Pump You Up: The Enduring Power of Protein Powder
Everything you could possibly want to know about gym goers’ favorite hack
My friend David recently hopped on the protein-powder express. Everyone I know seems to be downing the stuff, but I never thought David would join them. He’s a world-class food photographer, a Brooklyn boulevardier, a brilliant cook. He’s also Mr. Natural. David shops at farmers’ markets, drinks biodynamic wine, eats with the seasons. He forages. But the last time I saw him, he confessed that Gold Standard whey protein is his new culinary bestie.
Why? David was on a mission to get ripped, and that involved intense lifting every day, and that meant his body was chewing up calories like Quadzilla. If he was going to build serious muscle, his trainer told him, he needed to eat 200 grams of protein a day.
That’s a ton of protein. The recommended daily amounts are 46 grams for women and 56 for men. In food terms, that equates to eating four large chicken breasts a day, which David actually did for a while, but he found it dull to spend that much time eating. More often than not, he’d reach the end of the day well short of his 200 grams — and a couple of scoops of Gold Standard 100% Whey (24g of protein per scoop), blitzed with bananas and berries, got him over the line.
I’ve written about food for 20 years, and I stay on top of nutritional science. I’ve eaten semi-paleo for years and I’m pleased with the beefcake-lite results, but I’ve always relegated powdered protein to the realm of health scams. I favor writer Michael Pollan’s rule about not eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. (Then again, my grandmother made it through the 1960s and 1970s on little more than cigarettes and Bugles.)
But it’s become obvious that protein powder is no longer a trend reserved for muscle boys. It’s a $30 billion industry. It’s being pounded by Instagram influencers, teenage athletes, and aspirational octogenarians. It beckons from coolers of ready-to-drink shakes in every Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods. What is so appealing about consuming daily dollops of beige powder?
Most obviously, it’s about getting fit, which is often really about not getting fat. And since Americans have been taught that high-fat or high-carb diets cause weight gain, that leaves protein as the only macro left to eat. And technically it works. Unquestionably, protein leads to general buffness in a way that carbs and fat do not. But taking that logic to the extreme gets messy. Eating highly processed powder that bears no resemblance to food (not even Bugles) has to be bad for you, right?
Proteins are biology’s masterpieces — incredibly complex molecules that can do highly diverse tasks. In a sense, they are life: All the actions that living things take, from moving and thinking to digesting and detoxifying, are done with proteins.
Consider your genes. You have about 21,000. Each one carries the genetic blueprint for making a single protein. Every moment, your cells are following the code in your genes and stringing together nutrients from your food supply to build new proteins. Amino acids are the Lego blocks from which proteins are made. There are 20 different amino acids and a typical protein is a twisting chain of thousands of them, coiling around itself, which gives it a unique shape, chemistry, and function. Some proteins form muscle fibers that contract, some snip food into pieces in your stomach, and some detect invaders.
But ultimately, as my friend David tells me, the quest for fitness isn’t about living longer, it’s about living more intensely, being able to crush life like a banana cream shake.
Every day, your body breaks apart the protein you eat into amino acids and sends those to your cells to be reconstructed into new proteins. There’s no way to store amino acids, so you need a new supply every day. For this reason, the body has a particular hunger for protein that can’t be satisfied with potato chips or cookies. Making sure meals contain protein can help control overeating. Because protein molecules are complex and hard to break down, they keep you satiated for longer and take more energy to digest. Compared to an equivalent amount of carbs or fat, protein will provide fewer excess calories to be stored as body fat.
In the developed world, most people get more than enough protein to meet their modest fitness needs. The typical American woman consumes 70 grams of protein a day without really trying, while the typical man eats 102. But serious athletes and bodybuilders need about one gram of protein per pound of body weight. They can benefit from a big pipeline of protein in a convenient form — like a powder. This is not news to the gym community. In fact, they’ve been way ahead of the trend for decades.
The first popularized protein powder was created by a man named Irvin Johnson, who ran a gym in Chicago. In 1950, he published an article in Iron Man, one of the leading musclehead magazines of the era, titled “Build Bigger Biceps Faster with Food Supplements.” This flew in the face of the weightlifting wisdom of the day, which held that a normal, balanced diet provided all the nutrients necessary for a well-sculpted body.
Over several articles in the next year, Johnson made his case for protein supplementation in Iron Man. “Are you interested in building bulging muscles, muscles with superb muscular tone, muscles rippling with strength?” he wrote. “Of course you are or you wouldn’t be reading this magazine. Let me pass on to you one of the great secrets I learned sometime ago about muscle building, one that has proven so very successful in my work here at the Irvin Johnson Gymnasium.”
Johnson goes on to accurately explain why protein is the only macronutrient that can build new muscle. His understanding of physiology was well ahead of his time, yet he was also a classic huckster. “Here at the Irvin Johnson Gym,” he wrote, “where records in muscle building are being made at all times… we are always experimenting with foods and supplements to find out which are the best to include in the muscle building diet. We have made up our own food, which is called, ‘Irvin Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food’. We have been using this new food for several months and the results have been wonderful.”
Some of the miraculous transformations described in the magazine defy belief. One young man reportedly arrived at Johnson’s gym weighing 169 pounds with 14.5-inch biceps. After a single day on Johnson’s formula, he jumped to 181 pounds with a 16.75-inch bicep. All according to Johnson.
Johnson Hi-Protein Food, which was soy-based, cost $4 for a four-pound bag, and buyers could choose from plain, vanilla, chocolate, coconut, or, inexplicably, black walnut. Johnson sold his powder exclusively through the York Barbell Company, whose founder, Bob Hoffman, was the godfather of midcentury American fitness. Hoffman published Strength & Health, the top fitness magazine of the time, and he was the coach of the American Olympic weightlifting team from 1936 to 1968.
In 1952, Strength & Health suddenly stopped advertising Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food and switched to Hoffman’s Special Hi-Proteen — available in plain, vanilla, chocolate, coconut, or black walnut. From then on, the York Barbell Company filled all orders with Hoffman’s powder, and Johnson was left in limbo. Hoffman’s Special Hi-Proteen had mixed success — it was notorious for the gas it produced in its enthusiasts — but Hoffman continued to introduce new nutritional supplements, accompanied by flamboyant testimonials, and he made a fortune (despite having dozens of products seized by the FDA for misleading health claims).
Johnson, meanwhile, wasn’t done. After laying low for a while, he changed his name to Rheo H. Blair and reemerged in Los Angeles in the 1960s as a nutrition guru to the stars, working with such he-men as Charlton Heston and Lawrence Welk. His recipe transformed, too. Instead of soy, Blair’s Instant Protein was based on dried milk and eggs, making it the forerunner of today’s formulations.
Do not underestimate how gross those early protein powders must have been. They were dried using heat, rollers, and other equipment that oxidized them. No one knew how to make the powders soluble, so they were gritty and bitter. That began to change in the 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of sophisticated membranes that could separate most solids from a liquid at room temperature. Today, using ultrafiltration membranes, spray-drying, and other technologies, it’s possible to concentrate proteins into soluble powders while preserving their integrity.
The options for cheap sources of protein have been, and remain, eggs, milk, and soy (with peas and hemp seed recently joining the pack). If you’re vegan, soy, pea, or hemp are your main options, and they all work just fine. (Ignore what you hear about incomplete proteins that lack certain amino acids; if you are eating a variety of foods, you aren’t going to have any amino deficiencies.)
Today the most popular source of protein supplement is whey, the byproduct of cheese making. To make cheese, milk is separated into solids (curds) and liquid (whey). The curds get turned into cheese, but for every one pound of cheese, there are nine pounds of whey to deal with. Today, many cheese operations could more accurately be described as whey-protein businesses with a little cheese making on the side. The top brand of whey protein, Gold Standard, was bought in 2008 by Glanbia, a giant Irish cheese maker looking to solve its whey problem.
If the goal is to get semi-ripped, then whey powder can be a godsend for all the reasons it appealed to my friend David. It’s the easiest, cheapest way to add a lot of protein without too many carbs and fat, and the amino acids in whey are exactly what your muscles are looking for.
But are any of these powders (soy, pea, hemp, or whey) healthy?
Lots of folks have tried to pin health scares on protein powder, with limited success. High-protein diets have been accused of being hard on the kidneys, which have to process all those aminos, though this doesn’t seem to be a problem for people with healthy kidneys. A bigger concern is that people who pound protein might not get enough other micronutrients, which are mostly found in carb-rich fruits and vegetables.
But the biggest issue with protein powders is what else might be in them. Like all dietary supplements, they receive no governmental safety testing. It’s up to the companies to conduct their own testing, and based on what third parties have found, some aren’t doing a very good job. Heavy-metal contamination is commonplace. In 2018, the Clean Label Project analyzed 134 of the top protein powder products. Seventy percent tested positive for lead, 74% for cadmium, and 55% for BPA, a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor. Worth noting: Organic products had twice the heavy metals (but lower levels of BPA) compared to nonorganic, and plant-based products were the most contaminated, while egg-based products were the least. Some products (Puori vanilla, Biochem vanilla, Body Fortress vanilla) tested low for all metals, but there wasn’t much consistency among the products of a particular brand.
There are other concerns, too. Some researchers have found links between high-protein diets and diabetes or heart disease, though more research is needed. High-protein intake also stimulates cell proliferation, which is great if you’re trying to make more muscle cells, but not so great if you’re trying to prevent cancer or cell aging. Serious bodybuilders have a disturbing habit of dying young. High-protein eaters may burn twice as bright, but half as long.
But ultimately, as my friend David tells me, the quest for fitness isn’t about living longer, it’s about living more intensely, being able to crush life like a banana cream shake. I thought about that this morning as I stared at a scoop of protein powder on my kitchen counter. It was biology’s masterpiece, sitting there in a kind of suspended animation. How could I resist the opportunity to raise it from the dead, to transform it into even more living, breathing, flexing, pumping me?