How is protein powder made?

Written by Jack Schrupp and reviewed by Ella McGonagle, M.S. Nutrition

How is protein powder made? Learn about the extensive processing that goes into making most protein powders, and why you should be concerned.

How protein powder is made. 

Protein concentrates.

Protein isolates.

Food additives. 

Why drink wholesome?

Protein concentrates.

Wondering how protein powder is made? You have come to the right place. Almost all protein powders and shakes are made with protein concentrates, protein isolates, or both. Protein concentrates are high protein foods stripped of most of the non-protein components (fats, carbs, etc.). They contain roughly 70% protein, and are used in many protein supplements.

There are a number of different methods used to concentrate protein, and the method used often depends on the type of protein. One of the most common ways to make whey protein concentrate, for example, is a process called membrane filtration. It involves passing liquid whey (what remains after milk has been curdled and strained) through a membrane porous to fats and carbohydrates, but not protein. This process is often repeated several times until the desired protein concentration is achieved.

Plant protein concentrates, on the other hand, require other types of processing because plants are not naturally in liquid form. Some of the most common include water leaching at the isoelectric pH, aqueous alcohol leaching, air classification, liquid cyclone fractionation, and moist heat denaturation followed by water leaching. Unless you have a food science background, these techniques probably mean nothing to you, and I am going to spare you the details. All you need to know is that extensive mechanical and chemical processing is required to remove the non-protein components from the plant. 

Protein isolates.

Protein isolates, on the other hand, are high protein foods stripped of virtually everything but the protein. They contain roughly 90% protein.

Once again, there are a number of different methods used to isolate protein, and the method used often depends on the type of protein. To make whey protein isolates, manufacturers often take protein concentrates and subject them to an additional process called ion exchange. Ion exchange is a complicated technique that allows for the separation of molecules based on their electrical charge. It requires the use of chemical agents, such as hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, to adjust the pH of the proteins.

Isoelectric methods are also used to make plant protein isolates. The different steps in the making of pea protein isolate, for example, are milling, solubilisation (turning something into a liquid form, often using chemical reagents), and centrifugation (to remove the insoluble components). The solubilised proteins are then precipitated at their isoelectric pH, collected by centrifugation or sieving, and dried as such or neutralized and dried. In essence, regardless of the protein source, making a protein isolate is a complicated process that completely transforms the food. 

Food additives. 

In most cases, if it is not a protein concentrate or isolate, the ingredient in your protein supplement is a food additive. Most protein powders contain several, if not dozens of food additives. Additives are used, among other things, to improve characteristics like taste, texture, and mix-ability. Because protein concentrates and isolates have been stripped of virtually everything but the protein, they taste like chalk. Added emulsifiers, thickeners, sweeteners, and flavors help to mask this unpleasant chalkiness, and to allow the powder to dissolve more easily.

Although this may sound like a good thing, food additives are not something you want in your body. Ingredients like these can cause uncomfortable side effects and long-term gut damage, which research has shown can play a role in the development of a number of chronic diseases. Keep reading to learn more. 

Why drink wholesome

drink wholesome is additive-free.

One of the reasons why we make the best protein powder is that we do not use food additives. While eating small quantities of food additives may not immediately result in harm, their cumulative effects (due to drinking a daily protein shake for example) can be significant. First of all, additives can give rise to various gastrointestinal (GI) issues, including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and stomach pain. This is due to the fact that they are not easily broken down and tend to remain in the digestive system for longer than food should. This gives your gut bacteria extra time to eat.

As gut bacteria eat, they produce gas, leading to bloating and discomfort. Excessive gas can also hinder the movement of food through the colon, which can cause constipation. Over time, eating lots of food additives can even disrupt the regulatory pathways in the intestines, which, in turn, can contribute to the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and other systemic inflammatory disorders.

When it comes to food additives, avoiding artificial sweeteners is of utmost importance. These additives are notorious for disturbing the fragile equilibrium of your gut microbiota, leading to significant and long-lasting gastrointestinal issues as well as systemic inflammation. It is important to highlight that certain sweeteners, especially sugar alcohols such as xylitol, are particularly poor absorbed in the gut, causing excessive gas and diarrhea. Now, you may finally have something to blame for those post-protein shake trips to the bathroom!

Here is a list of the most common food additives in protein powder:

acacia gum, acesulfame potassium, artificial flavors, aspartame, carrageenan, cellulose gum, dextrin, dextrose, erythritol, gellan gum, guar gum, gum arabic, inulin, locust bean gum, “natural” flavors, maltodextrin, rice syrup solids, soy lecithin, silica, sucralose, sunflower lecithin, xanthan gum, xylitol

the alternative:

Protein Matrix Comprised of (Whey Protein Concentrate,  Whey Protein Isolate, Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, Milk Protein Isolate, Egg Albumen, Glutamine Peptides), Polydextrose, Sunflower Creamer (Sunflower Oil, Corn Syrup Solids,  Sodium Caseinate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Soy Lecithin, Tocopherols), Natural and Artificial Flavor, MCT Powder (Medium Chain Triglycerides, Nonfat Dry Milk, Disodium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide), Lecithin, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Yellow 5, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Papain, Bromelain.

*This is the actual ingredient list of one of the best-selling protein powders in the United States.

drink wholesome is dairy-free.

Another reason why we make the best protein powder is that we do not use dairy-based proteins. Many protein powders, on the contrary, are made with whey and casein protein, which are known to trigger digestive discomfort. This is particularly true for individuals dealing with lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), who are unable to fully digest lactose, the sugar in dairy. As I explained earlier, when food is only partially digested, it feeds the hungry bacteria living in your gut, leading to excessive gas and subsequent side effects.

drink wholesome is made with real foods.

A final reason why we make the best protein powder is that we do not use protein concentrates or isolates. As you now know, protein concentrates and isolates undergo extensive mechanical and chemical processing. Having learned about the dangers of eating food additives, you can guess why this might be an issue.

If we reflect on the natural design of our digestive system, it becomes apparent that our guts evolved to process naturally occurring foods, not laboratory-engineered imitations. It stands to reason that when we feed our gut anything other than real food, it may react adversely. Although the long-term effects of consuming processed foods like protein isolates are still not fully comprehended, emerging research suggests that they can disrupt the composition of our gut microbiota and inflict lasting damage on the gut microbiome.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the gut serves a multitude of vital functions beyond mere digestion, including pathogen defense, immune system education, and influence on various physiological processes. Consequently, disruptions to the delicate balance of the gut microbiome have been linked to the development of numerous chronic diseases. It is thus in your best interest to steer clear of protein powders that rely on protein concentrates and isolates.

Rather than relying on protein concentrates or isolates, our protein powder is made using real foods like egg whites and almonds. The process is straightforward: egg whites are simply pasteurized and dried, while almonds are roasted, pressed to reduce oil content, and ground. These real foods offer an easily digestible and gut-friendly alternative to protein concentrates and isolates.

Real foods contain a range of natural enzymes and digestive aids that facilitate the breakdown of nutrients, enabling the body to absorb them more efficiently. In contrast, protein isolates and concentrates lack these inherent digestive aids, making them more challenging for the body to digest and absorb. Additionally, minimally processed plant-based foods like almonds are abundant in fiber, which supports healthy digestion and regular bowel movements.

For individuals without egg sensitivities or allergies, egg white protein stands out as an excellent choice for gut health. Egg whites possess low fiber content, are low in FODMAPs, have a natural alkaline nature, and boast the highest Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) among whole foods. Our customers have reported experiencing fewer digestive issues when consuming egg white protein powder compared to other protein sources.

If eggs are not an option for you, we offer a vegan almond protein powder as an alternative. Almonds have been selected as our preferred plant protein source due to their exceptional gut-friendly properties. Research suggests that almonds exhibit prebiotic qualities, contributing to improved diversity and composition of the gut microbiome.

Instead of using protein concentrates or isolates, we make the best sensitive stomach protein powder with real foods like egg whites and almonds. Egg whites are simply pasteurized and dried before becoming protein powder. Almonds are just roasted, pressed to remove some of the oil, and ground. Real foods like these are an easy to digest, gut-friendly alternative to protein concentrates and isolates.


easy to digest

“I didn’t realize the amount of chemical solvents and mechanical processing that goes into making most protein concentrates, yet this type of processing on foods can cause significant damage to your gut microbiome. This is truly the only protein powder I’ve ever successfully been able to use with no digestive discomfort.” – Bill

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drink wholesome is made with real foods.

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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. drink wholesome is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.