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whole food protein: man pouring protein shake

Whole Food Proteins Are Hot Right Now—Here’s What They’re All About

When it comes to protein powders, shakes, bars, you’ve got a lot of options these days. The popularization of different eating styles (think keto and plant-based), increased awareness about food sensitivities, and other trends and changes in the world of wellness and nutrition science have made for an explosion of different ways to get your protein fix.

And while various plant- and dairy-based proteins have long dominated store shelves and online searches, inventive alternatives are popping up what feels like every day.

Often labeled as “whole food” proteins, many of these new supplement options utilize protein sources you probably fill your plate with regularly. Here’s what to know about them.

What Are Whole Food Proteins All About?

If you’re a fan of RedCon1’s MRE Protein Shakes, BodyTech Elite’s Elite Food MRP powder, or Garden of Life’s Dr. Formulated Plant & Sustainable Salmon MD Protein, then you’ve already hopped on the whole food protein train—perhaps without even realizing it. 

Though every product and formula is a little different, “whole food proteins are whey and lactose-free protein alternates that are composed of one or more animal-based proteins (like beef, salmon, chicken, or egg) and/or plant-based proteins (such as pea or brown rice),” explains The Vitamin Shoppe dietitian Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N.

Read More: 5 Times In Life When You Need More Protein

Some products might also pack in fruits, vegetables, and/or grains for extra nutrients, such as electrolytes, she notes. 

While BodyTech Elite’s Elite Food MRP powder gets its 24 grams of protein per serving from a combination of egg white isolate, pea, brown rice, chicken, and salmon proteins, Garden of Life’s Dr. Formulated Plant & Sustainable Salmon MD protein combines salmon, fava beans, organic peas, and sustainable Norwegian salmon proteins to provide 20 grams of protein per serving.

What’s The Appeal?

“Over the years, the sourcing options for protein supplements have been fairly limited,” Michels says. “Whey has been on one end of the spectrum and 100 percent plant-based options on the other.”

Despite its reputation as one of the most effective protein options in the game, not everyone wants a whey protein. Those with dairy sensitivities, for example, can experience gas and bloating when supplementing with whey, notes Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C., a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. However, that doesn’t mean they want to go full-on plant-based, either, Michels notes. And though pure egg protein has been around for a while, it never quite went mainstream.

That’s where whole food proteins, which often combine a variety of plant- and animal-based proteins, come in. Because these “middle-of-the-road” protein options provide a variety of important amino acids and often incorporate a variety of other ingredients, they’re a great way to funnel lots of quality nutrition into your hard-working body, Michels says.

Read More: 4 Things That Can Happen When You Don’t Eat Enough Protein

“Ive been hooked on Redcon1s MRE Lite Banana Nut Bread protein for countless months,” she says. “Sometimes I just need a fun switch-up in flavors to spice up post-workout recovery—and I think the consistency is more tolerable and enjoyable than many plant-based options.

In addition to being a great way to mix up your protein routine, whole food options are perfect for people with food allergies or sensitivities to whey, as well as people with autoimmune challenges, who might experience intolerances and digestive issues, according to Michels. “If you experience negative digestive changes with whey or 100 percent plant-based options, give whole foods a try. You may find a blend your body loves,” she suggests.

What To Consider When Choosing A Whole Food Protein

Since whole food protein powders, shakes, and bars can contain such a wide variety of protein sources and other ingredients, it’s important to put on your detective hat when perusing product labels in order to select a product that meets your quality standards and dietary preferences. 

Cooney recommends looking at three things in particular when choosing a whole food protein product: 

  • The protein sources included: If you have any true dietary restrictions, it’s important to look at the different proteins a given product features. (Those with egg allergies, for example, might want to stick with a whole food protein product made without egg white protein.)
  • The nutrition facts: In addition to the amount of protein per serving, you’ll also want to look at a product’s calorie and carbohydrate content to make sure they’re aligned with your eating style and goals.
  • The list of other ingredients: While you may want a whole food protein product that contains greens, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and other ingredients that support your health and fitness, you also might want to avoid certain additives, such as artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives.

The Bottom Line

Whole food proteins typically combine a variety of animal- and plant-based protein sources—think beef, chicken, egg, pea, and brown rice—in order to create a quality protein option that’s free of common dairy options like whey. 

In addition to being a great alternative for those with dietary restrictions, such as dairy intolerances, whole food proteins can also be a great way to mix up your supplement and snack routine, as well as the nutrients it offers.

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