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The Brief History of Protein Powder

Posted on Posted in Nutrition

Take a moment to consider why you buy protein powder, and where it came from. The answers may surprise you. Protein powder as we know it started out as an unwanted by-product of the dairy industry.

1.Humans have been taking ‘supplements’ for thousands of years

The Greeks invented the Olympic games way back in 776 BC, and then kept it up for over 1,000 years. The idea of athletes is as old as the eating of special foods to enhance athletic performance. Ancient soldiers and athletes believed eating different animal parts (i.e. raw testicles) would give them superior strength or speed.

In the early 20th century we gained a deeper understanding of physiology and nutrition, athletes experimented with caffeine, alkaline salts, carbohydrate and of course protein. The supplements of ancient athletes were often based on superstition and magic. But a quick look at what’s on offer at a typical sports nutrition store today shows that perhaps we haven’t changed that much.

2. Protein powder is the dairy industry’s left-overs

Whey is simply what’s left over from milk when you make cheese. Historically cheese makers and creameries had no use for liquid whey. The contents of your expensive protein powder was once simply tipped down the drain.

Tipping whey down a drain can actually cause a bit of trouble. The leftover whey from a small creamery pollutes to the same extent as the sewage from 1,900 people. Wells have been known to explode from gas pressure of fermenting whey waste. In the 1930’s whey started to be dried and put to use. But it wasn’t until much later that whey became the sports nutrition staple we know and love.

3. Protein powder as we know it didn’t exist until the 1970’s

Until the 1970’s all whey proteins were insoluble in water, gritty, and a yellowish brown in colour.  Invented back in the 1950’s, finally membrane filtration was put to use in the food industry twenty years later. It allowed for the separation of whey proteins while keeping their solubility. Membrane filtration is like a sieve, but at the level of molecules. This new method gave us the paler and more easily soluble protein powders we are used to today.

4. Protein supplements are actually based on good science

Protein supplements are based on good marketing, but they are also surprisingly based on good science too. Protein is one of the three macro nutrients that makes up all our food (carbohydrate, fat, protein). Adding extra protein to your diet has some positive effects. For athletes, and anyone lifting weights or doing endurance sports, protein aids in muscle recovery.

Protein is also ‘thermogenic’ this means you consume some of its calories simply in digesting it. In terms of hunger, eating more protein can help you to feel fuller for longer and avoid snacking. These are the basic reasons why protein is so widely used in sports nutrition and meal replacement products.

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