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How Protein Supplements Are Processed (Within an Inch of Their Lives)

Have you ever wondered if there was some magical elixir that could launch your so-so sense of health into the realm of greatness?

If so, you’re not alone. Most of us spend our days feeling weighed down and worn down, looking for that missing puzzle piece to help us feel better and live better.

The potion we have to answer your calls, courtesy of supplement strategist and holistic health specialist, Dr. Neal, isn’t quite magic, though — it’s science.

Protein, albeit a fantastical elixir of life, has been scientifically proven to fuel our muscles, repair our tissues, and improve our brain functions. That’s a big part of why Dr. Neal put it in his Vital5.

That, and the fact that most of us Americans are barely hitting the threshold of minimum daily protein intake.

Protein supplements — the beefed-up brew you’ve been looking for — can bridge that dietary gap effectively when done right. But (because there’s always a but), getting the right protein powder isn’t as simple as grabbing the biggest jug with the biggest bodybuilder on the label.

Keep reading to learn about how protein supplements — plant and animal — are processed, so you can find the right power powder to galvanize your holistic wellness journey.

In This Article:

First: Supplement. Shake. Smoothie. What’s the Difference?

In a nutshell (protein shell? Maybe seashell? Any-whey…), protein supplements are specifically designed to provide an extra boost of protein to your daily intake.

They’re not really meant to account for protein-void eating habits, because as much as we wish we could, we can’t out-supplement a nutritionally bankrupt diet. However, there is one form of protein powder that toes the line: meal replacement shakes.

Meal replacement shakes contain protein — or at least they should — but they aren’t really protein supplements. If the shake is worth its price tag, it’ll have all three macronutrients needed (carbs, fat, and protein), alongside a bunch of other fruits, veggies, flavorings, additives, and maybe some vitamins.

So when should you choose a meal replacement shake over a protein powder? When literally all you have time for is mixing it in a Hydroflask before you hit the road. (Nothing wrong with that, we’ve all been there.)

But if you do opt for a meal replacement shake over a protein powder, don’t do the following things:

  • Add it to a smoothie — that’d be redundant since meal replacement shakes already include smoothie-esque ingredients.
  • Add a protein supplement powder to it — again, you probably don’t need it, and it’s a bit like wearing a hat on top of a hat.
  • Just pick the one with the most ingredients — this is usually more about marketing than it is about actual health.

Animal Protein vs Plant Protein: What’s the Right Choice?

Enough about meal replacement shakes, we’re talking protein powders here! And when it comes to the latter, there are two major teams vying for your cash:

Plant-Based Protein Options

  • Rice 
  • Bean
  • Pea 
  • Hemp

Animal-Based Protein Options

  • Whey (from milk)
  • Casein (also from milk)
  • Egg white
  • Collagen

So, which is better? Neither. Or both. Really, it’s all about personal preference. Both plant and animal proteins can offer a ton of benefits for physical health and well-being.

(Our deepest apologies to the rabid carnivores and hangry vegans hoping to start a multi-thread war in the comments section of this post — there’s no black-or-white answer here.)

But — because there’s always another but — both animal and plant protein supplements have some critical drawbacks, thanks to how they’re made. And yes, both are processed within an inch of their lives.

How Plant-Based Proteins are Processed + What to Look Out For

Processing, despite its negative rep in the wellness world, isn’t always the bad guy it’s made out to be.

Refinement, or processing, is actually meant to be a general term used to refer to any manipulation of protein — even cooking is considered a form of processing! What processing does is it changes the structure of the protein, often breaking it into smaller pieces or unfolding it.

Even though it’s not really the big bad wolf, we still want plant-based proteins that are minimally processed, since those are going to be the most bioavailable and nutritious option available.

Otherwise, the proteins in powder form you find on your shelf will be totally obliterated.

So before you trade your cold hard cash for a plant-based protein supplement, look for these three things:

1. Manufacturer Transparency

Because, if we’re honest, finding minimally processed, plant protein is virtually impossible unless you track down an ultra-transparent manufacturer.

2. Rice Content

Rice is one of the most common ingredients added to plant-based protein supplements because this carb compound completes the plant protein. But rice also has crazy high arsenic levels — yet another reason to find a competent, transparent manufacturer that tests for heavy metals content.

3. Added Amino Acids

While animal sources are rich in all 20 amino acids we humans need, plant sources…aren’t. Look for supplements that include these 4 commonly missing amino acids: lysine, methionine, threonine, and tryptophan.

Learn More: Protein Powders: Whey-ing the Pros & Cons | Dr. Neal Smoller

How Animal Protein Supplements are Processed + What to Look Out For

On the animal side of things, the grass isn’t much greener.

Animal-based protein supplements do contain those important amino acids, but by the time they reach your blender, they’re often just amino acids.

And we humans don’t digest amino acids that have been isolated during the refinement process nearly as well as we do those from regular old food.

So finding a minimally processed protein supplement from animal sources is just as critical as finding a minimally processed plant-based protein — you’ll just have a little less arsenic to worry about.

But even with marginally less arsenic, there’s still a whole host of factors to consider before buying an animal-based protein supplement. Keep these three (almost identical) things in mind before buying:

1. Manufacturer Transparency

Just like with plant options, a high-quality animal protein manufacturer can make or break your supplement process. Scheevy sellers often spike powders with synthetic, single amino acids (that we can’t digest well, remember?) to trick folks into thinking they’re getting a bigger serving of protein.

Look for companies that test free amino acid content to avoid those snake oil salesmen.

2. Heavy Metals Content

And while you’re at it, see if that same manufacturer regularly tests for other heavy metals in their protein powders. Animals, like us, eat food and drink water that is contaminated with lead, cadmium, etc., so even top-notch, well-branded protein powders will have some level of heavy metals in them.

Learn More: Prop 65: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

3. Quality Animal Sources

Though all animals will be exposed to a degree of heavy metals, you can still find protein options that are sourced from well-treated animals. This will help you cut down on the other icky stuff that can creep in — like antibiotics and synthetic hormones that unethical suppliers pump into their livestock.

Best Protein Supplement Options for Holistic Health

The main point? Do your own research. Doesn’t matter if you’re looking for quick gainz or trying to support your gut, skin, and bones with collagen protein — do your own research.

And yes, we are going to make it easy for you by putting our top three choices for minimally processed, high-quality protein supplements below, but you should still do your own research.


1. Top Pick for Protein Supplements: Collagen Peptides

Collagen is the main structural protein in humans and animals (and even bugs!), has a unique mix of amino acids, and mixes well with water, coffee, or smoothies. It’s gotten popular with the mainstream lately for good reason — it benefits not one but multiple body systems.

Our collagen peptides supplement is sourced from the happiest, fluffiest, most loved cows of Brazil, and is made of minimally processed hydrolyzed collagen, which means it’s easy to absorb.

2. Top Plant-Based Protein Supplement: Complete Plant Protein

Not to keep on tooting our own horns, but our top-rated Complete Plant Protein powder has an almost unheard-of yield rate: 76%!

Totally vegan and highly bioavailable, Complete Plant Protein combines pea and rice to create a complete protein of unadulterated, veggie goodness. If you’re looking for a copycat formula, make sure that it, like ours, doesn’t contain sugar.

Learn More: Protein Supplements: Are You Getting Ripped Off?

3. Honorable Mention for Whey-Lovers: Vital Whey

And if you’re an omnivore who just can’t get a-whey from milk protein, that’s okay too. Our top pick for this category is Vital Whey, every day of the week.

Vital Whey is minimally processed, making it one of the rare whey protein supplements that still contains the beneficial immunoglobulins and lactoferrin from its milk source. (And that milk, of course, comes from grass-fed cows.)

Plus, it’s sweetened with monk fruit and comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors.

Protein Supplementation Done Right

So, what did the savvy shopper say about the protein powder that was too highly processed to be digested properly? “Those are some a-mean-o acids!”

Just keep that terrible joke in mind the next time you’re standing in the vitamin aisle. Find the minimally processed protein powder that’s nice to your body (and hopefully the earth, too).

If you need a spotter for the mental weight-lifting we call the research process — hop on a free Counterside Consult. Expert guidance included, protein puns and Kardashian gifs not included.


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