Kimball, a sports nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, advocates the use of supplemental protein powders. "In addition to helping athletes gain or build muscle mass," Kimball says, "protein powders can benefit those trying to lose weight, those wanting to incorporate more protein into their diets and those recovering from injuries or surgery."
Talbott, like Kimball, supports the use of protein powders as meal replacements. "They can be convenient and affordable for busy people on the go and are much better balanced in terms of overall nutrition than many of the other 'convenience food' options that people reach for when they are in a rush," he says.
The increased demand for protein powders means that dozens of similar products crowd shelves. For first-time buyers, choosing among them can be taxing. Not only does the source and content of protein vary from product to product, but each manufacturer formulates and markets its powders differently. Retailers can help their customers select the product that best meets their needs by learning some protein powder basics.
Whey and soy protein
Whey and soy are the most commonly used sources of protein in commercial powders. Whey, one of the proteins found in milk, is low-fat and highly digestible. Studies suggest that whey protein can increase gains in lean body mass resulting from exercise and its branched-chain amino acids can help delay fatigue during endurance exercise. For these reasons, whey protein is a favorite among bodybuilders and endurance athletes. The immunoglobulins in whey protein are believed to stimulate immune function, making it beneficial to those recovering from injury or illness. Because of its high biological value, whey protein is recommended to anyone looking for a high-quality, low-fat source of protein. Individuals who are allergic to dairy products should avoid whey protein.
Soy, like whey, is a highly digestible and low-fat complete protein that provides all the essential amino acids. Soy protein has a proven ability to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Its isoflavones, particularly genistein and daidzein, have phytoestrogenic properties that can ease the symptoms of menopause for some women. These isoflavones also have antioxidant properties, and numerous studies have shown their benefit in fighting osteoporosis. Soy protein is a good alternative to whey for those who avoid animal products. While soy allergies are rare, those allergic to soybeans should avoid soy protein.
Rice, egg, hemp and goat's milk protein
Rice, egg, hemp and goat's milk are other sources of protein that consumers might find in powders. "They're all fine, as long as they are pure sources that provide the grams of protein that the consumer is looking for," Talbott says. Actually, he advises his clients to use a blend of various protein sources. "The blending approach, whether it is to take whey protein on one day and soy protein on another day, or to choose a pre-blended product to take every day, means that the consumer is getting some of the benefits of all types of protein and balancing the amino acid profiles between sources," he says.
Helping consumers buy protein powders
Processing methods have an impact on a protein's functional properties, as well as its taste and texture. When buying whey or soy protein powders, point customers to products whose labels indicate that they contain whey or soy "isolates" rather than "concentrates." Derived from either cross-flow micro-filtration or ion exchange filtration methods, isolates are higher in protein content and lower in lactose, fat and cholesterol. The ion exchange filtration method is said to create whey isolates that retain more of their immune-enhancing properties and soy isolates with higher isoflavone levels. Talbott says that consumers can opt for the less expensive concentrates and just use a few more grams of the powder to achieve desired protein levels, but warns that less purified concentrates may cause minor gastrointestinal upset in some people.
The amount of protein present in powders can range from as few as 10 grams to as many as 50 grams per serving, leaving consumers wondering how much protein is optimal. Most health care professionals recommend about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, which equates to about 9 grams per 20 pounds. Talbott advises consumers to seek powders that supply a balanced matrix of protein, carbs and fat. "It doesn't have to be as specific as 40/30/30, but having a blended product [versus a pure protein or nonfat version] tends to result in better satiety, greater weight loss and higher overall satisfaction," he says.
Most powders are fortified with an array of vitamins and minerals, enabling consumers to get their protein and their RDAs of various other nutrients in one place, but Talbott cautions people to be conscientious about the multivitamins and supplements they may take in addition to powders. "They better take a look at the doses they are getting, because they can easily and quickly add up to megadoses of certain nutrients," he warns.
The rise of protein powders
The increased demand for protein powders has left manufacturers competing for both shelf space and consumer attention. Marketers have started to downplay the "muscle-head" image of their products, instead highlighting their broader nutritional benefits.
Mintel International projects sales of energy supplements will reach $8 billion by 2008. Market researchers predict that the manufacturers that will find success in the energy supplements category going forward will be those that keep up with trends in product development, consumer education and marketing. As the industry responds to consumer desire for more convenient, higher performance and better-tasting protein powders, the energy supplements category will push into a much larger market.
Kristen Lewis is a freelance writer based in Arvada, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 4/p. 38, 40