Is protein powder paleo? And what kind should I use? These two questions are very common in the paleo community, however the answers are not as black and white as you would want them to be…as is with most things in the paleo world.
Let’s recap. Paleo is all about eating real food that has gone through as little processing as possible. We try to avoid chemicals, additives, preservatives, refined sugar, hydrogenated oils and the list goes on. To extract protein from the real foods that contain them, the manufacturers have to go through a certain amount of processing. They would then combine that protein with a bunch of other ingredients in order to make the powder which you pop in your blender to make a green protein smoothie. We can all agree that the egg white protein powder is not the same as the egg white in your scrambled eggs; the whey protein powder is not the same as eating a piece of beef or fish; and the hemp or pea protein powder is not the same as eating fresh garden peas.
Looking at protein powders this way you might argue that it’s not real food and it’s not paleo. But what about olive oil or coconut oil? Bottles of EVO don’t grow on trees, someone actually has to extract the oil out of the fruit before it ends up in your salad dressing. Tapioca flour or coconut sugar also go through a certain amount of processing before they can be packaged for purchase and consumption.
What I am getting at is that the protein powders, like many other processed products we still safely consume on a paleo diet, are not created equal. When determining whether you should add protein powder to your pantry staples and which type you should choose, there are a few factors to consider. That’s why I’ve put together this simple guide to paleo friendly protein powders. I’ve collated information from multiple sources and I am certainly not THE protein experts so please let me know if anything is incorrect or unclear and I’ll do my best to follow up.
When protein powders are useful
I always recommend getting protein from real food as much as possible – stocking up on eggs, fish, chicken, seafood, beef jerky, some nuts and seeds, and even dairy for those who can tolerate it. Our vegetarian friends might have to add things like green peas, safer grains like white rice and pseudo-grains like buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth (soaked, sprouted and fermented if possible to deactivate the antinutrients) to the mix. However, there are times when people will benefit from having a good protein powder on hand.
- When you need extra protein (training for a rock-climbing comp?) and you feel like something different to the foods I mentioned above – we all want a little variety.
- When you’re too busy to prepare a protein rich meal or you didn’t stock up on protein rich foods and you get caught out – that’s when a protein shake or a smoothie is a great addition.
- When you need something high in protein on-the-go like homemade protein bliss balls or a protein bar (check out our recipe for protein bars here).
- When you want a protein rich breakfast (as you should) but you need a break from eggs, meat or seafood – having a protein smoothie or some protein pancakes might be a good choice.
- When you’re having issues chewing or swallowing food (wisdom teeth anyone?).
- When, like me, you simply want to be more sustainable and eat a little less meat. I do ‘meat-free days’ or a ‘meat-free meal’ regularly and that’s when a good protein powder comes in handy.
How to choose the best protein powder for you
There are lots of different protein powders on the market – whey, casein, egg white, soy, hemp, pea, and brown rice. Some are more paleo friendly than others, depending on your own framework, health, sensitivities and wallet. However, the source of the protein in the powder is often not the ingredient you should be concerned with the most.
For example, here are the ingredients in a generic whey protein powder in cookies & cream flavour.
INGREDIENTS: Protein Blend (Whey (Milk) Protein Concentrate (WPC80), Hydrolysed Whey (Milk) Protein, Whey(Milk) Protein Isolate), Cocoa Powder (Sulphites), Emulsifiers (Soya Lecithin, Acacia Gum), Bulking Agent (Xanthan Gum), Maltodextrin, Sweetener (Sucralose), Cream Flavouring, Triacetin, Anti-Caking Agent (Silicon Dioxide), Sucrose, Vegetable Oil, Biscuit Flavouring, Lactoperoxidase(Milk), Vitamin C (as Sodium Ascorbate), Vitamin E (as dl-Alpha Tocopherol), Colour (Beta Carotene). For Allergens – See ingredients in bold.
I can’t even pronounce some of these ingredients, which triggers an automatic alert reaction in my brain.
When choosing protein powder, make sure to read the labels to make sure that the powder contains natural ingredients, no added sugar (safer sweeteners like stevia are ok), no weird chemically sounding additives, and do some research into anything you’re not sure about. Don’t hesitate to email the company to find out more about the ingredients or the processes involved in manufacturing the product. You might also consider the sources of the ingredients (e.g. organic, GMO, fair-trade, local) and even how sustainable the packaging is. Typically, I choose mildly flavoured or unflavoured protein powders because I find them more versatile.
Here is a quick breakdown of protein sources and how they compare against each other
Whey protein is a mixture of globular proteins isolated from whey, the liquid created as a by-product of cheesemaking. After milk has been curdled and strained, you’re left with a semi-white watery liquid that contains a bunch of proteins that contain all essential amino acids.
Because whey contains traces of lactose (sugar in the milk), it can be problematic for people who are intolerant to it. Casein (another protein in the milk) that some people are sensitive to is almost entirely absent in whey as casein is what whey separates from during the curdling process of the cheesemaking.
Whey protein can be concentrate (less processed but with less protein percentage), isolate (higher protein percentage and less traces of dairy), or a more priced hydrolysate (pre-digested and more easily absorbed).
Because whey is derived from dairy, it’s not technically paleo but it’s a good source of protein for those who can tolerate small amounts of lactose. Mark Sisson is a big fan! Choose whey isolate if you can afford it as it’s even lower in lactose elements, and if not, go for the concentrate.
Should you buy grass-fed whey? It’s probably somewhat more nourishing and better for the cows but there aren’t huge benefits when it comes to protein specifically. You’re better off saving the money to buy grass-fed meat.
Casein is the other protein derived from milk. It’s absorbed slower than whey, supplying amino acids to the muscle over a prolonged period of time. It’s a popular protein with body-builders, who often take it before bed, but it’s even more problematic than whey for those with dairy allergies or autoimmune conditions. Some believe that combining both casein and whey is the optimal way to consume protein, which is why milk (contains both) is so popular in body-building. Not as paleo friendly as whey in my opinion.
Egg white protein is another great source of protein with all amino acids and it has been around even before whey and casein became popular in the 90’s. It’s naturally lactose free so it’s suitable for those avoiding dairy, and if made from purely egg whites, it should technically suite those following an autoimmune protocol, however egg whites can also be allergenic so proceed with caution. It’s highly bioavailable, low carb and contains about 24 grams of protein per 30 gram scoop. Look for egg white protein from free range eggs and avoid whole egg protein to avoid any oxidised yolk cholesterol. Paleo friendly!
Typically, plant based protein powders are slightly lower in protein that the animal-derived sources and are not as efficiently absorbed by the body. Individual plant derived protein powders might not contain all essential amino acids (except for hemp), that’s why you will often see them combined in a powder blend. However, they can be a great alternative for vegetarians and those who can’t tolerate dairy or eggs.
You will typically find protein powders derived from pea, rice, hemp or quinoa on the market. These are all forms of legumes, grains, seeds and pseudo-grains. While the paleo diet shuns the consumption of most grains and legumes because of the toxic antinutrients they contain (phytates, lectins, saphonins, and trypsin inhibitors), there are a few caveats.
Legumes from edible pods like green peas and green beans are generally allowed on a paleo diet because they contain lower and less toxic antinutrients than other grains or mature legumes. Any present toxins are also less stable in young pods and are typically deactivated or negated during the cooking process.
Soaking and sprouting legumes and grains before cooking also helps to reduce the amounts of above mentioned antinutrients, and increases the bioavailability of beneficial nutrients. Fermentation is even more effective in deactivating toxins and improving the digestibility of these foods. Read this article on Mark’s Daily Apple about soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains and legumes.
If you’re looking for a plant based protein powder that is paleo friendly, I suggest pea or hemp protein, or protein powders from grains and legumes that have been soaked, sprouted or fermented. I quite like the Amazonia’s Raw Fermented Paleo Protein, which I have been testing out in smoothies and protein bars recently. Most of its ingredients are fermented: soaked, sprouted and fermented peas, fermented nuts and seeds, fermented veggies, fermented quinoa and millet, fermented chia and flaxseed. Some of these might appear as not ‘pure’ paleo (hey, neither am I) but they are all derived from organic, natural, real ingredients, and contains no added sugar and nothing I can’t pronounce, and they form a complete amino acid profile. When I emailed the powder producers asking them about those ingredients they gave me a pretty satisfactory response:
“We are pleased to let you know that the form in which we use the golden pea, millet, quinoa is in fact in a sprouted, vegetable form and does not resemble grains nutritionally. We soak, sprout and ferment the pea and pseudo-cereals to deactivate the antinutrients that Paleo dieters avoid, making it a paleo-friendly form. Furthermore, the fermented status of the protein ensures easy digestibility and is beneficial to gut health, which is a cornerstone of Paleo philosophy. The inclusion of Sacha Inchi is also a great addition for Paleo followers, as it has a very high omega 3 content, which is another feature of the Paleo diet.”
So, you really have to pick your battles when it comes to plant based protein powder. If you want 100% pure paleo, then stick to eggs and meat, but if you want to be more sustainable or you can’t tolerate other protein powders, then a good blend of proteins from quality sourced, preferably pre-soaked, sprouted or fermented grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes might be your ticket!
Quick guide to plant based protein sources
- Pea protein is usually isolated protein from the golden pea husks.
- Hemp protein is derived from hemp seeds (don’t worry, this is not the variety that will get you high) and is generally lower in protein than animal-based powder. It is high in fiber and contains all essential amino acids and a good ratio of Omega 3 to 6, making it a pretty good choice of vegetarians.
- Rice protein powder is isolated protein from the brown rice grain.
- Soy protein – computer says no! Avoid it if you can.
Now that you have a better idea of why and how to choose protein powder, here are some ways to use it.
- Shakes and smoothies – add coconut milk, coconut water, regular water, almond milk, fresh and frozen fruit and berries, cacao powder, nut butters, greens, superfood powders.
- Bliss balls or energy balls – add the powder to nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and coconut oil and process in a food processor, mould into bite size balls and keep in an air-tight container in the fridge for a quick post-workout snack or a lunch box addition.
- Protein bars and muesli slices – check out our recipe for a breaky protein muesli bar for inspiration (link to be added).
- Mix in the cakes and muffins.
- Make protein pancakes such as these 3 Ingredient Protein Pancakes from PaleOMG
- Add to ice-cream and popsicles.
- Add to chia pudding, paleo ‘oatmeal’ or ‘porridge’, check out some ideas here.
- Make a protein rich hot chocolate – yum!
Whey Isolate Concentrate – Mark’s Daily Apple
Soaked, sprouted and fermented Grains – Mark’s Daily Apple
Millet on the paleo diet – The Paleo Diet
Why Golden Pea Protein is Great For Paleo Diets – Nuzest
Is is Primal? 10 Foods Scrutinised – Mark’s Daily Apple
Goitrogens – Why You Don’t Need To Avoid Them – Autoimmune Paleo
Casein – Wikipedia
Pros and Cons of Egg Protein Powder – Super Human Coach
Hemp Permitted On Paleo Diet – The Paleo Diet
Is Hemp Primal? – Mark’s Daily Apple
FAQs – Is Protein Powder Ok On A Paleo Diet? – Balanced Bites
Paleo Protein Powders – Paleo Leap
Are Lectins Bad? – The Paleo Mom
Protein Supplement Nutrition Guide – The Greatist
Fallon S, ‘Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats’, New Trends Publishing Inc,US; 2Rev Ed edition (1 Sept. 2009)
Disclosure: This post was somewhat sponsored by Amazonia in 2015 (nothing to do with Amazon). I have been planning to do a guide to paleo protein powders for a while because it always comes up in questions. I wanted to include the Amazonia paleo protein specifically because it is quite different to other plant based powders on the market. Yes, I received their product for free and I was compensated for developing a recipe using their product. All opinions are my own and I only work with products I genuinely like and think would be relevant to my audience.
Related: Is Almond Milk Healthy?