Protein seems to be the nutrient du jour. Humans need it to help repair cells and encourage healthy growth and development, and it’s plentiful in eggs, quinoa, chicken and fish.
Now, regular foods aren’t the only places you’ll find it. There are also a wide variety of protein powders—whey, hemp, soy, pea and more—that you can add to foods that wouldn’t otherwise have the nutrient in high quantities, like smoothies and shakes. Even high-protein ice cream is now a thing.
But is getting protein from a powder just as good for you as getting it from whole foods?
In the ways that count most, the answer is no. “I work from a foods-first philosophy,” says Nancy Rodriguez, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “There are bioactive ingredients in foods that we can’t duplicate [in a powder], but we know are helpful.”
Eating a food that is naturally high in protein tends to also provide other nutrients a person might need, says Rodriguez. “When I see people only eating egg whites for protein, I tell them to also eat the yolk for vitamins A and B,” she says.
Other nutrients aside, the protein itself might not be the same quality in powder as it is in food. Protein provides people with the nine essential amino acids that the human body doesn’t make itself. While some protein powders contain the full amino acid profile, not every type has high enough amounts to meet a person’s needs, or even all of the amino acids. In general, animal-based protein powders—like whey, casein or egg white protein—are more complete than non-animal based ones.
Supplementing protein is not even necessary for average American adult, who gets 15% of all calories from protein. That fits well within the government’s recommendation to get 10% to 35% of daily calories from protein, so there’s no need for most people to add more.
Powdered proteins do come with a major pro: they’re convenient. That might be especially helpful for athletes and people who exercise frequently, since eating protein and carbohydrates after working out is important for recovery. Protein helps build and repair muscle, and carbs help people refuel and replace depleted sugars.
It’s easier to grab a protein smoothie at the gym than to put together a salad or sandwich. Protein powder isn’t more likely than natural protein to help you build muscle, but it can cut down on time in the kitchen.
Just don’t expect a trimmer physique or better health overnight merely from adding protein. Rodriguez says that people often add protein to their diet in the form of supplements and powders with the expectation that it will magically make a difference. “Protein adds calories, and just eating it does not mean you are going to gain muscle,” says Rodriguez. “It should be paired with an exercise program.”
“The bottom line is that when you get protein from whole foods, you are getting extra micronutrients and fiber that contribute to a healthy diet,” says Rodriguez. “It’s a more complete nutrient package.”