The Problem With Protein Powders (2023)

The Problem With Protein Powders (1)

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Pick up any bodybuilding magazine and you will find pages of ads for protein powders; or visit any health food store and note the containers of these powders. Typically such establishments feature a whole aisle of protein powders of various types—soy, hemp, whey and some newcomers like pea and rice protein.

These powders are promoted on the premise that bodybuilders, serious athletes, fitness enthusiasts and even ordinary people need more protein than they can get from an ordinary diet. If you surf the Internet, you will read on countless websites that these powders can confer health benefits on everyone and pose no dangers whatsoever. Sometimes you get a hint that they may cause indigestion and gas, or that overuse may leave you with kidney stones and gout. But overall, numerous fitness gurus promote them shamelessly as a way to build optimal endurance, build muscle mass and achieve good health.

Adequate protein is important for everyone, but especially for those who exercise rigorously. Protein is used for building and repairing muscles and tissues, red blood cells, hair and fingernails and for synthesizing hormones. Protein is necessary for reducing the risk of iron deficiency anemia and to support healing.

The question is, should athletes and others imbibe these protein products in beverages, shakes and bars? Perhaps the habits of traditional healthy peoples can give us a clue.

Healthy traditional peoples—so-called Paleolithic cultures—lived off the animals of land and sea. They preferred the organ meats and fat of these animals, always avoiding lean meat. For the Australian aboriginal, a lean kangaroo or a fish captured during the season when it was low in fat—was considered rubbish, and quickly discarded.1 The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who lived among the Inuit and Indians of Canada, noted that the Indians assiduously avoided lean meat: “The groups that depend on the blubber animals are the most fortunate, in the hunting way of life, for they never suffer from fat-hunger,” he wrote.

“This trouble is worst, so far as North America is concerned, among those forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North, and who develop the extreme fat-hunger known as rabbit-starvation. Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source—beaver, moose, fish—will develop diarrhoea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied. Some think a man will die sooner if he eats continually of fat-free meat than if he eats nothing, but this is a belief on which sufficient evidence for a decision has not been gathered in the North. Deaths from rabbit-starvation, or from the eating of other skinny meat, are rare; for everyone understands the principle, and any possible preventive steps are naturally taken.”2

Remember that Dr. Price described these people as well-muscled and hardy—splendid specimens all, exactly what the modern athlete is trying to achieve. They knew that a lean-meat diet would make them very sick, and eventually lead to death. What is the scientific explanation for this danger?

We need look no further than Chris Masterjohn’s article, “Vitamin A, The Forgotten Bodybuilding Nutrient” (Wise Traditions, Fall 2004). As Masterjohn explains, “The utilization of protein requires vitamin A. Several animal studies have shown that liver reserves of vitamin A are depleted by a high dietary intake of protein, while vitamin A increases in non-liver tissues. One explanation for this is that adequate protein is necessary for vitamin A transport. In one study, researchers fed radioactively-labeled vitamin A to rats on low-protein and high-protein diets, using the amount of radioactivity present in exhaled gases, urine and feces as a measure of the metabolism of vitamin A, and found that vitamin A is indeed used at a higher rate on a high-protein diet.”

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Masterjohn continues, “Vitamin A is not only depleted by a high intake of protein, but it is also necessary for the synthesis of new protein, which is the goal of the bodybuilder. Rats fed diets deficient in vitamin A synthesize protein at a lower rate than rats fed adequate vitamin A. Cultured skeletal muscle cells increase the amount of protein per cell when exposed to vitamin A and D, but not when exposed to vitamin D alone.”

In other words, eating lean meat or taking a protein powder sends a signal to the liver: “Send me vitamin A!” Protein consumed in the absence of fat, with its precious cargo of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A, is an effective way of rapidly depleting your liver of vitamin A stores.

What happens when the liver becomes depleted of vitamin A, so that none can be made available to the body when needed?

Vitamin A is key to almost every process in the body—the concert master, so to speak—not only for protein synthesis, but also for hormone production (including sex hormones like testosterone, and thyroid hormone); vitamin A is also key to immune system function, critical for healthy vision and hearing, plays a role in bone health, and works in tandem with vitamins D and K2 for everything from the prevention of heart disease to the production of feel-good chemicals. A diet of lean meat, or one that incorporates protein powders, is a recipe for hormone disruption, fatigue, depression, bone problems, auto-immune disease, vision and hearing problems, heart disease and even cancer.

In addition to flooding the body with protein, protein powders present other dangers. Soy protein is the most problematic, but all protein powders contain ingredients that do a body harm. The manufacture of soy protein isolate (SPI) is a complicated, high-tech procedure that takes place in chemical factories, not kitchens. The basic process begins with defatted soybean meal, which is boiled with a caustic alkaline solution to remove the fiber, then washed in an acid solution to precipitate out the protein. The protein curds are then dipped into yet another alkaline solution and finally spray-dried at extremely high temperatures.

The resulting proteins are invariably denatured, although some of the very tough proteins, like protease inhibitors, survive the rough processing treatment. These actually inhibit protein digestion—which may inhibit the digestion of some of the good proteins you are eating. These hardy molecules have been associated with digestive problems, pancreatitis and even pancreatic cancer.

SPI is mixed with nearly every food product sold in today’s stores—not only powders but energy bars, breakfast shakes, hamburgers and hot dogs—not to mention soy infant formulas. Consisting of 90 to 92 percent protein, the processing does remove some of the bitter, beany flavors of soy, and reduces the levels of complex sugars that cause flatulence. But studies have shown that soy isolates increase the body’s requirements for vitamins E, K, D and B12. Among the minerals, phosphorous is poorly utilized, and calcium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, copper, iron and especially zinc deficiencies appear in animals fed SPI as the primary source of protein in their diets. Soy protein isolates are also more deficient in sulfur-containing amino acids than other soy protein products. What’s increased during the production of SPI are levels of toxins and carcinogens such as lysinoalanines and nitrosamines.

Soy is unique among legumes in containing very high levels of isoflavones—these are plant-based estrogens—and they would be concentrated in soy protein isolate. These can block testosterone in men, causing infertility and even breast development. The isoflavones are also responsible for the thyroid-depressing effects of soy products, not just in highly artificial products like soy protein isolate, but also in more traditional ones like tofu.

Most athletes have learned that soy is not their friend; indeed soy products have definitely lost their luster. The prominent displays of soy milk and soy protein have disappeared from the grocery and health food stores, replaced by things like almond milk and hemp protein powder.

However, any plant protein powder will go through a similar manufacturing process—separation from the fiber by boiling in caustic alkaline solutions and then spray-drying at very high temperatures, leaving the proteins denatured and possibly toxic.

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Hemp protein may not carry a load of isoflavones, but it does contain cannabinaoids, the same substance found in its cousin marijuana. Not at the same levels, of course; hemp protein manufacturers are quick to point out that the amount of cannabinoids in hemp is only about 5 percent that of marijuana. But how much hemp powder are people imbibing? And are these problematic alkaloids more concentrated in a protein powder?

Pea protein is the latest legume powder on the market. One manufacturer describes pea protein isolate as “made from high quality non-GMO peas, by the processes of isolation, homogenization, flash evaporation, sterilization and spray-drying.” That sounds like three applications of high temperature! Peas may be much lower in isoflavones than soybeans, but they still contain many problematic compounds, such as phytic acid and difficult-to-digest oligosaccharides. These can be neutralized by proper soaking and traditional long cooking—but that is not how pea protein isolate is made.

Soy protein is derived from the waste product of the soybean oil industry—it’s the industry’s way of making a profit out of the high-protein sludge left over after soybean oil production. Whey is the waste product of the cheese industry. In the past, before Big Ag came along with its insane idea of separating all the species on the farm and raising them in single-species facilities, the whey from cheese making was fed to the pigs on the same or neighboring farms. This is the system still in use in Italy—the whey from the production of Parmesan cheese goes to the pigs on nearby farms to produce delicious prosciutto ham. This is hard to do when all the pigs are in South Carolina and all the dairy cows are in Wisconsin or Texas.

The problem with whey is that it eats up concrete, so you can’t put it in the sewers. But not to worry; the industry has figured out how to turn this delicate substance into a powder. In a complicated process, the liquid whey—separated from pasteurized milk that goes into most cheese manufacture—is put under pressure and forced through a membrane to separate out the proteins from the smaller molecules—this happens at least twice as micro-filtration and then ultra-filtration. The pressures used vary from 30 to 100 psi. Does this process damage the whey proteins? According to one Internet source, this pressure, although not considered excessive, is enough to change the hydrogen-bonded structure of water and therefore would also disrupt the protein structure.3 But just in case there is any life in the whey proteins after pasteurization and the filtration process, the resulting liquid is forced out a nozzle at 250 degrees C to produce a powder. The certain result is denaturation of the proteins and oxidation of the tiny particles.

Raw liquid whey is a wonderful source of glutathione, the body’s master detoxifier. But glutathione does not work after it has been heated. Whey can also be powdered through a freeze-drying process, but that is an expensive procedure, and few brands of whey powder on the market today are processed in this way. In any event, the whey has already come from pasteurized milk, and pasteurization temperatures alone are enough to denature the delicate glutathione.

The question remains: do those who undergo vigorous training, or even ordinary sedentary people, need extra protein; is it difficult to satisfy our protein requirements with a modern Western diet?

Protein requirements vary with age, gender, weight and the level of physical activity. In round numbers, protein requirements for men vary from about 50 to 100 grams per day; for women from about 50 to 75 grams per day. A man of one hundred eighty pounds engaged in vigorous physical training may need as much as 160 grams per day.

A good way to gauge our protein intake is to think of protein foods as providing blocks of about 25 grams of protein. In round numbers, the following foods provide about 25 grams of protein:

• 1 serving of meat, liver, poultry or fish (about 100 grams or 3.5 ounces)
• 1 serving of cheese (about 80 grams or 3 ounces)
• 4 eggs
• 3 cups milk

A woman’s protein requirements are met with two to three such units. Thus one serving of meat, one serving of cheese, two eggs and one pint of milk will provide about 75 grams of protein.

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A man’s protein requirements call for up to four such units. Thus two servings of meat, one serving of cheese, four eggs or three cups milk will provide about 100 grams of protein.

What about the bodybuilder or triathlon runner who requires up to 160 grams of protein per day? If he eats meat three meals per day, plus one serving of cheese, four eggs and a quart of milk (raw milk of course), his protein requirements are more than satisfied. This may seem like a lot of food to the ordinary person, but then athletes do consume a lot of food. And this is real food, food that the body knows how to digest, food that comes with its full complement of vitamins, minerals and cofactors.

With all this protein, athletes need to pay careful attention to getting enough vitamin A to assimilate that protein. As Masterjohn warns: “Bodybuilders and other athletes interested in gaining muscle have an interest in boosting their levels of testosterone and other growth factors and maximizing their utilization of protein and its incorporation into muscle cells. Typical recommendations usually include very high amounts of protein, but exclude foods like liver that are high in vitamin A, and lowfat recommendations all but banish vitamin A entirely from the diet by excluding foods such as full-fat milk. The combination of a high-protein diet that depletes vitamin A and a lowfat diet that fails to provide vitamin A is a clear recipe for deficiency of this vital nutrient. Exercises that elicit a high demand for testosterone, such as squats and deadlifts, are often recommended for muscle growth, but without vitamin A the body cannot meet that demand for testosterone. It’s high time for athletes to forget the modern mantras and remember the dietary wisdom of the past, achieving a lean, muscular physique through traditional foods such as liver, egg yolks, full-fat milk, butter from grass-fed cows and cod liver oil.”4

By the way, studies have shown that excess protein does not build muscle bulk. What builds muscle bulk in healthy athletes is strength exercise. As one blogger put it: “Tom wants to make his upper body bigger and increase his upper body strength (to impress the women, of course). He goes to the local health food store where he is told to increase his protein intake by eating protein shakes at each meal. He then goes to his sports med doctor and sports dietitian who tell him to eat a moderate amount of protein and swim three times a week plus do upper body weights three times a week. Which do you think will work?”5

And remember, guys, your athletic career will not last forever. When you retire, you will want to be healthy enough to enjoy your winnings, father healthy children and live well into old age. That’s guaranteed only with a diet based on real food, including organ meats and fat.


RICE PROTEIN is the latest darling in the health food world. Advertised as non-allergenic, easily digested and “completely
vegan,” most brands of rice protein are still made using caustic chemicals and high heat, although some are advertised
as produced using a “raw food” enzymatic technique. However, even those touting natural processing admit that the
resulting powder tastes bitter, even “repulsive,” so it needs to be hidden with other ingredients, namely sweeteners. Like all plant protein powders, it provides only incomplete protein, so it requires supplementation with some kind of legume. Just eating meat is a better alternative.

EGG WHITE POWDER is spray dried at very high temperatures and is likely to be highly allergenic.

CRANBERRY PROTEIN: Really? Made with the skin of cranberries pressed for juice—another waste product! Advertised
as rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, cranberry protein is unlikely to contain good quality protein. Plus, it will
need lots of sweeteners to disguise its bitter flavor.

ARTICHOKE PROTEIN: What will they think of next? Advertised as rich in inulin, a very difficult-to-digest carbohydrate
made of fructose molecules, it’s bound to cause flatulence and mess up your liver for good measure.

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BONE BROTH PROTEIN: Likely to be a major source of glyphosate (see page 34) unless made with organic, pasture-fed
products. Best to make your own broth with the bones of grass-fed animals.

Very few protein powders come without a number of added ingredients. These include:

SWEETENERS: Sweeteners are needed because these powders tend to be very bitter. Caloric sweeteners include both
sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The most common artificial sweetener is sucralose. Acesulfame potassium, considered by some to be the most dangerous sweetener out there, shows up on many of the labels. Then there is maltodextrin, a sweetener made from corn.

AMINO ACIDS: The most common is L-glutamine, probably neurotoxic and very bad news for those allergic to free glutamates. Many products contain a whole host of free amino acids, compounds that can have drug-like effects and should only be used under the direction of a qualified practitioner.

VEGETABLE OILS including sunflower oil and soybean oil. One label claims (illegally) that soybean oil will protect against
heart disease!

ADDITIVES including natural and artificial flavorings, food dyes, carageenan, cellulose gum, xantham gum, and monoand

COOKIE PIECES: No kidding, one product contains “cookie pieces.”

COCOA/CHOCOLATE: Workout buffs seem to love their chocolate—it’s added to so many of these products.

1. Rouja and others. Fat, Fishing Patterns, and Health Among the Bardi People of North Western
Australia. Lipids 2003 38(4)399-405.
2. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Fat of the Land, MacMillan Company, 1956

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.

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