Protein powders line the shelves just about anywhere groceries are sold – from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to conventional supermarket chains – not to mention the countless choices on line. Can they work for kids? Do your kids need protein powders? Are they safe? Yes, maybe, and that depends. Here’s the scoop on knowing which ones to use, how, and when.
Do protein powders work? Protein powders can help your child grow and gain better, behave and function better, and fight infection better, but only when they are needed. In my pediatric nutrition practice, I have witnessed impressive improvements for children when these are used in the right circumstance. They do work if your kid needs the extra protein support, if they are used consistently (daily for weeks at least), and if you match your kid’s nutrition needs to what the protein powder offers. Plenty of kids I’ve helped have poor appetites and can’t/won’t/don’t eat the protein they actually need every day; others are so entrenched in a failed growth pattern that they need more-than-usual amounts of protein to catch up. In those cases, protein powders are a good helper.
But…protein powders don’t work if your kids refuse them, if you pick the wrong protein powder for your child’s needs, if your child doesn’t need it at all (but needs a different nutrition fix), or if you use the wrong amounts (too much or too little can backfire).
Many parents ask me for a protein powder recommendation because their kids aren’t growing well. Protein powders only fix that problem if the child doesn’t eat enough protein. There are other reasons why growth can falter – and if protein intake or absorption isn’t among them in your child’s case, then a protein powder won’t help. In fact, too much protein at the expense of healthy carbs and starches in a child’s diet can cause stunting, and I have witnessed this many times.
Used incorrectly, extra protein can cause more trouble for kids. I have seen this occur in my pediatric nutrition practice when doctors place children in growth failure on products like Pediasure, Boost, Muscle Milk, or Ensure. It’s not unusual for a milk protein allergy to be underneath the growth and feeding problems, but this is often overlooked. The doctor won’t have screened for allergies or sensitivities first, before telling a family to rely on these milk protein based formulas. What happens next is frustrating: Weeks, months and even years are wasted as the child continues to struggle with poor growth, low vitality, frequent infections, and the inevitable mood and focus problems. Pediasure, Boost, Muscle Milk, and Ensure are based on milk protein – which can worsen growth, feeding, and progress if there is an undiagnosed milk protein allergy. Knowing what type of protein (soy? dairy? egg? hemp? pea? amino acids? meats? poultry? fish? nuts/seeds?) your child can use is important. I assess this with thorough food antibody testing.
If your child doesn’t need it, a protein powder won’t add nutritional value, and may not be worth the extra cost – unless your kids just like the stuff and it gives them a fun option to have a daily smoothie boost. In that case, all good! Use it to pack in fresh fruits, veggies, or even fresh herbs like basil, ginger root or mint leaves – all of which add phytonutrients and anti-inflammatory support.
Kids who eat a varied diet with plenty of protein sources probably don’t need a protein powder. “Varied” means eating more than just one kind of protein. It means your child gets protein from different foods every day, like eggs, green beans, peas, other legumes, beans, meats, poultry, nuts, seeds, or grains like rice paired with beans, organic corn, buckwheat, amaranth, whole organic wheat, and so on.
In contrast, kids who only eat dairy and wheat protein (yogurt, milk, cheese, mac and cheese, crackers, cookies, bread, pasta, pizza) often do not get an adequate diet. They may be overfed or growing like gangbusters – but they are malnourished for minerals, vitamins, diverse proteins, and essential fats. This definitely impairs functioning in kids. Even when they eat enough total protein daily, if it’s from just one type of food, they can easily suffer nutrition deficits. A protein powder may help, but emphasis here would be needed on diversity and on those micronutrients too.
How much protein is enough? School age kids who are healthy and growing normally need a bit more than half their weight daily, in grams of protein. So, a child weighing 70 pounds needs at least 40-50 grams of high value protein every day, spread through out the day. Growth failure, allergies, frequent illness, inflammatory conditions, activity levels (think high intensity sports), and injuries change protein needs. Getting professional guidance will assure your child gets the best food for his or her best health and ability potential.
When do kids need protein supplements? If kids are functioning well and growing and gaining weight, they probably don’t need a protein powder. Functioning well means they can grow as expected (they don’t drop more than fifteen percentile points on a growth chart for weight or height). It also means they can do important things like sleep soundly and wake rested, play energetically, behave in age-appropriate ways, pay attention and focus appropriately for age, fight off usual infections without complications or long courses of illness, have few infections, and have fun. If your kid struggles in any of these areas more than you think is their “normal”, or if you just have a hunch something is off kilter, the right protein support may make a huge difference.
Check this list of reasons to consider protein powders for kids. Does your toddler, child, or teen fit any of these?
- Doesn’t eat protein-rich food like meat, fish, eggs, mixed bean/rice/legume/corn dishes, nuts and seeds or their butters – for any reason (texture aversions, gagging or spits our meats, eggs, ground meats, mixed dishes like chili or stews with meats, allergies)
- Has a picky appetite that relies mostly on dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk products) and wheat (bagels, pasta, bread, pizza, crackers, pretzels, starchy baked treats or granola bars)
- Has food allergies, sensitivities, or any reactions that limit access to proteins (can’t eat dairy, egg, nuts, gluten, etc)
- Has a history of growth failure or slow growth pattern, is shorter than expected, or has been called “just small” by your doctor
- Has anxiety, poor sleep, night terrors, frequent waking, mood disorders, or conduct disorders
- Lost a school placement due to disruptive behavior
- Gets colds, bugs, sniffy nose often, and takes longer than siblings or friends to shake it off
- Has hair that looks thin, lacking in color, dull, or has no shine to it
- Nails crack and peel easily
- Cuts seem to heal more slowly than usual
The right protein support has potential to resolve all of these problems. Other cases may need deeper and more comprehensive nutrition overhaul (such as kids who have low protein, poor total intake, and are deep into an oppositional, aggressive, or ADHD pattern). But starting with strong protein may be a quick test to get your child feeling better.
OK – Trying a protein powder for your kids? Know This 👇🏽
Protein powders come from animal and plant sources. Animal sources are whey, egg, egg shell membrane, collagen (which can come from livestock animals, fish, chicken, or egg shells), or bone broth collagen. Plant-based protein powders abound too, which can work for vegetarian or vegan diets. Plant sourced protein powders are derived from many foods including soy, pea, coconut, pumpkin seed, rice protein concentrate, peanut, or other nuts and seeds. Any protein powder can be had plain, flavored, sweetened, unsweetened, or with or without myriad other functional ingredients like vitamins, minerals, or herb extracts.
But know this: Making protein powders can be a dirty business. To get collagen out of animals and turn it into your daily protein powder smoothie boost, animal by-products (skin, hide, bones, joints, cartilage, tendons, scales from fish, connective tissue) are boiled down into gelatin. This is hydrolyzed enzymatically into smaller protein fragments called peptides, which we can readily absorb. Most beef collagen peptides come from discarded cattle hide, which may have already been treated heavily with acid, sulfides, chromium, bleach and other chemicals before processing into collagen peptides. Bone broth collagen peptides may be less contaminated with the soaking agents used on hides, but intensive factory farming practices can concentrate heavy metals in animals’ bones too. Plant protein powders are problematic for the same reason – contaminated soils will see toxins taken up by plants, which in turn fix them into the plant tissue, and then these become concentrated in protein powders.
Enter the Clean Label Project, which recently tested several plant and animal protein powders for contaminants. You can read their full findings here. Arsenic, chromium, cadmium, lead and mercury have been found in most protein powders to different degrees, whether they are plant or animal based. These metals target fatty tissues like liver, brain, nerve tissue and kidney, and can take years to be excreted from the body, if they are at all. This is why small doses on the regular can be so troublesome! Though no one collagen powder in the chart below exceeded unsafe levels of metals in a serving (good news), this becomes problematic when more than one serving is used daily or when these are eaten daily for long periods of time – which is how protein powders work best when they are needed!
Plant protein powders can contain metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, BPA, and other toxins – read the full Clean Label Project report here on plant protein powders. Either way, look for full commitment to clean production and processing, and third party testing for heavy metals and other toxins. Avoid products from plants and animals sourced in China, where agricultural contaminants are even less regulated than they are in the US.
And here’s a twist: Organic plant protein powders had even more toxic heavy metals in them than non-organic, which researchers attribute to the powders being plant based rather than organic. Meanwhile, organics had much less cancer-causing BPAs. The Consumer Reports synopsis – including which powders were best and worst – can be found here. Overall, the worst findings were in mostly plant based protein powders, while a few bands of whey and egg protein powders proved cleanest.
Whey Protein Powders – Whey protein powders were among the cleanest reviewed. But what is whey anyway?
Whey is one of the proteins in milk. About 20% of the protein in cow’s milk is whey, while 80% is casein. You’ve probably seen those giant tubs of whey on store shelves, with muscles all over the label, to appeal to body builders. Skip those. They usually have other ingredients your child doesn’t need (especially sugar, or minerals and vitamins at excessive potencies) and they don’t test well for toxins and metals.
Look for organic, unsweetened whey protein powder and mix it with cold or warm foods, or add it to baking recipes. It blends well in smoothies and adds a pleasant fluffy texture. Whey protein – with its good amino acid profile and immunoglobulins – has strong evidence for helping muscle mass and immune function. Babies and kids who don’t do well with casein may do fine with whey, but not always. Blood tests can discern this, when elimination diets are too cumbersome or time consuming to work through.
Whey protein is where nature puts the immune power pack, when it comes to milk. For whey content, human milk is nearly opposite of cow’s milk: We make milk with only about 40% casein, but 60% whey. Whey has lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and other immunoglobulins that fight infection and build immune strength. These cysteine-rich proteins are also excellent glutathione precursors. Glutathione is our go-to molecule to remove toxins, reduce inflammation, and support vigorous immunity. Buying whey that is not denatured ensures that these delicate but potent proteins stay viable. Denatured proteins are proteins that are heated or processed so much, they lose their original shape – and, their original actions as immune modulators. They may also become more allergenic, since their shapes differ from what the body may be able to digest. For my patients, I like Well Wisdom Vital Whey Protein from grass fed, non-GMO milk. It ticks all the boxes for a clean, high purity product that leaves those delicate but powerful immunoglobulins in tact:
- cold processed
- whey concentrate versus isolate, to include some of the natural fats and lactose (choose isolate if you want to avoid lactose)
- tested for heavy metals
- hormone free
- grass-fed and organic
Soy Protein Powders – Whether it’s in a power bar, a powder, infant formula, or a protein boosted juice drink, I’m not a fan. Soy in the US is overwhelmingly genetically modified. GMO foods are not allowed for human consumption in most the developed world. They are under scrutiny for causing more allergy and many other ill health effects. Soy crops may also concentrate glyphosate, the pesticide recently dubbed “probably” carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. The high levels of herbicide glyphosate that GMO crops are engineered to withstand stays in the food you eat, and injures the helpful gut bacteria that humans depend on for digestion, immune function, and protective barrier for invasive microbes. Soy is also a potent phytoestrogen, so if you’re not a post-menopausal woman (and even if you are) it isn’t a protein powder you should be eating every day.
There are so many reasons why I don’t like concentrated processed GMO soy protein, especially for babies, who are busy developing a healthy gut biome in their first years (glyphosate kills healthy gut bacteria in humans). Healthy gut flora are critical for preventing allergy, asthma, and other vulnerabilities later in childhood or even later in life. Eating food crops engineered to produce their own glyphosate (which is what GMO food crops do) is perhaps one of the most devastating thing we can do to a baby human gut!
More reasons I don’t like soy protein supplements: Unfermented, highly processed, and concentrated soy protein is hard to digest, can bind other nutrients, disrupts thyroid and estrogen function, and may trigger allergy just as often as casein from cow’s milk. I don’t recommend it as daily protein for kids. Eaten from an organic source, in small amounts, in its natural state or fermented, such as in tempeh, miso, shoyu, tamari, or natto – this is fine, but your child will need other proteins. Tofu and edamame are not fermented, so I suggest using these in smaller amounts for children. I know opinions vary; this is my take, after nearly twenty years in practice with infants and children.
Rice Protein Powders – There are some issues here. Rice lacks lysine, an essential amino acid. That means that by itself, rice is not a good protein source (because humans must eat lysine; we can’t make it ourselves), so most manufacturers add lysine and possibly other amino acids to shore it up. If you prefer a rice protein powder, look for that lysine addition. But, even rice protein powders that say they are “concentrated” or raw and sprouted can’t match the amino acid profile of animal proteins like whey, meat, or eggs. Rice protein still must to be augmented with some amino acids to work, especially for kids needing a protein boost.
Next drawback: Rice protein powders are notoriously high for toxic heavy metals, especially arsenic. Organic farming methods may concentrate metals like this even more (a benefit for detoxifying soils, but not so much for daily consumption over long periods of time!).
Lastly, rice protein powders can feel gritty and have a strong taste (especially brown rice source). I’ve found that they are often rejected by kids with oral texture issues and picky appetites, where collagen and whey products can disappear more readily in liquids or soft foods.
If rice protein is still your choice, go with a product like this one that claims to monitor heavy metals and contaminants. It is the only vegan protein powder I have found that makes that claim. It also combines rice with pea protein for a more complete functional protein that adds lysine and arginine. Caveat: Kids with casein or soy sensitivity may not do well with pea protein concentrates, but it’s worth a try.
Hemp Protein – Helpful for kids who can’t manage other proteins due to sensitivity or allergy, but there are mixed reviews on whether it is enough of a boost for kids needing strong support, and again, on the heavy metal toxicity of this plant. How the hemp is grown and processed affects its amino acid profile and toxic load; some hemp protein products claim to have all amino acids essential to humans in them, some don’t. Hemp is rich for amino’s that help us make globulins, similar to proteins we make for immune function; other peptides in it may have beneficial antioxidant effects. Either way, two heaping tablespoons may only add 5-8 grams of protein, which is less than most other protein supplements. Hemp has more essential fats and more fiber than other protein powders, which is good and bad: Good for the nutrients (hens fed hemp seeds lay eggs with more healthy fats in them), but maybe too much texture for picky eaters who are used to smooth. Hemp protein powder is also dark green, so it won’t hide well in concoctions for kids who are averse to fruits or vegetables in their smoothies. There is a nice profile of minerals like magnesium and zinc in hemp protein powder, and it’s more digestible than soy. If your child is good with the texture of nuts and seeds, but has allergy to these, try whole hemp seeds in snacks instead. They’re tiny like sesame seeds, but soft and chewy, and can work in smoothies, granola, or sprinkled on salads. They can have a strong taste.
Spirulina and Blue Green Algae – Yes, it was used by the Aztecs centuries ago, when they harvested and dried spirulina from lakes in a then-pristine environment. How about now? It is a complete protein, also rich in vitamins and minerals, but falls somewhere between egg and lower value plant proteins for its amino acid profile. Because of this, more if it has to be eaten to get enough for the tissue re-build young kids need when struggling with protein intake and absorption (same problem as hemp protein on that score); this can trigger loose stools. Bonuses: Spirulina has shown some capacity to reduce histamine (less allergy); it has carotenoids in it that can promote eye health; and other phytochemicals in it may have protective effects against certain cancers. Many other health claims are out there for it, but these aren’t well studied in people. It’s decidedly green, and will add that color to anything you stir it into, which can once again really throw kids sensitized to texture or color changes in food. Whether or not blue green algae protein powder can be had today minus the pollutants and toxins everywhere in our environment (heavy metals, pesticides) is up to the manufacturer to monitor and declare (don’t wait for the FDA to do that for you!). Not to be confused with Spirutein, which is a soy protein concentrate mixed with some spirulina from algae; some Spirutein offerings also blend in pea and rice. Like any plant protein powder, commit to a product that tests for heavy metals and toxins like Nutrex Hawaii Spirulina.
Free Amino Acids – I’ve said “amino” a lot in this post!
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules. Nature created about 22 of these amino building blocks, and we must eat a certain 8-11 of these every day from foods to survive, because we can’t make them ourselves. So, proteins are compared based on their amino acid profiles. Any protein will usually have all of the amino acids present in some amount. The question is, how much of each one? Proteins like egg are high in all of the essential amino’s that we have to eat. No plant proteins are, unless they are augmented or processed to boost their profiles, or unless you eat a lot of that one protein (as would be true for eating hemp or blue green algae proteins). Eating plant proteins with other plant proteins that fill in the missing amino’s for each other is how vegetarians and vegans eat well, and this is also how some of the protein supplement products out there are boosted – they’re paired up.
So what about eating free amino acids, instead of protein that must be broken down? You can do that too, and this can be a very good tool for kids with injured, inflamed, or delicate guts. Multiple food allergy children can benefit here too. I use free amino acid supplements often for these children. The FDA regulates these as “medical foods”, and you can buy them over the counter, as in a product like Thorne Amino Complex, or in specialized formulas, like Neocate, Elecare, or just as pharmaceutical grade amino acid powder. I have used all of the above with impressive results in infants, toddlers, and kids – with a total, integrated nutrition are plan in place. In some cases, free amino acids can be prescribed and covered on insurance.
Take away? Kids who have anything on my bullet list above need nutrition support, and the right protein powder may be a good strategy.