When you try a new protein powder, you put a scoopful in your blender or bottle and expect a smooth texture that goes down easily. Unfortunately, the end result might actually be chunky, chewy, or chalky initially and cause bloating, cramping, or other digestive issues later. In this article, we’ll help you find a higher quality protein that mixes better, is easier on your stomach, and delivers on its muscle-repairing, recovery-boosting potential.
Protein Digestion 101
First, let’s take a quick look at how your body digests protein. Once it reaches your stomach, hydrochloric acid begins breaking protein down and triggers the activation of pepsinogen, the precursor to pepsin. This protease cleaves protein molecules into smaller peptides and amino acids so that they can be absorbed in the small intestine. Once here, secretin and CCK continue the protein breakdown process, which is supported by other proteases like elastase, trypsin, and chymotrypsin that are released by your pancreas.
Your body then begins to shuttle amino acids into your bloodstream and take them to areas of your body where they’re reconstructed into proteins used for repairing the muscle damage that occurs during exercise, immune system function, cell repair, and more. Excess protein is utilized to produce ketones and glucose that your body uses for energy, and some is decomposed.[i]
How Isolate vs. Concentrate Impacts Digestion
The process detailed above occurs when you digest protein in food or a supplement. The two most common forms of the latter are whey protein concentrate and isolate. The concentrate form is created by removing the water and casein from milk. Formulating isolate takes several more steps, which starts with filtering out the carbohydrate and fat that usually make up around 20 percent of whey concentrate.
This leads to a higher amount of protein per gram of isolate than is present in concentrate. 90 percent or more of the former can be protein, while the latter is anywhere from 35 to 85 percent, depending on the process used. Early techniques for manufacturing whey protein isolate denatured some of the amino acids, but the ultrafiltration and cold-processing of more modern methods retain the fragile immune factors and nutrients in the protein. Whey protein isolate is more soluble than concentrate, as most of the other macronutrients have been taken out. This not only means that it mixes and dissolves more readily, but also makes it easier for your body to absorb.
As the process involves removing lactose as well, whey protein isolate is typically easier on the stomach and may still be usable if you’re lactose intolerant, have a dairy sensitivity, or suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As the authors of a review published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine put it, “isolates are the purest protein source available.”[ii] That’s why we settled on grass-fed whey protein isolate for our Essential Whey Protein and Recovery Protein products.
Plant-based protein concentrates vary dramatically in both quality and digestibility. Many are incomplete, meaning that they don’t supply all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own. Some are also difficult for your body to break down and utilize. In contrast, we combined rice and pea protein in Momentous Essential Plant-Based Protein. Together, these create a full spectrum amino acid profile. They also have high Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Scores (PDCAAS), meaning that they’re easy on your stomach and are readily absorbed. And as this unique blend is dairy-free, it’s perfect for those with food allergies and sensitivities.
The Power of Pre-Digestive Enzymes
For protein to be used effectively in your body, you need to digest it within 90 minutes. To this end, a blend of pre-digestive enzymes can be added to protein powder. This breaks protein down into a more bioavailable form, speeding digestion and maximizing the uptake of amino acids in your body. The most heavily researched option is ProHydrolase®, the proprietary blend of digestive enzymes that we include in the Momentous grass-fed whey isolate line.
Research has shown that ProHydrolase hydrolyzes whey protein faster and more completely than other enzyme blends. A team of exercise scientists from Lipscomb University performed blood work on several groups who took different protein blends after resistance training. They concluded that only those who consumed whey protein that included ProHydrolase had elevated amounts of amino acids both 30 minutes and three hours afterward.
The study demonstrated that the combination of whey and digestive enzymes increased the amount of leucine by 33%, BCAAs by 32%, and essential amino acids by 29%, while minimizing the amount of protein excreted. ProHydrolase also degrades 99% of the peptides in whey protein responsible for gastrointestinal discomfort. The takeaway? If you’ve suffered from indigestion, cramping, bloating, or other issues when supplementing with protein in the past, you should try a formula that includes ProHydrolase.
Natural vs. Artificial Flavors and Sweeteners in Protein Supplements
Another way that supplement companies cut their input costs and increase their profit margins is to include artificial flavors and sweeteners instead of higher-grade natural alternatives. Let’s take a quick look at the pitfalls of each.
Just as they often include low-grade protein, certain supplement companies cut corners elsewhere on their ingredients lists by using other cheap additives. One example is artificial flavors. These not only make such supplements taste terrible, but might also have a detrimental impact on your health. While we need to exercise caution with the results of animal studies, an experiment conducted by a group of Brazilian scientists ended with rodents that were fed artificial flavors suffering cytotoxic, genotoxic, and mutagenic effects. Artificial flavorings can also cause nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. That’s why we chose to include premium natural flavors like cocoa and vanilla in our protein instead.
Many supplement providers are eager to get in on the low-carb craze. To help reduce the amount of carbs in their protein powder, they might include sugar alcohols like maltitol, sorbitol, lactitol, and mannitol that keep their products tasting sweet while allowing them to put claims like “sugar free” and “no added sugar” on the label. However, when the gut bacteria in your large intestine starts to digest sugar alcohols, they release hydrogen, which can cause bloating, stomach pain, and other complaints. A study published in Nature even found that certain artificial sweeteners can cause glucose intolerance by having a negative impact on gut microbiota.
You’d be better off finding a protein that derives its flavor from real ingredients. If there is a sweetener, make sure it’s something natural like stevia that will improve the taste without the potential problems caused by sugar alcohols and other lab-created options.
[i] “Proteins Are Degraded to Amino Acids,” Biochemistry (5th edition), JM Berg, JL Tymoczko , and L Stryer, editors (New York: WH Freeman, 2002), available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22600/.
[ii] Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo, “Protein – Which is Best,” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, September 3, 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/#ref29
[iii] “The Science,” Deerland, available online at https://www.deerland.com/prohydrolase/science/.
[iv] Jeremy R. Townsend et al, “The Effect of ProHydrolase® on the Amino Acid and Intramuscular Anabolic Signaling Response to Resistance Exercise in Trained Males,” Sport, January 22, 2020, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7077235/